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Before There Were Two Cultures

William Newman

Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution. Lisa Jardine. xx + 444 pp. Doubleday, 1999. $35.00.

The birth of modern science in the 17th century has often been presented as a lonely affair. The image of Isaac Newton alone in his alchemical laboratory at Cambridge comes to mind, as do the strange dreams of Descartes's early Olympica, which resulted from his forced meditations in an overheated room in the midst of a military campaign. Ingenious Pursuits attempts to present the other side of the coin. By focusing on areas of cooperative enterprise, such as natural history, cartography and astronomy, Lisa Jardine presents a picture of 17th-century science that stresses the interactions between and joint activities of individuals and groups of researchers in national and international settings. Her goal is to show that such cooperation extends beyond the obvious fact that those in the same field often work together. Indeed, her major points are that the seemingly disparate realms of science and the fine arts are in reality interdependent and that today, as in the 17th century, the boundaries that we draw around these endeavors are in large measure illusory.

Jardine introduces her argument by juxtaposing Dolly, the sheep cloned in 1997 by Ian Wilmot for cystic fibrosis research, and Away from the Flock, Damian Hirst's exhibit of a whole sheep preserved in embalming fluid. Her purpose is to show that our modern stereotype of the humanist as preserver of cultural values in the face of an ever more technological world dehumanized by the sciences is flawed. If anything, it is Hirst rather than Wilmot who calls the traditional humanistic values of Western civilization into question. Having debunked the image of science as a destructive golem that can only be deactivated by the virtuous artist, Jardine then jumps to the heart of her argument—that science and art advance by similar means ("ingenuity, quick-wittedness, lateral thinking and inspired guesswork")—and provides a number of case studies to prove her point.

Paintings by Maria Sibylla Merian of two beetlesClick to Enlarge Image

In the first three chapters, Jardine focuses on a selection of British scientists, illustrators and instrument makers to show the interaction of art and science during the Scientific Revolution. For example, Robert Hooke, the famous experimenter of the early Royal Society, whose many pursuits included being a part-time surveyor and who had wanted as a boy to become a painter, contributed to the rebuilding of St. Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire of London in 1666. His collaborator in this was, of course, Christopher Wren, the famous mathematician-turned-architect who actually designed and oversaw the construction of the new cathedral. Jardine links Hooke's mathematical interest in the catenary, a curve produced by a hanging chain, to his attempt to determine the forces that would act on the dome of St. Paul's. Jardine is able to unearth a number of interesting facts about these well-known figures that have not made their way into most studies of 17th-century science—showing, for example, that Hooke used old St. Paul's as a site for experiments with barometric pressure at different heights and that Wren hoped to build an innovative telescope into the renovated building. The two men worked together on the London Monument to the Great Fire, a hollow pillar more than 200 feet high in which they planned to mount a telescope for observing stellar parallax.

From these architectural examples of science as art or art as science, Jardine passes to a consideration of the microscope and scientific illustration, pointing to interesting cases of interaction. Hooke's youthful ambitions to be an artist were not entirely unrealized, as the prodigious fleas and poppy seeds of his marvelous Micrographia attest. Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, on the other hand, had to work with skilled draftsmen in order to produce his strikingly detailed microscopical illustrations. If we pass to the macroworld, the remarkable polymath Wren drew and engraved the plates for Thomas Willis's important Anatomy of the Brain. Nor was this integration of illustration and science restricted to biology. The camera obscura was improved by Johannes Kepler in the course of his optical research and was soon adopted by painters as a tool for making accurate landscape representations. Other optical devices were employed in the service of illusionist art, such as Samuel van Hoogstraten's "perspective box," an amusing trompe l'oeil device that survives today in the National Gallery in London. Like Van Hoogstraten's large perspective paintings, it was intended to fool the eye of the observer and hence to efface the boundaries between art and nature. The artistic attempt to minimize the distinction between the artificial and the natural was at times derided by scientists. For example, the mathematician John Wilkins complained that engravings viewed under a microscope were "bungling deformed works" compared with the intricacy of a louse or a mite.

Chapter 4 introduces a theme that seems to undermine Jardine's argument that art and science are isomorphic pursuits. Here she presents the development of timekeeping devices in the context of the quest for a reliable means of determining longitude while at sea. Her focal point is Sir Jonas Moore, who in the 1650s became Surveyor-General of the Ordnance Office for the English Navy. Moore, who was responsible for the building of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (which was designed by Hooke and Wren), commissioned John Flamsteed to compose a detailed History of the Heavens using the instruments at Greenwich. The Ordnance Office also played a part in Hooke's attempt to produce an accurate marine chronometer, for Moore supported Hooke in his acrimonious priority dispute with Christiaan Huygens over the invention of a precision spring-balance watch. In chapter 5, Moore's failed attempt to build a "Mole," or fortified harbor, in the British-held Port of Tangier is described. Surely what was driving Moore in these ventures had nothing to do with the aesthetic concerns and desire to induce wonder that motivated artists such as van Hoogstraten. Moore seems to have been a hard-bitten military innovator, determined to use state-of-the-art technology in service of the Navy.

The remainder of the book deals primarily with voyages of discovery and illustrations by 17th-century naturalists. Some of the extraordinary paintings of Maria Sibylla Merian are reproduced in beautiful color, including samples of animals and plants painted during the artist's arduous travels in Surinam. Jardine also tells the sad tale of the great collecting family the Tradescants, who amassed a vast and heterogeneous collection of plants and manufactured objects ranging from American Indian artifacts to the lantern of Guy Fawkes. John Tradescant, Jr., was induced by dubious means to bequeath his marvelous Ark—which became the kernel of the modern Ashmolean Museum at Oxford—to the lawyer and collector Elias Ashmole. This left no provision for Tradescant's wife Hester, who drowned in what may have been a suicidal act of desperation. Ashmole, meanwhile, had moved next door to Hester in order to monitor the collection. Upon obtaining it, he in turn granted it to the University of Oxford, but with no mention of Tradescant's role in forming the Ark. Whatever the morality of Ashmole's actions may have been, Jardine's case for a parallelism between art and science seems stronger here than in her discussion of Jonas Moore and his military projects. Obsessive collectors such as Ashmole and Sir Hans Sloane, the medical doctor whose enormous collection served as the seed that grew into the British Museum, really were closely related to the taxonomists and writers on natural history of their own and later times. The fact that such figures collected not only natural but also artificial objects points once again to the interesting incongruity between early modern habits of mind and our own concerning the distinction between art and nature.

Samuel Van Hoogstraten's perspective boxClick to Enlarge Image

Jardine concludes this rich look at 17th-century science with a brief synopsis of the discovery by James Watson and Francis Crick of the structure of the DNA molecule. By considering Watson's The Double Helix, Jardine once again emphasizes the point that science advances by circuitous routes involving hunch, guesswork and the inspired intuitions of ambitious minds often working at a frenetic pace. As in her introduction, Jardine is keen to show that these characteristics are not unique to scientists but are shared by creative individuals in a broad range of fields; she also wants to debunk the image of the scientist as a cold, Frankenstein-like figure who operates to the detriment of mankind as a whole.

It is odd that the other major claim Jardine makes in her introduction, that art and science are in large part isomorphic, has by the end of the book fallen between the stools. As a result, the book suffers from a certain incoherence.

Ingenious Pursuits provides an interesting and unusual look at science in the early modern period. It compares quite favorably with other surveys of the subject, such as Steven Shapin's The Scientific Revolution (1996). The high-quality color plates are an added attraction in a book that could stand alone on the merit of its detail and the quality of its written presentation.

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