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.