Light Fantastic, BBC4

by | Dec 1, 2004 | All, Reviews

What’s it all about?

Cambridge professor Simon Schaffer chronicles humanity’s understanding of light and all its properties.

What to say if you liked it

A fascinating insight into how our knowledge of light has aided in our scientific evolution, and will continue to do so deep into the future.

What to say if you didn’t like it

A drab examination of something that interests only socially inept geeks who herd together in their esoteric reservations chomping on cheese sandwiches prepared by the mothers.

What was good about it?

• The way in which Simon describes not only the development of our education of light, but each step was accompanied by examples of how this advance promoted civilisation. For instance, early Greek research determined that light travelled in a straight line which was extrapolated by sailors who sailed to distant shores using starlight as a guide.

• We also learned that an Arabic scholar disproved the erroneous Greek belief that light came from the eyes, and posited that the illumination was sourced at the Sun which led him to establish the ideas of reflection and refraction both of which were crucial in the invention of spectacles and telescopes.

• We also learned that English friar Roger Bacon discovered that light could be manipulated by shining it through glass, and ultimately revealed how rainbows occurred. Unfortunately, during the 13th century, rainbows were considered to be a glimpse of Heaven and he was jailed for heresy.

• We also learned that it was the commonly arcane Church that performed complex experiments to discover the mutable date of the Spring Equinox to determine when to celebrate Easter, a system predicatively accurate centuries into the future.

• We also learned that the Protestant Isaac Newton was resolute in his quest to rubbish the theories of Roman Catholic French Rene Descartes and in doing so found that light was made up of primary colours, a “spectrum”, and not white as Descartes had claimed.

• The dramatic reconstructions were often atmospheric, with those scenes that lucidly illustrated the often complex philosophy that Simon conveyed the most satisfying.

What was bad about it?

• Despite delivering an appealing monologue, Simon can sometimes gesticulate his arms a little too much as if waving us towards the latest nugget of history he was about to disclose.

• The dissection of the cow’s eyeball wasn’t very pleasant to look at.

• Simon recounted how Newton had pressed a stick between the eye and its socket in an experiment and was rewarded with little circles of spectrum coloured light in his vision, before quickly adding: “Don’t try this at home.” Of course, we did and our eyeballs still ache this morning. But please, don’t try this at home.

• The complementary show Night Fantastic on BBCi urged us to watch for five minutes before venturing outside to gaze at the celestial heavens yourself. Alas, they didn’t reckon on this advice being potentially lethal given the freezing temperatures outside that would have coerced even Captain Oates into having second thoughts.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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