Brilliant by Jane Brox

The topic is interesting, but the book itself is junky. Oops.

Brilliant is not as brilliant as it wants me to think it is. Probably it’s really hard to write a book on such a huge topic, but then isn’t it the author’s and the publisher’s responsibility to focus and communicate the topic appropriately, to create and then meet readers’ expectations?

If you want to know specifically why I didn’t like the book, or what I still managed to learn from it, keep reading.

This narrative isn’t narrowly focused on innovation related to light but digresses in a number of directions (one per chapter, like a series of essays), such as the mandatory blackouts during London bombings. Geographically, the book is mostly but not consistently focused on the US. Quotes and facts are specific but felt irrelevant.

Meanwhile, the tone is more reflective than I would have expected for a factual history. The author sympathetically discusses the feelings people have about light and the meaning they ascribe to it. The overall impression I got was that of a book that pulled in two directions. It felt neither objective nor inspiring.

The entire fourth part of the book, which contains discussion of contemporary issues such as the impact of light on animals and speculation about the future of (electricity for) artificial lighting, seemed inappropriate for what I thought was meant to be a history book.

I suppose I wanted to read an account of how clever we humans are to have invented better and better types of light, along with explanations of how all the relevant inventions work or worked. There was some of that kind of thing. There’s also some sermonizing on the unintended negative consequences of modern technology (prehistoric cave paintings are rotting and it’s all our fault!), which is then unfortunately combined with some pretentious navel-gazing about what it means to be human in a time when we can no longer distinguish most of the stars.

I was particularly frustrated specifically by the explanation of Edison’s first lightbulbs, which I thought would be a key topic in this book. I was confused about what the successful filaments were made of. It sounded like they might be carbonized thread or paper, but what it meant for something to be ‘carbonized’ was not explained, and both those materials seem like they would burn rather than conduct electricity. Metal filaments made from tungsten did not enter into the technology until much later. When they were mentioned in the book, I resigned myself to remain mystified about the material originally used.

What did I learn about the topic?

Candles used to be really, really gross. Oil lamps were a pain to operate. There used to be a lot of shipwrecks. Gas lighting sounds nice, except that gas companies would sometimes explode. The Columbian Exposition in Chicago was a big deal. Nikola Tesla was nuts. Mining is dangerous. Astronomers hate light pollution. People (unsurprisingly) become quite dependent on convenient technologies. Also:

Some cities believed that streetlights would cause an increase rather than a decrease in crime rates as well as an increase in drunkenness and depravity (p 29).

A safety lamp has a wire mesh in it that distributes the heat from the flame so that the air near the flame cannot reach a temperature high enough to ignite gasses in the surrounding air (p. 65).

However, the safety lamp just meant that miners took more risks than before: danger remained constant overall (p. 66). I think I’ve encountered this idea in at least one other context, possibly relating to cars.

People have been panicking about the end of the world’s oil reserves since the seventies… the eighteen seventies (p. 83).

The words ‘electric’, ‘electricity’, ‘electron’ etc. all derive from a Greek word that means ‘amber’ because amber gives off sparks of static electricity when rubbed (p. 94).

Niagara Falls kills a ton of slightly careless animals (p. 146).

Humans can’t eat snow to keep from dying of thirst because they would freeze from the inside (p. 158).

“[A] chunk of snow or ice might lay on an inclined slab” (p. 158). That should say ‘lie’ because ‘lay’ is not intransitive unless it’s also past tense… confusion over these verbs is very common, but this seems like an embarrassing mistake for the author or editor to have made.

On the other hand, the verb ‘abate’ can be used transitively (p. 296), and I didn’t think it could.

Oh, and I kept thinking the word ‘thermolampe’ said ‘thermalope’.

When and why I read it

I bought it because the topic looked interesting and the price was right—I paid about SG$1.6.

Genre: Non-fiction

Date started / date finished: 29-Jan-2016 to 13-Feb-2016
Length: 305 pages
ISBN: 9780285638990 (UK hardcover)
Originally published in: 2010
Amazon link: Brilliant

“Related” books

I’m trying to think of other books I have read that claim to be “the history of [some invention]”. It’s not a common theme for my reading, though many such books exist and seem interesting to me.

The book that Brilliant most reminds me of off the top of my head is The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski. It, too, conveyed a ‘school essay’ feel by ruining an interesting topic with awkwardly deployed research.

I enjoyed Michel Pastoureau‘s Blue: The History of a Color. It successfully combines technology and culture. I would read his other books on color, too. There seem to be at least five in English.

Years ago I read a history book by William Manchester called A World Lit Only by Fire which may or may not touch on Medieval household technologies for creating light. I recall enjoying the book, though Wikipedia says it has fallen out of favor among historians.