JF Ptak Science Books Post 1369
Printed images are interesting in that they exist at all, at least in pre-modern (ca.1900) times. When you think of the total amount of time that humans have been thinking--like the possibilities of all total ideas for all people for the past, say, 10,000 years—and think about the 10x10^9 neurons firing for everyone all the time, and the numbers of books and pamphlets and journals and such printed before 1900, the access to the archive of the human condition looks a little paltry compared incomprehensible amount of good thinking that has gotten away. (Humans haven't helped themselves all that much in this regard, given the deep, long, wide history of the planned destruction of libraries throughout time.)
There are more stars than books. Lots more—10^22 stars versus 1.3x10^8 books (or the stuff that an odd Google study classified as “books” for their scanning and advertising appetites). There's also bacteria and other microorganisms alive in/on the human flora than books (and blood cells too for that matter). Until the 18th century (and really into the 19th) the practical means of producing a book were set to restrictive, upper-class access. For most of human history the ability to even record a thought on transportable material was a deep issue; getting it reproduced somehow was extraordinarily difficult, especially if you belong to the not-yet-existent working class. Even if we just consider works that are 1455-1800 era the illustration was not a common thing, which is odd to me since it seems the image could show in less space what was being described in the text (and for argument's sake here we'll just say that production facility for the illustration and a page of text were equal). I have a funny feeling that if you weighed all of the pages of text against all pages of illustration in all books published from1455-1800, illustration would be enormously, fabulously outweighed.
Which is why in my mind “pictures” are so interesting—they are rare, and so that when they were published they were deeply considered objects.
All this changes though in the nineteenth century when production facilities increase, costs go down, the finished product is available more cheaply to a growing class of people who work for a living and have a disposable income. Newspapers and magazines begin for real in this century, paper costs go down, ability to print at high speeds goes up, and suddenly there exists an addition to the concept of “disposables” —information commodities. For the first time a mass of material is produced to be replaced in the next day or week, disposable reading material. There are more images reproduced and distributed in this century than in the entire history of man on earth. Of course all of this look like nothing, today, now that almost everyone in the U.S. (at least) can be their own publisher/producer of original or found work, which means of course that people in 2086 will look back oat our abilities as we do on the 19th century. And so it goes.
This is why I like pictures—they're comparatively rare, and the tell as much of a story as you will allow. I enjoy scientific and technical images as much as anything, for their dreamy amount of detail and revolving possibilities of 3-D display and such; maps too, for pretty much the same reasons (and that one usually doesn't memorize them, at least not the detailed ones). Of particular interest on this blog has been maps-with-a-purpose, particularly cartographic propaganda, like this 1937 Nazi-published map showing the "danger" posed by the Czechoslovakian air force to Germany. It is a graphic representation of the Big Lie, an element of design intended to transmit an idea to a reader who really doesn't need to do so, being able to get the idea of the the data being presented in the map in one quick visual.
The scientific images demand that you see the difference with what came before to truly appreciate them—one of my favorite examples of this is Robert Hooke's engraving of a magnified flea. The microscope was brand new, and this image, which appeared in Hooke's magisterial,epochal work Micrographia1, presented as much of a new world to people in 1665 as Galileo's reporting in Siderus on the massive number of new stars that he had seen with the telescope he used to look up rather than just across. People would have had no idea that such a magnificently detailed creature such as this flea existed, as they simply couldn't see it. Same too for the stars, which (with the exception of Brahe's Nova and such) had been seen to be “perfect”, an harmonious fixed number, though a relatively simple innovation using materials that had been around for centuries brought a new world to bear. (One is tempted to say that in his new, massive book that Hooke included "only" 38 images; but one has to remember that Hooke did all of the drawings by himself, and actually rushed the book into print as he sensed a market for it which combined nicely for his need for money..Hooke was correct about the market for the book.)
The purpose of some scientific images are difficult to identify when faced with them for the first time and out of context, but once rectified they can be beautiful renderings of complex relationships, like Ernst Chladni's patterns of vibration revealed to us via sand on metal plates (in his Discovery of the Theory of Pitch, 1787), and the Weber brothers' exacting drawings of wave forms (from 1825) (and shown below, respectively).
Rene Descartes depicted the interpretation (in his Principles of Philosophy of 1644) of light and its physiological reaction in the brain in this iconic image, as follows:
the lines of sight depicting binocular vision, observed (and compressed) by the eye's "particles" and processed by the pineal gland which in turn manipulate the "fluids" in the control of nerves and muscles.
Agricola's De Re Metallica (from the first Latin edition f 1556) displays many interesting cross sections of Renaissance mines:
There is so much more, and it may be possible that there were millions of pages of illustrations during our time period. Harvey's demonstration of the flow of blood in the human body pictured by fingers and a forearm (in his On the Motion of the Heart and Blood, 1628), Descartes' analysis of how the human eye "sees" (An Analysis of the Eye, 1637), Agricola's cross sections showing how to construct mines (1556), Scheiner's illustration of the apparatus he built to observe sunspots (1611), Borelli's study of the mechanics of the human body (1680), Rosalind Franklin's x-ray photograph of DNA (used by Watson and Crick to depict the structure of DNA), Thomas Young's illustration of light-wave interference (1803)
Then there are the pictures of the interior of the Fizeau apparatus as it captured the velocity of light so:
Classifying images, like this of Porphyry's (logic) Tree and Raymond Lull's diagrams of life and decision, are in constant appearance for centuries, excellent ways to provide method and organization to large quantities of information and for problem solving. While not exactly a generator in the sense of Jorge Borges' Library of Babel or Jonathan Swift's take on Lull's writing machine, the antiquarians did produce very interesting, elegant, beautiful ways of story information and ordering information. The Tree of Porphyry is far more concise–an abbreviation--compared to the infinitely expanding hexagonal rooms filed with books and attendant librarians in Borges' universe. The Ars Magna/Thinking Machine of the 13th century Lull (also known as Ramon, Raimundo and Raymond, Raimundus and Raymundus Lull, Lully and Lullus and Lulio), was the ultimate organizer of how sentences can be made and knowledge produced/uncovered (particularly if you want to please the logic of the church and the Creator), and which was also written about, described and worried-over by Borges. There are many other early figures in this category to be sure (Lewis Carroll, William Jevons, and even in a way Mr. Venn, not to mention Leibniz and his calculator, and all of the changes in scientific method and (English/Dutch) mathematical concentration on applied mathematics of the 17th century that made thinking about the industrial revolution possible.
Images of ebb and tide, of cause and effect, of bones inscribed in clouds and solids manufactured of gas, of the steps of discovery, of the integral drawing of the integral pieces, of cross sections detailed enough so that you too could build your own locomotive, or guide yourself through a paper transverse dissection of the human brain--this is the great essence of images. It is interesting to look at these things forensically, to identify all of their components and articulate the symbolism, to look at the image cautiously, judiciously--sometimes this just results in insights into the artist who may have been tired and was working through just another piece of drudgery and tried to make their work a little more entertaining. This doesn't add much to the understanding of the event, but it does give the scene a fullness, like, for example in this image of the killing of Archimedes from Histoire Universelle published by the ubiquitous Peter van der Aa in Amsterdam at the turn of the 18th century--it falls in line with many of its comrades of this event in that it depicts the tragedy in the second before it occurred. One thing it has that other scenes do not--a barking dog. Maybe it belonged to Archimedes, maybe not. But there was a dog depicted here, and it was barking at the scene, probably barking at the man about to stab the mathematician, which means it would've been the mathematician's dog. But Archimedes certainly didn't hear the dog if he couldn't be interrupted by the battle outside his door or the Roman who yelled at him to turn.
This blog is written and illustrated around the very loose idea of "the history of ideas", and is quite image-driven--there are probably about 5,000 pictures reproduced here now, a wide selection of illustrated thinking in the sciences and many other fields. This includes one classifications of an image series that really don't exist—I mean they were images intended for one purpose but for the passage of time (and sometimes removing them from context) they become something completely different, entirely new, providing unintentional insights into their artists and times. I find exploring in images this way to be fascinating, noticing the semi-hidden and/or unnecessary, extravagant, extra-necessary bits that were intentionally placed by the artist, as in this example of Archimedes' dog, or with the characters that are sometimes found as "filler" and which are basically wholly unrelated to the intention of the illustration. For example in this application of the imaginary forensic arts microscope, we see this series of pictures of a standard view of the town hall of Antwerp; but what we see advancing under magnification is a very interesting set of occupations displayed in absolutely minute detail.
First, the majority of the engraved image, followed by a close-up of the center of the building (the three doorways), and then by a closer view still of doorway three:
The truly interesting bit here is barely observable in the original; but, under magnification, we see a very rich and minuscule "engraved photograph" of a slice of daily commerce and street life in Antwerp. If you look at the central entrance to the town hall you can see three main (and large) doorways, and if you look closer still, you'll see something leaning against the portal at right.
Extraordinarily, what the artist snuck into the original is a tiny (2mm) figure watching over several tables of her (fruits?/vegetables?) ware, waiting for a customer. There doesn't seem to be much interest in her stuff, currently, and she has allowed herself a little relaxation, leaning against the doorway. I've found this sort of extremely minor subject matter and its ephemeral connection to the larger work at hand to be just fascinating. I wonder why such detail would be added--why would the artist, or engraver, take such care and interest in such minor visions. Perhaps this is just what was at hand on the days the artist fleshed out his work; perhaps it was the work of the engraver, alone, incising yet another semi-boring architectural image; desperate for a little artistic activity, adding some interesting, almost-invisible touches, here and there. Perhaps no one would ever really notice them, but whoever was responsible for adding such incredible, extra-dimensional details would certainly enjoy knowing they were there, recognized or not.
Another good example is found in Guiseppe Zocchi, Veduta della Piazza della SS Nunziata Statua Equeftre di Ferdinando Primo, Fonti, e Loggie Lateral, shows more good work with the possibilities of ephemeral populations, where among the many details we see an invalid being pulled in a small cart, and a half-obscured man with a staff leaning against the back of the monument. And of course there's much more--you just need a little magnification to see the human element of the artwork.
At the end of the day one of the most enjoyable of all image classifications for me are the classifications of image series that really don't exist—I mean they were images intended for one purpose but for the passage of time (and sometimes removing them from context) they become something completely different, entirely new, providing unintentional insights into their artists and times. They are also on the outer-edge of being pre-Outsdider Outsider art. One of my favorite examples in this genre is this 1941 pamphlet which isn’t so much “interesting” as it is interestingly illustrated, where all of the semi-coherent interest resides, the text having left coherence far behind, somewhere, in it own intergalactic dust. WHen IO first encountered it this was the only instance that I had ever seen of New York City floating in space with the Earth floating
happily in the background--now I've collected at least three other extra-New-York-City's-in-space in the last few years. This is also a nice example of extra-NYCs, where there are several other instances, balancing out the larger collection of the opposing missing-NYCs, like this 1902 example showing the city sunken and out-of-sight, disappeared under its own weight:
There's also the sub- or supra-category of extra-Earths department, where I have at least five other examples, including this remarkable effort by Victor Segno of Los Angeles, who in 1929 published this fantastic image depinting extra-human empty alien souls being dropped on the earth to repopulate the place after it had been cleared out by "brain waves".
And so I guess that would be the perfect place to exit this short appreciation of pictures.
1. As Hooke states at the end of the 28-page introduction to the work: …"it is my hope, as well as belief, that these my Labours will be no more comparable to the Productions of many other Natural Philosophers, who are now every where busie about greater things; then my little Objects are to be compar'd to the greater and more beautiful Works of Nature, A Flea, a Mite, a Gnat, to an Horse, an Elephant, or a Lyon.”.