Sunday, May 08, 2005

A Tale of Two Spheres

A Tale of Two Spheres
Seeing is Believing: 700 Year of Scientific and Medical Illustration.

Everything which I have thus far accepted as entirely true and assured has been acquired from the senses or by means of the senses. But I have learned by experience that these senses sometimes mislead me, and it is prudent never to trust wholly those things which have once deceived us.
Rene Descartes, Philosophical Essays, First Meditation, Concerning Things That Can Be Doubted.

On the first snowy day of the year, while on the subway to the New York Public Library's exhibition Seeing Is Believing: 700 Years of Scientific and Medical Illustration, I began thinking of the relationship between image and text, and the jejune aphorism a picture's worth a thousand words slowly floated into my head. No matter how hackneyed, when it comes to the phenomenal world, it's one thing to write about the inner workings of the human body, or what a flea looks like up close, or the order of strata in a geologic formation, but to see a rendering or a photograph is to understand it more deeply, more quickly. And as in the classic example of trying to describe the color blue to someone who's never seen it, sometimes there is no substitute.

One of the stated subjects of Seeing Is Believing is the importance of illustration in the progress of science. To convey this, the New York Public Library has brought together hundreds of artifacts covering the 13th through the beginning of the 20th century from the four research centers of the Library's vast collections, as well as materials loaned from The New York Academy of Medicine. Beginning with a section entitled Medieval Worldview, further division is made not chronologically, but by field: Natural History, Medicine, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Astronomy, and Illustration Processes - an informative section detailing many of the methods seen throughout. What is made clear is that illustration and science were roped together like mountaineers during their parallel development. The move from a style of drawing that could be described as speculative and decorative to one more factual and descriptive coincided with the development of knowledge from anecdotally based evidence to evidence based on direct observation and experimentation during the mid-16th century.

Wandering slowly from field to field in the subdued lighting, case after glass case presents itself filled with books each open to a page that includes an illustration. They're all here. All the luminaries of Western science, and some not as well known: the work of Andreas Vesalius, who in 1543 established the process of direct observation for human anatomy; John James Audubon's color-plate "Iceland or Jer Falcon" from The Birds of America (1860-61) is perched near Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology: being an attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth's surface, by reference to causes now in operation (1830-33), one of the first arguments in favor of the principle of gradual change over that of catastrophic change - the effect is seismic; and of course Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859).

Less familiar, and the more interesting for being so, is a woodcut from Dell'historia naturale (1599) considered the first printed illustration of the precursor of the modern museum: several men stand in the library of the pharmacist Ferrante Imperato, a room filled with shelves of books. Every other surface is covered with specimens representing all the phyla, the ceiling dominated by a large crocodile which hangs above their heads. Next to Dell'historia naturale is Robert Hooke's giant engraving of a flea from Micrographia, or, Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses (1665), the first book devoted to reproductions of microscopical observations.

In a case of its own is Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-53), a book containing the work of Anna Atkins, the first woman photographer. Nearby are albumen print photographs by Guillaume-Benjamin-Armand Duchenne from Mecanisme de la Physionomie humaine, ou analyse electrophysiologique de l'expression des passions...(1876) in which Duchenne hooked electrodes to his subjects' faces to deliver an electric current that would trace the neurological paths in the muscles that produce expressions of emotion.

Halfway through the exhibition I realize how much time has passed and how little I mind. The room has become crowded yet remains strangely quiet. We seem to have become hypnotized by the worlds being presented. A docent steps near with her group and points out a work of Louis Pasteur containing a wood engraving of the first X-ray image of a full skeleton by William Konrad Rontgen from 1896. I move on and find Marie Sklodowska Curie's Rescherches sur les substances radioactives (1904), a halftone photograph showing the effects of beta and gamma rays through nonmetallic substances, and Henry Honeychurch Gorringe's Egyptian Obelisks with photographs detailing how he erected the obelisk outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park. Close by, a single case has made strange bedfellows of Sir Issac Newton's Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (1687) and Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland (1884) a geometric Alice in Wonderland. Towards the end I find an illustration and a name that have long captivated me. The image is an engraving showing the direct relationship between the number, size, and arrangement of the planetary orbits and the five regular geometric solids is from The Cosmographic Mystery (1596) the first published work of Johannes Kepler. The name is Galileo Galilei whose The Starry Messenger (1653) is opened to an engraving of the Pleiades.

There are a lot of firsts in Seeing Is Believing even if they aren't all first editions. These are powerful, moving documents not for the advance in empirical knowledge or scientific method that they represent, but for what they say about the human spirit and the strength of individual thought. It is impossible to look at Galileo, for instance, and not think of his trials before the Inquisition. For some of these early scientists the risk wasn't a question of success or failure, it was a matter of life and death.

A Tale of Two Spheres

Three illustrations summarize and characterize the trajectory of the long and varied relationship of seeing and believing which is stated so emphatically in the title. Entering the exhibition, the first display contains a manuscript of Joannes de Sacro Bosco, Comptus, quadrans, de sphaera algorismus (1275) showing an illustration of the Medieval cosmos hand-painted and illuminated on vellum. Just two cases and 20 feet away, but separated by a gulf of unfathomable dimensions, is Nicolaus Copernicus' On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres (1543) with a simple woodcut of the most famed illustration of Western science. Graphically similar, these two diagrams demonstrate the deceptively simple power of illustration. Each composed of a sphere ringed by concentric circles, the first shows the Earth at the center of the universe. The second has the sun in this central position. Erase the text from both books, leaving only these two illustrations, and the earthshaking effect would be the same. The shift from a world defined by what we believe to one defined by what we see is radically there.

Notwithstanding the philosophical skepticism of Descartes and others like him, at one time - during which Copernicus drew his version of the spheres and for centuries afterwards - seeing was believing. Before and after the relationship has been more strained. In a side case of the Medieval Worldview is an anonymous book titled Antichrist (1482) with a hand-colored woodcut which is probably the earliest illustration of a Cesarean section. Demons attend the birth. It didn't matter that demons had probably never been seen. For a long time it didn't matter what we saw. We didn't believe our eyes because we believed even more strongly that there were overwhelming powers, like the Devil, that could play tricks on our eyes and deceive us.

Since the late 19th century, our manipulation of the processes of illustration has become more skillful. What began with staged and doctored photographs and developed into film clips of UFOs, has become computer generated images and a movie like Wag the Dog where a whole fictional conflict is created by a Hollywood producer. After 700 years of the development of trust in direct observation, we are beginning once again to doubt what we see. We still believe that there are overwhelming powers out there to deceive us, but they have been secularized into the powers of Government, Big Business, Advertising, and the Media.

By the time I emerged from the library back onto 42nd and 5th Avenue, the snow had begun to drift as had my thoughts, through 700 years of staggering human achievement. Passing the stone lions that flank the main entrance, I overheard a woman who had just seen the exhibition say to her friend, This isn't a library, it's a jewelry store. Every case is full of gems.

Dion Kliner New York 2000

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