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The age-old question Why is the sky blue? begins a quest through science, history, and art, from Aristotle and Newton through Goethe and Einstein.

Children ask, Why is the sky blue? but the question also puzzled Plato, Leonardo, and even Newton, who unlocked so many other secrets. The search for an answer continued for centuries; in 1862 Sir John Herschel listed the color and polarization of sky light as the two great standing enigmas of meteorology. In Sky in a Bottle, Peter Pesic takes us on a quest to the heart of this mystery, tracing the various attempts of science, history, and art to solve it. He begins with the scholars of the ancient world and continues through the natural philosophers of the Enlightenment, the empiricists of the scientific revolution, and beyond. The cast of characters includes Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Descartes, Euler, Saussure, Goethe, Rayleigh, and Einstein; but the protagonist is the question itself, and the story tells how we have tried to answer it.

Pesic's odyssey introduces us to central ideas of chemistry, optics, and atomic physics. He describes the polarization of light, Rayleigh scattering, and connections between the appearance of the sky and Avogadro's number. He discusses changing representations of the sky in art, from new styles of painting to new pigments that created new colors for paint. He considers what the sky's nighttime brightness might tell us about the size and density of the universe. And Pesic asks another, daring, question: Can we put the sky in a bottle? Can we recreate and understand its blueness here on earth? This puzzle, he says, opens larger perspectives; questions of the color and brightness of the sky touch on secrets of matter and light, the scope of the universe in space and time, the destiny of the earth, and deep human feelings.

Publication Date: 
April 1, 2007