Most people are familiar with the way a prism splits light into the colours of the rainbow, creating “spectra”. We also understand how raindrops create rainbows by reflecting the light of the Sun. For scientists of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, the best way to analyze light, as a way of understanding Nature, was to create spectra using pieces of glass scored with very fine, parallel grooves. These devices became known as “spectroscopic gratings” and, over the past 150 years, their delicate manmade surfaces have shaped science in many ways.
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