On August 19, 1839, when Louis-Jacque-Mandé Daguerre revealed that he had invented a way to capture light and imprint its image from a camera obscura onto a plate, the massive crowd at the Institut de France in Paris was astounded. They’d heard rumors of Da­guerre’s images for years, but many doubted such a thing was possible.

Some people thought the invention was sinful. “The wish to capture evanescent reflections is not only impossible,” a Ger­man newspaper bellowed, “but the mere desire is blasphemy. God created man in His own image, and no man-made ma­chine may fix the image of God.” Artists were also flummoxed, one decrying, “From today, painting is dead.” All because of a proto-photograph. Now, 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day. It’s estimated that 1 trillion photos were taken in 2015. That’s a lot of blasphemy.

Light has often provoked such overwrought reactions, as Bruce Watson masterfully shows. Beyond a mere history of light, this book is also an intellectual history of Western culture. It would be difficult to find another subject so intertwined with so many disciplines: philosophy, theology, poetry, visual art, astronomy, and physics. The thinkers who’ve pondered and theorized and painted and sung about light comprise a veritable who’s who of Western intellectualism: Aristotle, Aquinas, and Dante, Galileo, Haydn, and Monet, New­ton, Edison, and Einstein.