JF Ptak Science Books Post 1100 [One in a series on the History of Blank and Missing Things]
Most everything that was once revolutionary, or new, or innovative, comes to the point of being not so to most people, where the thing of marvel and wonder just becomes the thing of interest and then the thing and then, well, sort of no-thing. The great object becomes a simple bridge to something else, whether it is to communicate massive amounts of information instantly or overcoming distance quickly or storing food for long periods of time or shaving nutmeg onto a dinner plate.
Astonishment wears quickly. For example, the long line of vanished astonishment in communications shows how thin wonder becomes over the course of time, as communication is facilitated by a postal delivery system to a ground semaphore to an electric telegraph to the telephone to wireless radio to airmail to television to DARPAnet to email to texting to twitter. The beginning of instantaneous, person-to-person communication is really only 134 years old (with Bell's 1876 invention), and now we're sitting in the middle of the possibility of the most fabulously instantaneous communication bog in the history of humanity, and its brilliant astonishment level has been worn to a dull copper tone. (I don't necessarily mean "fabulous" in a good context, because all of this also presents the greatest assault on concentrated thought that has ever been known, but that's another story.) Things just get taken for granted. (This observation isn't restricted to techno stuff--just ask any old person.)
This is an excellent image to remind us of the wonder and fascination of invention--especially for the things that we take for granted, the essentials of modern life. This image from 1897 shows a very large audience gathered in the great Trocadero in Paris to listen to a demonstration of a phonograph. Now the phonograph had already been reliably around since Edison's introduction of his successful machine the year after the invention of the telephone in 1877 (though variations of the instrument had been around since the late 1850's, though that is another story), so the general public was already well-familiar with the concept of captured sound replayed--then why such a big crowd in 1897?
I think the reason for the full house was partially for the fact that it was a home-town event for a national French figure--the machine was being demonstrated by Henri Jules Lioret, an inventor who for about two decades had been tinkering with improvement to the machine. What the Trocadero crowd was listening to was the Lioretograph No. 3, a large, weight-driven phonograph with a big bellow--a machine powerful enough to be heard in a big hall, which was another point of fascination for the attraction of such a large crowd. A third possibility may have been with Lioret himself--perhaps the event was free, perhaps the inventor went out to fill the Trocadero via whatever means possible so that an engraving of the event would appear in newspapers and journals everywhere so that he could sell more machines.
The reason I mos enjoy and wish for though is that the people were simply fascinated with the bright new big machine, filling the famous musical hall with a big sound and doing it without an orchestra, or without one playing player for that matter.
It is also about the wonder of storing and replaying sound.
Loss of astonishment isn't necessarily a complacency--perhaps it is just more of a forgetting, a loss of the stuff that has come before. Maybe it is a function of time, or distance, between newness and necessity.
If you can grow to feel the astonishment felt by this Trocadero audience for the phonograph, or for the astonishment in anything fantastic-if-old, then you get to see the components of today's necessary stuff and see that it has a history and a full geology of an idea. To me, being open to astonishment like this makes you susceptible to wonder, and from wonder comes curiosity, and from curiosity comes everything else worth thinking about.
Edison celebrates his phonograph in the North American Review
(May 1878) and
then lists what he saw as the readymade faits
acomplis of the invention, the first of which was
worded: “1. The captivity of all manner
of sound-waves heretofore designated as fugitive, and their permanent
retention.” Do you hear a soundtrack
with that description? I did. He proceeded
with less fanfare: “2. Their
reproduction with all their original characteristics at will, without
presence or consent of the original source, and after the lapse of any
of time. 3. The transmission of such captive sounds through the ordinary
commercial intercourse and trade in material form, for purposes of
or as merchantable goods. 4. Indefinite multiplication and preservation
such sounds, without regard to the existence or non-existence of the
original source. 5. The
captivation of sounds, with or without the knowledge or consent of the
of their origin.”
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1099
My daughter Emma and I put this map together a few years ago for a project that just didn't come about. I found it this morning and thought to just post the thing and its tables. It could certainly be dressed up some--or at all. Color would be nice. So would a clickable interactive bit. Caveats firmly in place, here it is--so far as I could tell there wasn't such a descriptive tool like this available to quickly show the distribution of slave ownership (by county) in North Carolina. (Map is expandable.)
Data below in expanded reading section, slavery distribution arranged by heaviest concentrations to least.
Once you get into the mountain region of the state (the last third or so) where there are lots of hardscrabble/subsistence/poor farmers, slave ownership drops quickly. (I'm not sure how the Cherokee slave ownership factors into this.) It would be nice to know how NC compares to the rest of the slave holding states, and I might do that yet--but for now I just wanted to share this relatively raw map before I lose it for good.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1098 [Part of a series on the History of Blank, Missing and Empty Things.]
This first image struck me as a sort of prototype for the shared-music experience that is common to youtube and a plethera of other online sites, showing a humble beginning of sharing for a revolutionary idea and experience. The idea of recording and playing back sound1, the idea of being able to save sound and listen to it later, was an astonishing realization and invention. (There will be more on this in a post later today.) And it struck me that being able to enjoy music without the necessity of having the musicians there to play it, live, uniquely, is a phenomenon that is recent in the history of listening to things, being less than 134 years old.
This is one of the earliest images of that shared experience: the Edison phonograph, being played in company, ca. 1878.
1. The earliest "phonograph" was one which successfully recorded sound but could not play the sound back. Or at least until recently, when these 150-year-old recordings were played back for the first time. This was the work of Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, (1817-1879), a French bookseller (!) who patented his phomautograph in 1857.
These recordings can be heard HERE.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1097
Had there been no Newton every school child would know the name of Robert Hooke (1635-1703) in its place—he was polymathic, totally energized, big-thinking non-sleeping experimentalist and theoretician who worked across numerous disciplines (physics and astronomy, to chemistry, biology, and geology, to naval technology), not the least of which was architecture (having helped Christopher Wren in the design of the new St. Paul’s). Hooke was a superb instrumentalist and inventor who also (for the most part) introduced humanity to the previously-unseen microscopic world (in his gorgeous and revolutionary Micrographia1..) .He was an enormous figure who was also never below a fight or argument, and whose grasp of his own very considerable accomplishments never seemed to be limited by what he had actually done in spite of his own tremendous and prodigious output. Some people lay the blame for Hooke’s obscurity upon Newton’s great and tireless vindictiveness against Hooke, but that’s by far from the whole story of Hooke’s troublesome personal legacy. Not only is his portrait not on the coin of the realm (like Newton's) nor hanging everywhere in the halls of academia, but there is no known lifetime surviving portrait of the man, and the exact location of his burying place is not known. He came a little close to Newton’s enormity, and in the absence of Jupiter and Saturn even the Earth starts to look a little bit big.among the rest of the planets.
In addition to high genius and a man largely responsible for keeping together (and moving forward) the Royal Society, Hooke was also a hypochondriacal, meanish, semi-miser prone to receiving insults real or imagined, always very well aware of his place in history of of history's possible sleights against him, and also prone to vindictive attack if the mood moved him. Newton too could be as sharp as sand in the eye, but he survived as a person, and Hooke sorta didn't. I'm not sure why, really, he seems so mostly-forgotten nowadays, priggishly envious idea-appropriating vindictive Despicable Me character or not--his swath of accomplishments was wide and deep as almost anyone else coming out of Britain for 200 years, which should be enough to send a lot of the historical personal detritus into the lost memory bin...but it doesn't, or something else, but popular history just doesn't work for the man.
Stephen Inwood's The Forgotten Genius recalls the 1673 letter that Robert Hooke wrote to the Council of the Royal Society, complaining of a new wrinkle in his ever-wrinkling private life: the garden that had been just outside his rooms had been converted into a "coaching inn and stables", meaning that there were mounds of festering summertime horse poop within nostrils' reach. He wrote to the Council that he needed a new accommodation, to "free himselfe from sitting as he now doth in the suffocating stink of the stables hors dung and Jakes [privy], which hath bin a great cause of his late illness". [The portrait is supposed to be that of Hooke, which is fine by me--I like this one. It shows a very thin man under the wig and bulky clothing, clear blue eyes, tight mouth, translucent skins, surrounded by the implements and directions of his thought, not the least of which is the night sky over the sitter's shoulder.]
The changes were agreed to, but not quickly, and it was still December 1673 or so that Hooke got his hands on Johannes Hevelius' new Machina Coelestis, a book which contained what Hooke saw to be germinal flaws, fatal flaws to the advancement of astronomy--and of course varied affronts to his own innovations in astronomical instrumentation--but which were preventable. By him. Hooke had it within himself to attack anything or anyone, and so it came to be Hevelius' turn, monumental stature or not. (Newton's turn would come soon after.)
Now there is only contrived evidence that the horse dung and suffocating stink threw Hooke over the edge--but I do like the idea of this being the case, and though probably no real historian would go this way, I like to think that it was this High Stink that helped Hooke in his large attack upon Hevelius. Of course Hooke needed no pushing or prodding from outside sources, even if those outside sources were already sort of within him. But I do like the image of his pen and razor-sharp mind fueled by the poop mounds and privies.
I can imagine his knuckles turning an easy white as he read the book that charged against his superior optical method of sighting instrumentation for astronomical work, Hevelius clinging to some methods of the 16th century. They fought, of course, and for the most part it was a lonely (if correct) fight by Hooke, his possible benefactors and allies at the Royal Society turning out not to be so given personality clashes and such. But I can imagine the Hevelius, and the knuckles, and the wrongness of it all, all brewing in the stank of late summer swelter of horse dung mounds, filling Hooke's nostrils and wigs and everything else with a rage for a rage that already existed.
And here's a line I won't very often get to use to close anything out: the poop couldn't've hurt..
1. The 28-year old Hooke published the results in a gorgeous and revolutionary book, Micrographia (a lovely e-text edition appears at Gutenberg, here) in 1665, which became an instant best seller and highly praised and valued. (Samuel Pepys, perhaps among the shiniest stars whose imprimatur was like a royal blessing, said the book (was) "the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life.") There is no telling what the people of the mid-17th century thought of seeing such incredible discoveries in the little semi-invisible stuff that made up their normal, daily lives. The only thing that somewhat equates to this would be if the first images of the Hubble were those of Earth-bound objects whose detail had previously been unknown. Hooke’s observations and drawings of things like the common flea were just an astonishment—that such a creature of “low order” could have such intricate detail and design was a complete revelation. The drawings of the fly's eye, too, was an inescapable wonder, an incredible object to consider as having any detail pre-microscope, and then revealed to have unimaginable design and elegance.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1096
I think perhaps one of the oddest places to find a locomotive is in the inside of a propeller of a ship on the high seas.
This image really belongs to the sub-category "Out of Place Department", along with the unexpectedly-found restaurant at the top of a punked-out 19th c Eiffel Tower, a swimming pool in the bottom of a mine shaft, a steamboat along the side of a mountain in Amazonia, and so on. Seeing this strange sea craft and the cutaway schematic showing the man-sized locomotive (and tender) was very exciting and unexpected as well, perhaps more so than most of the unexpected steam/electro punky thingsa that I come across.
It appeared as a real-life suggestion as "Chapman's Roller Vessel" in (ca.) 1897 and looks o be a squarish, blocky ship of questionable seaworthiness, fitted out with two hollow cylindrical props powered by two small small-gauge locomotives running infinitely on small-gauge tracks inside of them, push-pulling the ferry through the water. (I wonder about access to the engine and how to control its stopping and starting; I would only hope that there wasn't someone at the locos' controls.)
It seems to me to be a bad idea of a high order.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1095
Even though this woodcut looks a bit odd, it hides the fact that it is a superb device for its mechanical purpose–mapping the head for hatters. Certainly most folks would look at this image and have their imaginations decide many more and creative (but not-real) uses than that. But the fact remains that it was an ingenious instrument that
could (can!) produce an excellent contour map of the head. It is difficult to imagine a more accurate mechanical method of performing this task this beautiful device. (The device would be place on the head like a hat, fitted down snug causing the head's contours to extend the spokes, producing an image of the head's shape like the map on the upper left inset. Very cool.) And I love the use of so many (clean) screws rimming the base of the mapper.
Then on the other end of the spectrum of antiquarian steampunk headware:
was this simple umbrella to protect the hat. It reminds me of the utility of a portable pocket-sized mustache guard. I wonder if you were expected to carry an umbrella to protect the rest of your body? Or another to protect the umbrella that was protecting the hat umbrella? (Tortoises all the way down....) Still, though, this is a great drawing with applications far beyond the reach of a simple hat protector.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1094
Note: our poll site crashed I think under the weight of unexpectedly high traffic. At last count there were over 12,000 responses, 10,000 of them coming in the last few days. I will update the analysis section on 7 August. My apologies for the disappearance of the poll.
This is a continuation of my post/thread “Deciding to Use the Atomic Bomb: The Chicago Metallurgical Lab Poll, July, 1945" which is part of a 50-post thread on the history of atomic and nuclear weapons. Thus far more than 2400 people have responded to this poll on whether/how to use the atomic bomb that was first taken by the Manhattan Project metallurgical lab physicists at Chicago. (Image: the 600-foot wide fireball of the first detonation of an atomic weapon at .016 seconds. The event, codenamed “Trinity”, detonated an implosion design plutonium device code at Alamogordo, New Mexico (near Socorro), 16 July 1945.)
In July 1945 (but before Trinity), Arthur H. Compton asked Farrington Daniels (Director of the Metallurgical Lab section (at Chicago) of the Manhattan Project) to poll the 250 or so scientists at work under Farrington on the coming immediate use of the atomic bombs. (The results of the poll, answered by 150 of the 250 people, were originally published as “A Poll of Scientists at Chicago, July 1945,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 1948, 44, page 63. and again published in Compton’s own book, Atomic Quest, in 1956. You can follow the images of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists for October 1958, p 304 here.
The results of the five-option poll were interesting. Of the 250 asked to take the poll, 150 responded, with 15% (as you will be able to see in the Results section below) of the scientists thinking that the bomb should be immediately employed against a military target. 46% thought that there should be a demonstration of the weapon in Japan in a show of strength, while another 26% thought that the bomb should be demonstrated here in the U.S. and witnessed by members of the Japanese government. Rounding out the poll was the 11% who thought that the bomb should be demonstrated but not in front of the Japanese, and the final 2% holding the option for keeping the weapons secret and unused.
The 2010 results thus far are displayed below, though if readers were interested in taking the poll they should do so now and then return to read the results.
To take the poll, go HERE. You can be a part of this poll anonymously. Please try and keep in mind the time
and place of the events unfolding: the Japanese resistance to the
unconditional surrender ultimatum developing at Potsdam; the resistance
to massive air raids which in the year or so previous to 6 August saw the destruction of 66 major cities (destroying half of all the combined major centers, killing about 900,000, wounding over a million and making another 9 million homeless); the tenacious fighting in the islands at the
outreaches of the Empire; the thousands of American POWs; the
circulating estimates of the coming Japanese invasion casualties
(hundreds of thousands of Americans, far more so Japanese), and so on.
Caveat: this is a curiosity-poll more than anything–it is hardly scientific. Admittedly the original poll was taken by a very distinct population which represents only itself and could hardly be thought of as representing any wide section of the American population. Still it is interesting to see how folks today respond to the poll even in this environment (where the writer has already discussed the results of the original poll, for example) where the history of the decision to use the bomb and its results are so iconic and well known.
The story goes so (this from my original 2008 post): “In late June 1945, the Interim Committee (a secret, blue chip group established by Secretary of War Stimson with the approval of President Harry S. Truman to examine the problems that could result from the creation of the atomic bomb). decided what exactly to do with the weapons. The group (also including James F. Byrnes, former US Senator soon to be Secretary of State, as President Truman's personal representative; Ralph A. Bard, Under Secretary of the Navy; William L. Clayton, Assistant Secretary of State; Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development and president of the Carnegie Institution; Karl T. Compton, Chief of the Office of Field Service in the Office of Scientific Research and Development and president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology; James B. Conant, Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee and president of Harvard University; and George L. Harrison, an assistant to Stimson and president of New York Life Insurance Company) found the following:
The opinions of our scientific colleagues on the initial use of these weapons are not unanimous: they range from the proposal of a purely technical demonstration to that of the military application best designed to induce surrender. Those who advocate a purely technical demonstration would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons, and have feared that if we use the weapons now our position in future negotiations will be prejudiced. Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use, and believe that such use will improve the international prospects, in that they are more concerned with the prevention of war than with the elimination of this specific weapon. We find ourselves closer to these latter views; we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.
Overall the results are fairly similar—of course there were no controls in the 2008-2010 poll, and it was taken by more than just the scientists at Chicago who helped build the bomb in 1945, and of course people were asked to try and place themselves with some judiciousness back into 1945. So the results are necessarily problematic. Even so, I’m not sure right now how to interpret them. (Image: Oppenheimer and Groves at what was left of the tower that suspended "the Gadget" at Alamogordo.)
The results thus far for Option 1—drop the bomb, drop it now, and drop it on a military target–show that roughly twice the number of people were willing to go straight away to military application than among the Chicago scientists in 1945, 27% in 2010 said to use the bomb “now” compared to only 15% in 1945.
I’m not sure if I’m surprised by this or not—people today certainly know and probably could not put out f their mind that the Japanese didn’t surrender until days after the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb. Wouldn’t this mean that more people would think to drop it?
The second option, which frankly I thought would be the overwhelming choice in ’08-'10 (the demonstration of the effectiveness of the bomb) fell from 46% to 36%, which is just about the percentage of folks who were more willing to drop the bomb more-or-less immediately.
I was thinking that this number would increase dramatically. On the other hand I would guess, though, that if the general public was given this poll (somehow) in 1945, that the overwhelming response would be option #1. After all there were millions of Americans in uniform who would’ve been put at risk in an invasion of Japan. There were also dozens of thousands of American GIs who were in POW camps whose well-being would not have been a primary concern if the Japanese homeland was invaded. Also it must be remembered that just a few weeks before this poll was given and before the American public could have imaginarily taken it, there was a massive firebombing of Tokyo--334 of Curtis LeMay B-29's were loaded to utmost capacity with the newly-conceived M-69s bomb, an incendiary so vicious that the fires it produced were all but inextinguishable. The B29's bombed Tokyo for hours, killing 100,000 people and making over a million homeless. In spite of this overwhelming display, the Japanese movement towards surrender was still secretive and extraordinarily slow1.
My suspicion is that this number would be overwhelming on the order of 90% or something like that, because by this point the U.S. was swimming in reports of terror and blood and death with nothing but the promise of more, the invasion of Japan leading to the possibility of hundreds of thousands of soldiers being killed. The chance of ending it all in one or two steps was irresistible to the decision makers; had the use of the bombs been publicly debated I feel that there would have been no debate. Remember: no major decision-maker in the U.S. government had any reservations about the military use of the bomb. There were private reservations on the use of the bomb among America’s top military men (Eisenhower, for one), but these men would not make the ultimate decision. (This is a shallow description of a complex situation, but for our purposes here I think it will do.)
Results thus far (as of 26 July 2010):
2008 poll takers= 2418 people.
1945 poll takers= 150 people
Option 1. “Use them in the manner that is from the military point of view most effective in bringing about prompt Japanese surrender at minimum human cost to our armed forces.”
Option 2. “Give a military demonstration in Japan to be followed by renewed opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.”
Option 3: “Give an experimental demonstration in this country, with representatives of Japan present; followed by a new opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.”
Option 4. “Withhold military use of the weapons, but make public experimental demonstration of their effectiveness.”
Option 5. “Maintain as secret as possible all developments of our new weapons and refrain from using them in this war.”
1. The business of whether the Japanese were ready to negotiate a peace in the weeks before 6 August is complicated and far from conclusive. It does seem though that no negotiating team could've spoken with a unified voice for the Japanese government, and that the issue of an unconditional surrender further complicated the situation.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1093
I love the idea of being able to look at things like a child. To come towards things with such an authentic and unpolluted curiosity would be an enormous gift for anyone past this age of discovery and exploration–its where some of the great questions are asked. I have learned so much from my daughters and their friends over the years that it makes me want to be around kids all of the time. (Well, maybe not “all”...)
In the history of benchmarks of creativity I’d have to say that the one for the Child’s Question stands among the greatest–at the very least it can show a careful listener how look at things differently–and sometimes savagely so.
For me these attempts come in strange ways–sometimes it comes in the form of just imagining that I knew nothing whatsoever about the topic. (I remember a story about told by the mother of the American dustbowl-era artist Thomas Hart Benton. Benton was a late speaker–nothing came out of him until he was one and a half years old. But when it came, it came with a bang: standing on his porch in the early evening and looking at the Moon, he turned to his mother and said “What is that?”. Magnificent.)
For example there’s the glorious work by by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) in the Castello di San Girogio in Mantua (mainly La Camera degli Sposi). The oculus is the focal point of a ceiling that stands over what some people consider to be the most beautiful room in the world, painted in almost every aspect and surface by the great Mantegna.
It is a magnificent thing created by a great Renaissance master. But what in the world is going on up there above everyone’s heads? I guess that you could infer all sorts of mythological and symbolic bric-a-brac to explain the scene, but, if you forgot about all of that, what it looks like is that everyone up there is waiting for a bucket of water (or something) to be poured down on the folks below. Simple explanations are sometimes the best–and so are the obvious ones.
And so I turned to a book that I’ve breezed through but never read, a staple I guess for anyone interested in the history of art, Bernard Berenson’s The Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1952) to see what he had to say about this work. But before I got there I stumbled my way through Berenson’s long and thick paragraphs, filled with commas and very long sentences, tumbled my way across the name of Paulo Uccello. And it wasn’t a pretty fall.
I was introduced to real appreciation of the great Uccello (1397-1475) by my wife Patti Digh, who had thought long and hard about him through the Great American Novel The Recognitions, by William Gaddis. (Credit where credit is due: I never read the book before meeting Patti, and it is she who first supported the GAN claim for the problematic Gaddis.) It’s a long and complex book, The Recognitions, and we won’t get into it here–just the part about Uccello. And it is here that Gaddis makes a wonderful operation about the solids in Uccello.
Uccello was coming out of the Gothic era (sort of) and into the Renaissance (sort of) with a remarkable and just-about revolutionary control of the idea of perspective. Maybe it was gotten through the polishing of the early doors of Lorenzo Ghiberti, or something else, I don’t know–he was a very private, deeply secretive man whose life (and philosophy) is mostly mystery. Anyway, he was among the first scientifically-based artists to work in perspective, and he was just simply an important guy in the history of art. But what Gaddis recognized that in all of this fabulous detail and naturalism, that there are great expanses of pure, unmodified, non-detailed colors. Horse rumps can be simply white; parts of armor, just big flat blacks. Beautiful. The question was: what was he thinking? In this great porridge of color and scientific delight, where was the detail? Why did he leave out muscles and shadow and sinew and sweat and whatever, content for some reason to just dress that particular part of the painting in pure color? It seems very 20th century to me.
And so now that I had moved away from Mantegna, I wanted to see what Bereneson had to say about Uccello. And with an open mind I was completely invaded: Berenson didn’t really see Uccello as a artist, at all.
As a matter of fact, Berenson wrote that there wasn’t much of a difference between Uccello’s paining and a map, and didn’t think of Uccello’s efforts “as a work of art”. He felt that Uccello was more of a scientist whose interest and ability didn’t necessarily relate its subject in an artistic way.
“Uccello had a sense of tactile values and a feeling for colour, but in so far as he used these gifts at all, it was to illustrate scientific problems” Berenson wrote. Ouch. He continues, “In Uccello’s “Sacrifice of Noah’...there is mathematical certainty but certainly...no psychological significance”, which is where he sees no difference between Uccello’s painting and a map. He claims that Uccello and his successors “accomplished nothing artistically” but did provide the tools for more gifted artists who would come later.
Strong stuff from someone who knew his stuff–I only knew the book by looking at the pictures. Berenson isn’t out there alone in his feelings for the beautiful Uccello * and I tried to open my head up to seeing what these guys saw. But, as Patti said, “they’re just wrong”.
I’ll take that over trying to figure out a new way of looking at the fabulous Uccello.
* For example, Donatello found his friend to be lacking in a certain creativity, lacking a depth of uncertainty; also Alberti does not include him in hist famous list of artists in De Pictura.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1092
The Great Nothing–a History of Blank, Empty and Missing Things #79
Perhaps the biggest, blankest, most missing-est thing that we have presently is the universe, or rather the universe before the universe was created. I can talk about the universe in that way because I’m talking about the one that is most classically conceived as such by much of the Western world: a deep, multi-thousand-year-old belief that the universe came into being via the hand of a creator.
The universe in question is the one in the hands of the Primum Mobile (pictured above, bottom row, fourth image), one of 50 images depicted in a series known as the Mantegna Tarocchi, drawn and engraved by artists unknown ca. 1465, though it was once believed to be the work of the great master Andrea Mantegna (and later the possible work of Bacci Baldini).1
From my reading of this image, the universe is held in the hands of the primum mobile, a spherical container of not-quite-nothing, waiting for the creator to breathe life into it. The possibility of absolutely nothing was seen as an impossibility, a perfect vacuum, a space of certain nothingness, was a violation of theological belief. That the sphere existed was a proof that–in the 15th century–you simply couldn’t have a container of nothingness. The very presence of the sphere confirming that there was something being contained by it.
As a matter of fact the issue of nothingness was very contentious, with the concept of its possibility and the display of a vacuum not achieved until 1672. This beautiful illustration is from one of the greatest experimental physics books of the 17th century, coming as it does from Otto von Guericke's Experiemnta nova (ut vocantur) Magdeburgica de vacuo spatio (Amsterdam, 1672). (In another minute department, this one is also I guess the greatest book ever written by a Mayor of anywhere (as von Guericke (1602-1886) was mayor of Magedeburg for 33 years).) The image shows the greatest of von Guericke's efforts, and one of the greatest (or most important) experiments in experimental science--the dramatic demonstration of the vacuum, showing here that teams of horses could not pull apart two halves of an evacuated sphere, and of course the efficacy of air pressure operating against it (um, the vacuum). The "floating" bits in the sky were an exploded view of the sphere that was the subject of the experiment.
What was more important though, and what the general reader today might easily miss, was that von Guericke created something that many scientists and philosophers said didn't, and couldn't, exist: the vacuum. In modern times, Copernicus depicted the universe as a vast void; Descartes came in the back door (following the ancient and interesting though incorrect theory of Aristotle*), not liking the idea very much, and claiming that such empty space couldn't exist. Von Guericke provided the proof that the vacuum, that nothing, did exist.2
Ultimately the Tarocchi was providing the Standard View of the creation, and did so before t he great assaults on the celestial kingdom got underway at the hands of Copernicus and Galileo, and of course many others--but that was all still 80 years away.
1. The series as I said consists of 50 cards, all of which were teaching aids for the richer kids, dividing society, making a hierarchical display of the different levels of society. There were five series, each with ten engravings; the first series displayed the stages of social man, beginning with the beggar and working through to the pope. [Series E* contained the Beggar, Servant (Fameio), Craftsman (Artixan), Merchant (Merchadante), Gentleman (Zintilomo), Knight (Chavalier), Doge (Doxe),King (Re), Emperor (Imperator) and finally ending with the Pope (Papa).] Series D displayed Apollo and the nine Muses; Series C was dedicated to philosophy and the sciences (showing the seven liberal arts plus astrology, philosophy and theology); Series B showed the seven virtues plus the Genius of the Sun, Time and World (Iliaco, Chronico and Cosmico, repectively). Series A, composing the last 10 images (numbers 41-50) displayed the heavy hitters, the real weight: the Seven Spheres of the solar system (the greatest part of the structure of the universe of te time) with the paths of the five planets plus the sun and moon, surrounded by the Octava Spera (the Eighth Sphere) and then by tghe Primum Mobile and Prima Causa (the last, card 50, being the god).
In the corners and bottom of the decorative borders is the classification system: the name and Roman numeral are first located along the bottom edge, with the group’s lettrer (E through A) and the group Arabic number located on the corners.
2. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) theorized that as air became thinner objects moving through it would move faster, which is true; he further speculated that if there was no air at all, that if vacuums did exist, then objects would move infinitely fast, which he correctly assumed was not possible, and thus the vacuum could not exist.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1091
I was reading an early post that I made here (“The Invasion of America, 19??--1935--Scenario for Invasions via Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean"), mainly concerned with the fantastic, propagandistic map that accompanied the original 1935 Fortune magazine article. This time I took away something entirely different.
The article, “Why an Army?”, asked the interesting and surprising question of whether the United States actually needed a standing army. The army was supposed to be for defense, and the author adroitly points out that the U.S. had never fought a defensive war–except, of course, if you redefined certain ideas and terms that could somehow explain the wars for Manifest Destiny (the Mexican-American war of 1846) or the Spanish-American war (1898) and so on as “defensive” in their provocatively offensive manner as a reverse defense procedure. But more on that in a bit.
What really surprised me was the appearance of the phrase “...the effect of an expansion of this nuclear force...” It simply referred to the standing army size of 165,000 troops there in 1935, but ten years later it would mean something entirely different.
This is when I was thinking of the enormous changes that took place in the ten-year period of 1935-1945. And then of different ten-year periods–but first to WWII.
In 1935 the “nuclear” that was being referred to was the crux of the American fighting force, which was a standing army of about 165,000 men and 1,509 airplanes (“of all types”). At this point the U.S. Army was poorly outfitted, costing a total of 1 million dollars a day for upkeep and maintenance. The technical, ordnance aspects of the army’s mainstays were unimpressive. The great standard cannon was the 75, an 1898 French-created thing capable of a 6-degree traverse and which needed a massive pit for its recoil. WWI tanks were still a common sight, being replaced by the T1 “combat car”, a relatively-lightly armored fighting vehicle that was slow and underpowered. The T1 was just at this time being replaced by “the holiest of holies”, the T2, a much faster, somewhat better-armored and more heavily gunned (having two 30 calibers and 1 50 caliber) version of its earlier incarnation. It could travel 50 mph with its tracks on (unlike the T1, which, when it needed to move with some speed, needed to remove its tracks and replace them with wheels, and then vice versa once they got to the combat area). The T2 could run circles around the T1, and double (or triple) that around the 1000 or so WWI 6 mph leftovers. The problem was, though, that in 1935 there were only 19 of the T2's around–their $26,000 price tag was a bit much.
The discussion of increasing the “nuclear” force was to increase the standing size of the army-- ten years later the term could be used to describe an increase in the development of the first generation nuclear weapons, these following an absolutely phenomenal ramp-up for development and production of all manner of weapons during America’s involvement in WWII. It was an overall astonishing achievement that was capable of no other country on earth, given the vast resources and workforce in the U.S. This production was simply impossible for any other country to even approximate, especially when you consider the vast calls on energy that the production of the atomic bomb called for–and of course considering that America was a fortress, basically impregnable from any outside force.
Which gets us back to the Fortune article. The author references a Lloyds of London report that there were 500-to-1 odds that anyone would attack the U.S. in 1935 or in the near future. There really wasn’t anyone around with the power or wherewithal to do so, except for Great Britain, which of course would have no interest in doing such a thing. (Especially when you consider that the great natural resource wealth of GB was in the empire, and it was in the policing and protecting of the empire that required the attention of the Royal Navy and Army. Be that as it may, Britain was no going to attack America.)
The author of “Why an Army” makes the point that if the U.S. has an army it is for defensive purposes; on the other hand the U.S. has never really fought a defensive war. The idea of “defense” though needed to be expanded to include attacking other countries whose actions threatened our way of life. And so, “If the citizen thinks that he is ever going to need an army for meddling, then he needs one now”, given the poor state of American defense. “We cannot abolish the army if we think illogically that we will never be in a war”, the article claims, and “a war in any quarter of the world may affect our industrial mechanism...”
“We are no longer isolated and we have never been really holy...” Fortune concludes, and that the bottom line was that we needed a real standing army–not the make-believe sort that existed in 1935–if we were going to protect ourselves against invasion by attacking people who threatened our existence. [It is curious to note that there is no mention of Nazi Germany whatsoever in the course of this long feature article.]
And this winds up back to the history of ten-year periods of enormous change. I can think of some obvious examples:
1905-1915 for physics, 1911-1921 for the arts, 1945-1955 (for entering into the Cold War, MAD and the Korean War, not to mention the advent of computers and DNA and all the rest), 1859-1869 for Darwin, and spectroscopy and the maths, 1953-1963 for the enormous changes in the biological sciences, 1939-1949 for physics (again, this time running from the nuclear fission to QED). There are others, of course, and there will be faults with these dates, perhaps--I think that they're pretty good for a start..
I suppose that you could make the case that beginning in 1895 or so that you could say that these great periods of enormous change could begin at the beginning of nearly any year, though I do feel that there are many periods that begin at recognizable dates I think that the existence of these 10-year periods become less abundant as you move to the years before one of the earliest great 10-year periods (1859) simply because it took so long for an idea to go 'viral". Certainly there would be fewer people working in any given field, and communicating even great ideas would've taken far longer in pre-telegraph days. (An interesting question could be how long it took for an idea or thought to be spread thoroughly through a community/nation/world?) There are exceptions of course: the reaction to the invention of the telescope and Galileo''s use of that instrument, and also for the use of the microscope and the work of Robert Hooke being perhaps the most prominent examples.
I like the idea of looking at the unfolding of revolutionary events in 10-year increments. And for the 20th century there would be a solid need to be a geologist of the history of ideas to see how many different levels of change were going on for each revolutionary period.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1090
The esteemed Michael Bernhard Valentini (1657 - 1729), professor of medicine and of physics at Giessen, Germany and natural history collector, produced one of the century’s most important works on the state of museums and natural history collections. Actually, his Museum Museorum1 was much more than that, its three volumes presenting more descriptions and illustrations of all manner of scientific things than just about anything else of the pre-encyclopedist 17th century. There are many “firsts” to be found in this work, including numerous first-time description of fossils, tropical plants, American botanical specimens, techno items, shells, and on and on, not to mention sections on monsters, dragons and mythical creatures.
One image that caught my attention appears in volume two, and seems to me to be a flying machine, though I can’t recover how it is being kept aloft, or what is providing its power. The pilot is keeping a sharp eye on things with a telescope, and is reckoning position with a compass2 and two globes. The canopy of the aircraft seems to be just that, some sort of cloth held in place by pulleys and ropes, though I don;’t know what is providing lift, if anything. Perhaps the whole thing finds its lift and propulsion with the many feathers on the craft’s keel. I’m not sure. But I can say that I don’t recall any other earlier image of a pilot using a telescope and compass.
Valentini also assembled an enormous natural history collection of his own, and in addition to his spectacular collection of the state of scientific and technical knowledge at the begininng of the 18th century, he also included in his book a list of 100+ museums/collections of natural history objects--an extraordinary document for the time and unfortunately one that can't be reproduced here.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1089
I guess we don’t think much of the rarity of some things. Pepper and other spices were at one point quite rare, and the source of invention and exploration, and war. Nutmeg, for example, a sought-after spice originating from the Banda Island group of Indonesia, once figured in a trade between Holland and England (the Treaty of Breda in 1667) that landed the Dutch the island of Run and control of the nutmeg trade, while the Brits got Manhattan.
Another great example is helium. When these images were produced for The Illustrated London News of 15 March 1919, rigid airships were filled with hydrogen, an explosive, not-happy gas that was the fuel of all manner of aerostatic accidents, everywhere. Helium was still quite rare at this point, a year after the end of WWI and only 54 years after it was first observed1, and replacing hydrogen with helium was still yet a dream–basically because there wasn’t any, yet, to supply a dirigible2.
The first helium-filled airship was still two years away at this point–the U.S. Navy’s great C-7, which made its maiden flight on 1 December 1921. When the USS Shenandoah flew in 1923, it flew with most of the world’s entire supply of the noble gas helium. Its difficult today to think of pepper, nutmeg, sugar, helium and so on in terms of fabulousness and rarity, but it was so. Remember, when Capt Bligh was jettisoned from the HMS Bounty, the ship’s precious cargo was also thrown overboard. And the great treasure that sparked the Tahitian adventure that sparked the mutiny? Breadfruit.
1. Observed for the first time by astronomer and early astrophysicist Pierre Janssen, in the spectrum of the chromosphere of the sun, in 1868; separated for the first time on Earth in1895 by the British chemist Sir William Ramsay.
2. By the way, “dirigible” is from the French, “diriger” (or “to direct “), meaning steerable, pilotable. This differentiates the dirigible from the balloon, which was not by and large steerable.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1088
The anniversaries of two famous legal cases bumped me into thinking about the shadows of what things might be. Aticus Finch (from To Kill a Mockingbird) and Thomas Scopes (of the “Scopes Trial”, the famous or infamous “Monkey Trial”) celebrated their 50th and 85th anniversaries (respectively) this past week. Finch the lawyer lost his case, and Scopes, the defendant, lost his as well.
This reminded me of the shadowland stories of roads not taken, or illustrious events whose outcomes didn't quite coincide with the fame and interest of the way things started out.One example from Shadowlands that springs to mind is that of the sewing machine, and the case of William Hunt. Hunt was a remarkable person, an inventor of ingenious and remarkable things, some ubiquitous--and of these, one good example is the safety pin. The “could’ve been” part was the sewing machine. Eight years or so before the battle for precedence and patent began between Isaac Singer and Elias Howe began, Hunt had arrived at the principle solutions for an automatic sewing machine.
He decided not to seek a patent for the machine. Now, in and of itself, this is not terrifically uncommon in the history of invention. As a matter of fact Thomas Jefferson, the inventor of the standard American moldboard plow (tinkering with it from the 1780s to the 18-teens), did not seek a patent for his invention. By 1814 he came closer to the iconic and revolutionary plow by producing his in iron. The steel, self scouring plow would take another two decades to be introduced by John Deere. (Decades latter Abraham Lincoln would apply for and receive a patent for a boat/buoy lifting device, making him the only president to ever receive a patent.)
The reason that Hunt didn't pursue his sewing machine was based in deep morality--he chose not to patent the thing so that this new advancement in technology would not make seamstresses obsolete, pushing them out of work and costing them their jobs. Of course the machine was introduced a few years later by Singer and Howe, and then the rest is history--just about every invention is going to annoy somebody.
But the irony here is that even though Mr. Hunt chose the high road out of the sewing machine quagmire, saving the jobs of seamstresses for another few years, he didn't have any moral hesitations about his next invention--an improvement to a steel-cased cartridge for rifles. Evidently he was more comfortable with killing machines than he was with protecting the jobs of the working/suffering classes.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1086
This is an interesting,
almost (?)-revolutionary and curious woodcut depicting the flight of
di Loreto, and was printed in 1524. At the bass of it all the
print depicts the first of a series of moves of the house of the Virgin
of Jesus) to safe harbors, away from the Moslem/Turkish army that
invaded Nazareth in 1291. The myth states that
the structure was picked
up and moved by angels from
One of the most interesting aspects of
the print to my eye though is its attempt to display an oblique perspective of the
town of Loretto, the house being lowered by angels on the other side of the town's fortifications.
(In 1854 Pius
IX consecrated the house as a miracle in his Bull "Inter Omnia" of 26 August 1852, declaring
"Of all the shrines consecrated to the Mother of God, Immaculate Virgin,
one is in first place and Shines incomparable radiance: the venerable and most
August House of Loreto ... (...) In Loreto, in fact, it venerates the House of Nazareth, so dear to the Heart of God, and
that manufactured in the Galilee, was
later (moved) from foundations, and for the divine power, was
transported far beyond the seas, first
in Dalmatia and then to Italy. " And it was for this enormous feat of air travel that Pope
Benedict XV declared St. Mary the patron saint of aviators, on