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The Optics of Life: A Biologist's Guide to Light in Nature Hardcover – 25 Dec 2011

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (25 Dec. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691139903
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691139906
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,650,705 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2012

"Because of its emphasis on correctly approaching the way physical measurements should be made, The Optics of Life has something to offer anyone whose research directly or tangentially involves light. More than a biologist's guide to light in nature, this book is a guide for any scientist interested in optics and the world around us."--Physics Today

"Johnsen has written an excellent, readable, practical, and greatly entertaining introductory book on light and its applications in the biological sciences, including ecology. . . . Johnsen takes the point of view that some aspects of light are best described using the ideas from wave mechanics while other aspects are best addressed using particle mechanics."--Choice

"This book is written in an entertaining style so it is a pleasure to read. Each chapter starts with a thought-provoking quote, and ends with an amusing and interesting anecdote or reverie. My favorite chapters contain illuminating discussions on scattering, scattering with interference, absorbance, and transparency."--John E. Steffen, Integrative and Comparative Biology

"[V]isual ecology and physiology have become significantly productive subdisciplines in biology. . . . Sönke Johnsen serves as a conduit between these two fields, as he gracefully presents the physical principles of optics in a simplifying manner that makes the reader want to apply new found knowledge to their own research."--John E. Steffen, Integrative and Comparative Biology

"Anyone interested in this subfield who lacks a background in the subject would be well-advised to read this book first. Johnsen masterfully guides the reader through a fascinating area of applied optics which has been very active in recent decades. It contains many useful examples drawn from nature and everyday life. It will be of interest to a variety of readers, from undergraduate students in biology to curious researchers looking for a greater understanding of nature."--Christian Brosseau, Optics & Photonics News

"I am grateful to this book for forcing me to come to terms with a number of aspects of light that I had been delinquent enough to ignore, and in a way that was a pleasure--like a long walk in hilly country."--Michael F. Land, Current Biology

"[W]hat Johnsen knows and communicates clearly is fundamental and important to life. It seems to me that ornithologists who read this book and master this material will be well poised to make the next generation of discoveries about the Optics of Ornithology."--Richard O. Prum, Wilson Journal of Ornithology

"Johnsen has provided a veritable mine of information. . . . [T]he feel of the book: detailed, indepth and precise; not for the beginner."--Peter Thomas, Bulletin of the British Ecology Society

"I recommend Johnsen's account of light in nature to one group of readers in particular: those about to embark on a textbook of their own. From the first sentence . . . this is a model of how to infuse high-level scientific information with colour, humanity and even humour."--Bernard Dixon, Biologist

From the Back Cover

"This book provides just about everything one needs to know about biological optics, from the nature of light and its transmission to intensity, color, and polarization properties and their consequences. It is informal yet detailed, and will be easily accessible to anyone interested in biological optics, environmental optics, and animal or human vision. I highly recommend it."--John A. Endler, professor of sensory ecology and evolution, Deakin University

"The Optics of Life provides a user-friendly introduction to the physics and measurement of light. From plant physiologists working on photosynthesis to visual scientists stimulating eyes with light, many biologists will benefit greatly from the wisdom and insight provided in this book. The Optics of Life is a major contribution to the field, and will no doubt become a classic."--Eric Warrant, Lund University, Sweden

"This is a gem of a book. It's the one I wish I had when I was starting out in photoecology--it would have saved me a lot of pain. The style is very entertaining and the material is wonderfully practical and down-to-earth. Every biologist should read it."--Edith A. Widder, CEO and senior scientist, Ocean Research and Conservation Association

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By D. Lane on 16 April 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
First off, this book is absolutely superb! I love it. I work as a Biomedical Scientist, using microscopes and staining techniques that involve certain optical phenomena one of which really piqued my interest - birefringence and Congo Red stained Amyloid. I studied hard for 6 months talking with different, very kind and patient folk. This book would have helped a great deal had it been around then. There aren't many books like this that deal with optical phenomena for the biologist, and as Prof. Johnsen states those texts that do deal with optics are pitched for the physicist and tend to be full of maths and jargon. I think it's extremely important to understand optical phenomena especially in my area, too many just aren't interested which is a real shame.
Well done Prof. Johnsen, an excellent book, you are indeed an 'enabler' now!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 8 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Optics for the biologist 22 Feb. 2012
By Ivan R. Schwab - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Extraordinary! From the aurora to zodiacal light, and from animal eyes to zooplankton, this is a book that makes physiologic optics fun. Sönke Johnsen explains, in language a biologist can understand, the optics of living organisms and biological systems. Yes, there are some formulae and some basic (and even some complicated) physics in the book, but this book fully explains these concepts and does not dwell on the formulae. Even the math aficionados among us, though, will find plenty of useful formulae and information in the appendices where needed. The text of this book is superb, as it is well written, logical, and brings optics to the biologists, and brings physics to its essence. Importantly, this is written with a sense of humor and the chapters are peppered with a dry wit that sometimes makes you smile at the clever phrasing and sometimes makes you laugh out loud.
This will be considered a reference text for those of us who work with biological systems, and I will be referring to it frequently. But, biologists take note, it is far more than that. It is a text to be read by those non-physics science majors who are interested in maintaining their education in optics for Sönke adds new concepts as well as reviewing old ones. He includes his own work with various biological systems and blends them nicely with older and more established concepts.
Sönke has written a book with ten chapters and seven appendices and he covers chapters on light emission, absorption, scattering, scattering and interference, fluorescence, polarization, measuring light and a chapter explaining the concept of light. In these chapters he shows the command of and familiarity with a tremendous body of knowledge, and presents it with the teacher's delight of sharing the information with his students. Importantly, while the author is clearly very well versed in his field, he is also most humble with his knowledge. He recognizes that some physics principles are incompletely understood and that in many cases the understanding of light in nature is an ongoing work in progress. Oh, and by the way, he is clearly part of that "progress" as his own work shows that he is applying these ideas to animals as diverse as plankton to scallops. If you are interested in light and its interaction with biological and visual systems, you will like this book. If you just want to understand physiologic optics and think you don't know enough physics, don't worry, he will lead you though it and make you smile. He is your college professor who can take complex information, make it understandable and fun. Really!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Light in the dark! 19 Feb. 2012
By Nico Michiels - Published on
Format: Paperback
I am thrilled about this book.

The study of "light" in a biological context is far from trivial and often counterintuitive. Moreover, this field has been historically dominated by research on humans, resulting in a confusing set of concepts and units that are often impossible or hard to translate when working on animals. Sönke Johnsen sheds light in the dark by highlighting the optimal path through this swamp with clear-cut advice as well as excellent examples that solve classic mistake people can make in this field. This book is about the physics of light more than about the biology of vision (there are other good books for that). However, because light is required for vision, knowing about all the effects that determine the "origin", "life" and "death" of light is of utmost importance for any vision scientist.

These are some of the topics addressed: Units, sources of light, absorption and absorbance also by visual pigments, irradiance and radiance, various sorts of scattering, fluorescence and spectrometry, plus a set of very useful appendices with units, formulae and equipment advice.

For a science book, the writing style is refreshingly fluent and almost entertaining in parts - while never losing the main aim out of view: To produce a comprehensible all-you-need-to-know summary of the state-of-the-art in this field. Although the book focuses on physics, the author's own research on marine organisms is a source of many interesting side stories and examples. This provides a unique feeling for the reality of working with light in the field. Combined with the fact that the book is brimming with practical advice helps tremendously to sense how theory can be turned into proper data collection and analysis.

This book - written by a biologist for biologists - generates curiosity for the science of light in biology. This book is a must for everyone interested in the ecology of light and vision. Many complex bits and pieces that I used to struggle with, have now fallen into place. I read it in one go from front to back ... and it is already affecting my research and teaching. Thank you!

Nico Michiels (University of Tuebingen, Germany)
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Sheds some light on the subject! :) 10 Dec. 2012
By On Watch - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was introduced to Dr. Sonke Johnsen's work during my Junior High years. At the time, I had a budding interest in marine biology, and decided to attend his presentation about bioluminescence at the Whitney Lab in Florida. Since then, we've shared and corresponded about various marine biology-related topics via email - scuba diving, lab experiments and equipment, aquariums, underwater photography, et cetera.

When Dr. Johnsen mentioned that he was writing a book, "The Optics of Life", I decided to order it when it became available on Amazon!

Reading Optics, I had an enjoyable time discovering connections between physics, chemistry, mathematics, and biology, and thanks to his personable sense of humor - such as, in the introduction to animal coloration, Dr. Johnsen remarks, "Maybe now they teach reading and math at age five, but when I was a kid, the first thing we learned was that blue and yellow add to make green..." - his narration engaged and entertained me throughout the book.

Each chapter contains many helpful diagrams, formulas, and photographs (as well a 6-page insert with rich color pictures). I feel that these illustrations and aids, coupled with Dr. Johnsen's patient and informative writing style, are a boon for both students and instructors in the field of optical science. In fact, even casual readers with a moderate knowledge of physics and biology - such as myself - are unlikely to be `swamped' by the discussions and mathematics in Optics, as some readers might be by other texts which cover the same subjects. Of course, when I take Physics next year, I'll definitely have to reread this book cover-to-cover, and see how much more I understand - it's certainly a good motivator!

Dr. Johnsen ends every chapter with a sub-section titled "Further Reading", in which he recommends texts by other authors for those who wish to further explore a specific topic(s) that was/were condensed (but excellently covered) into a single chapter. It's like the citations at the end of a well-written paper - in addition to using his own knowledge and experiences to explain rather complicated - even esoteric - concepts of physics and biology to the reader; his book was also constructed with the knowledge and experiences of other respected science authors.

What, exactly, causes wet sand to be a darker color than dry sand? Why does a beam of light, like from a flashlight, bend at an angle when shone through water? How does the scattering of particles relate to the observation that the sky is darker before a storm and lighter during a storm? I'm sure quite a number of people - regardless of whether they study or teach science - are itching for an answer to these questions.

Well, answers can be found right inside the pages of The Optics of Life. It takes a little digging, and for the casual reader, quite a bit of rereading of a section to cement new ideas into your head, but I'm sure you'll appreciate your introduction to optical science in the long run.

Fiat lux! :)
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating and instructive 17 Feb. 2012
By Andy Smith - Published on
Format: Paperback
"The Optics of Life" is fascinating and instructive. I learned a great deal about light and the way light affects living organisms. As important as vision is, I think most people don't appreciate the variation in light and how that affects what we and other animals perceive. The visual world that marine animals experience, for example, is fascinating and surprising. This book clearly explains the general principles in a way that most educated readers could understand, but is also at the cutting edge of our knowledge.

It should be essential reading for any scientists or future scientists interested in studying light in the world, but it is also a fascinating read for those who enjoy knowing more about the world we live in. The explanations are thorough, rigorous and represent the most up-to-date knowledge. At the same time, they are presented in a clear, enjoyable manner, with interesting and entertaining examples, anecdotes, analogies and observations. Dr. Johnsen's sense of humor and personable style make reading this book more like sitting down with a patient, funny friend than anything else.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Fantastic for biologists interested in light and/or vision 17 July 2013
By Zachary - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A great book for biologists interested in better understanding the behavior of light in natural settings. The book is very well written, easy to read, and includes a touch of humor; complex physics concepts are explained in simple, easy to understand ways.
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