Brilliant

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, by Jane Brox, Souvenir Press, RRP£20, 360 pages

When did you last see the stars – not just a few faint dots but the panoply of millions twink­ling brightly across the night sky? Like many people in the western world, I hardly ever see more than a tiny fraction of the stars that would be visible in the absence of artificial light pollution.

Jane Brox’s Brilliant traverses a historical arc, from the under-illuminated pre-industrial era, through the development of oil lamps, gas and electric lighting, to a 21st century that is over-lit. The author is a lighting enthusiast – she can wax lyrical about an old incandescent bulb or a new LED – but she also recognises that you can have too much of a good thing.

Towards the end of the book Brox emerges as an advocate of the “dark skies” movement – and not only for the sake of astronomy and the romantic idea of a starry, starry night. As Brox points out, round-the-clock artificial lighting – indoors and out – may be playing havoc with the natural biorhythms of plants and animals, as well as the human body clock. And of course it wastes an increasingly precious resource: energy.

One of several intriguing threads running through Brilliant is the old argument over whether brighter surroundings make us safer. Yes, most people instinctively feel safer in the light (except during the threat of aerial bombardment or under the glare of interrogation). But when the first oil-burning street lights were installed in some 17th-century European cities to bring order to the night, other places banned them for fear of encouraging drunks and prostitutes, who might entice punters from within a pool of light and then withdraw into the shadows for their assignations.

Today, deterring crime is an argument deployed by people who are in favour of installing bright security lighting. But it may be a false one. Brox tells the tale of a car thief who was caught stealing a vehicle at night from a poorly lit storage area in a crime-prone area. When the police asked whether better lighting would help, he replied: “Sure, I could get in and out a lot faster and not get caught.”

The book’s strongest point is social rather than industrial or technological history. The author captures with skill and wit the difference that artificial lighting – or its absence – has made to different historical eras. She has written previous books about US agricultural history and perhaps the most evocative passages in Brilliant are those about rural electrification during the first half of the 20th century, when light-deprived farming families were desperate to jettison their smoky kerosene lamps and imitate the illuminated homes of urban America.

Where this book fails to live up to its name is in the lack of illustration – a serious omission in a £20 book about an essentially visual subject. Brox describes several scenes, such as the satellite view of earth lit up artificially at night, which cry out for visual representation. Even so, this is an absorbing book about one of those technological advances, like domestic heating and running water, whose social importance has not been reflected well in popular literature. Illuminating but not quite brilliant.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

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