Sky in a Bottle

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.

"A remarkable and beautiful book, as lyrical as it is learned."
Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

"There be mysteries in the simple air above us. Not the least of them is the color of the sky, the color of hope. Peter Pesic, a master expositor of science, here recounts (with experiments!) the lively story of how we came to know why the sky, our sky, is blue."
Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (1981), author of The Same and Not the Same

"In tireless pursuit of the mundane mystery of the blue sky, Pesic takes us on a thrilling 2,000-year scientific treasure hunt, turning up profound questions, surprising answers, unexpected connections, and—always—more questions. Scholarly, sophisticated, yet broadly accessible. A little sapphire of a book!"
Hans Christian von Baeyer, Chancellor Professor of Physics, College of William and Mary, author of Information: The New Language of Science

Also available in Italian translation: L’azzuro in una bottigilia: Scienza, arte, e storia del colore del cielo (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2007); Spanish translation: El ciello en una botella: Historia de la pesquisa sobre el azul del firmamento (Barcelona: Editorial Gedisa, 2007); French translation: D’où vient le bleu du ciel? La réponse des sciences à la question des arts (Paris: Editions Vuibert, 2009); Chinese translation: 瓶中的天空 (Shanghai: Shanghai Scientific and Technological Education Publishing House, 2010); Japanese translation: 青の物理学――空色のをめぐる思索 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2011).