Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ingenious Pursuits

I remember I planned to keep track of the books I was reading this year. Boy, did that fall by the wayside. But while we're on spring break I decided to catch up on some of the "living science" books we have had around the house for a long time.

First of all, I read Ingenious Pursuits Building the Scientic Revolution by Lisa Jardine; this book is a lively historical chronicle of the beginnings of the Royal Society in the late 17th century and its energetic, often rivalrous out-workings. Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle, Samuel Pepys , Edmond Halley and many more come into the story, often jostling to be first to put their name to a new discovery or device.

It strikes me as one of those "lateral histories" casting light on the spirit and incidents of a particular age. Her thesis is given in the introduction:

The scientist, like the artist, is one of us. He or she pursues scientific research along directions set by the intersts and preoccupations of the community he or she belongs to. .... Advance in any field has always been preceeded by a sudden leap of the imagination, which is recognised for its brilliance by the participating group, and galvanises them in their turn into futher activity. Here is a kind of intellectual anthropology that can be further explored. Our Western intellectual heritage has been shaped by ingenuity, quick-wittedness, lateral thinking and inspired guesswork, but not haphazardly. In its detail it is guided and given its informing values by a common code of practice, which is simply an extension of the rules that govern our everyday life.

There are more quotes from the introduction here.
This anthropological epistemology provides the unity of the book, which skips around geographically and chronologically and does not go into depth about the science of the new discoveries and inventions. It works as a sort of mosaic of the exuberant scope and energy of a very interesting time period, which also encompassed the Great Fire of London and the sighting and identification of Halley's Comet.

I found this page with a couple of poems celebrating science or "philosophy" as it was called then; one by Cowley begins:

PHILOSOPHY the great and only Heir

Of all that Human Knowledge which has bin

Unforfeited by Mans rebellious Sin,

Though full of years He do appear,

(Philosophy, I say, and call it, He,

For whatsoe'er the Painters Fancy be,

It a Male-virtue seems to me)

Has still been kept in Nonage till of late,

Nor manag'd or enjoy'd his vast Estate:

and this one by James Thompson, is an elegy to Newton:

He, first of men, with awful wing pursu'd

The Comet thro' the long Eliptic curve,

Till, to the forehead of our evening sky

Return'd, the blazing wonder glares anew,

And o'er the trembling nations shakes dismay.

The heavens are all his own; from the wild rule

Of whirling Vortices, and circling Spheres,

To their first great simplicity restor'd.

You will notice I am not including the poetry as examples of great Art but as an exemplar of a kind of almost giddy awe at the possibilities of the new empirical science.


JoVE said...

I quite like that kind of approach sometimes. Gives us a better sense of why people might have done things the way they did.

As I used to tell my students, academic writing is always part of a debate even if the person you are debating with isn't named in the introduction or title. I think knowing more about the way that debate was conducted and the context in which it was conducted tells us more than we might think.

Willa said...

How interesting. I have noticed in myself that I'm always much more interested in studying a new subject if I become involved in the "conversation" part of it; if I know where it fits in the ongoing dialogue.