So there I am in Þingvellir Iceland, in the center of the island within some remarkable remote landscape and in a quaint antique hotel curated to promote art, culture and science. Héraðsskólinn Historic Guesthouse is quite amazing and worth the time as it is very peaceful and calming. I sat down and picked up a book from a rack and opened it randomly. Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics and the book seems to find a spot to open to Chapter 25 Optics: the Principle of Least Time. Being a photographer and scientist, how magical is that moment?
Richard Feynman, the famed physicist, and Nobel laureate, is known for many things. In this chapter he describes a most fascinating principle, that of least time.
“Music in the arithmetic of sounds as optics is the geometry of light” Claude DeBussy
This principle, essentially, refers to the behavior of light and its propensity to take the path that can be traversed in the least amount of time. Feynman’s revolutionary understanding of light has far-reaching implications, extending even into the realm of photography.
The principle of least time essentially means that light doesn’t just follow a single path from point A to point B. Instead, it takes an infinite number of paths, some more probable than others. Feynman’s Principle distills this down to the concept that light chooses the path that it can travel in the least time.
Chooses … that is hard for me to get my mind around.Let’s unpack this a bit and look at how it affects photography.
In photography, the science of optics plays a crucial role. All lenses, whether in the human eye or a camera, bend light. This bending of light also spans between interfaces of mediums. Ergo Oil, Inks, Glass and Air as my four elements to compose an abstract photograph. This phenomenon, known as refraction, is directly influenced by Feynman’s Principle. When light enters a denser medium, like a glass lens, it slows down and the path bends towards the normal (the line perpendicular to the point where the light meets the lens). On exiting the lens, the light speeds up and its path bends away from the normal. The path that the light takes minimizes the time taken, perfectly embodying Feynman’s Principle.
Each of these Dichroic Infinity images are still photographs of shards of dichroic glass reflecting off a studio light and mirror bouncing forward through two broken pieces of a glass vase with circular bevels. The central clear area is where the light is moving straight through and into the camera lens and CCD. That rings, waves and interference patterns are the where the circular bevel and the flatter glass bend the light intensely and cancellation patterns create the delicate matrices. None of these are distorted in Photoshop or digital illustrations. They are shot as seen photographs.
So begin to imagine the instantaneous, countless number of light waves of varying frequencies (color) bending and arriving in the straightest line possible to conform to the law of least time.
“Beauty is a question of optics. All sight is illusion” — Joyce Carol Oates
What was also interesting in his remarks was that Ptolomey, an ancient Greek genius, was able to create a table of measurements without computers or any of the precision tools and lab equipment we have today. His observations of how light bends in air and then in water were later reproduced by a Dutch mathematician Snell. The concordance was stunning. Ptolemy was off by 0 – ½ degree in each measurement.
“Descartes constructed as noble a road of science, from the point at which he found geometry to that to which he carried it, as Newton himself did after him. … He carried this spirit of geometry and invention into optics, which under him became a completely new art.”
Photographers and lens manufacturers take into account these properties of light, working to minimize unwanted effects and maximize image quality. By deeply understanding the way light behaves, as Feynman did, we can better manipulate it for our desired photographic outcomes.
I am eager to purchase a set of these lectures and get a bit deeper into his teachings and further down this warren of rabbit holes. While I have the digital version now, I crave that paper and the heft of the book from the time that I was able to sit quietly in Iceland. Father’s day is nearing and gifts are always welcome. I did see a first edition signed by him on eBay for $85,000.
So, while Feynman’s Principle may initially seem abstract or even distant from the practicalities of photography, on closer inspection, we can see that it forms the bedrock of the science behind how our cameras work. From the bending of light in our lenses to the color effects we see in our photos, Feynman’s insights help us understand the intricacies of capturing light to create an image. They also help me to think through some of the “What would happen if?” questions that I pose as I head into the studio and get ready for the weekend’s shoot.
By considering the principles of the behavior of light, we can approach photography with a greater depth of understanding and perhaps even a newfound appreciation for the science behind the art. After all, as Feynman himself once said, “Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.”
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