Posted tagged ‘scientific revolution’

John Locke, A Thermometer, A Bullet, And What Gets Lost When Feral Children Break Things

May 7, 2017

I’ve got a piece in today’s Boston Globe that takes a kind of odd look at why Trump’s dalliance with destroying NATO was so pernicious.

Basically, I look at what goes into making an alliance or any complex collaboration function.  Spoiler alert: it’s not the armchair strategist focus on troop numbers or budget levels.  It is, rather, the infrastructure, in its material and especially social forms that determine whether joint action can succeed.

To get there I leap from the story of something as basic as agreeing on one common cartridge to be used across the alliance to an anecdote from the early days of the scientific revolution, when John Locke (yup, that Locke) left his borrowed rooms in a house in Essex to check the readings from the little weather station he’d set up at the suggestion of Robert Hooke.

A sample:

While this first step toward the standardization of the tools of science was a milestone, it took the development of a common process — shared habits, ways of working — to truly transform the eager curiosity of the 17th and 18th centuries into a revolutionary new approach to knowledge, the one we now call science. In 1705, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society published an article by the philosopher John Locke. It was a modest work, just a weather diary: a series of daily observations of temperature, barometric pressure, precipitation, cloud cover. He was a careful observer, working with the best available instruments, a set built by Tompion himself. On Sunday, Dec. 13, 1691, for example, Locke left his rooms just before 9 a.m. The temperature was 3.4 on Tompion’s scale — a little chilly, but not a hard frost. Atmospheric pressure had dropped slightly compared to the day before, 30 inches of mercury compared to 30.04. There was a mild east wind, 1 on Locke’s improvised scale, enough to “just move the leaves.” The cloud cover was thick and unbroken — which is to say it was an entirely unsurprising December day in the east of England: dull, damp, and raw.

The reasoning does, I think, more or less come together — and you might enjoy reading such a convoluted bit of historical argument.

In any event, posting this here lets me thank Adam Silverman, who talked through some of the ideas with me and gave me other valuable help. Any errors you might find within the piece are all mine.

Image: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Nagamaya Yaichi Ducking Bullets1878.

Breaking News: Copernicus Unearthed

November 21, 2008

Forgive the headline; I could not resist.

Via the Nature group’s blog The Great Beyond comes notice that remains have been found of the man who can be seen as having fired the first shot of the scientific revolution (and to have put human beings in their place).  The blog reports:

A skull from Frombork cathedral in Poland has been identified as that of revolutionary astronomer Copernicus.

Marie Allen, of Uppsala University, says DNA from the skull is a match for DNA from hairs found in books owned by Copernicus, whose book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium started the movement to viewing the sun – rather than the Earth – as the centre of the solar system.

“The two strands of hair found in the book have the same genome sequence as the tooth from the skull and a bone from Frombork,” she says (AFP).

See this article from The Guardian for more details.

I love this story, not least for the connection of books to a kind of immortality:  we make and leave parts of ourselves in every book we read.

This is a big, big deal for anyone who likes to think about how the way we think now took form.  Tim F.of Balloon Juice sent notice of this story to me, and for him, it is the connection of Copernicus to Galileo that has the most resonance; Galileo’s defense of a sun – centered cosmos in the face of official Catholic rejection of Copernicus’s idea marks for many the birth of the modern sensibility, the assertion of the authority of experience over revelation.

I think that’s right — or at least, that seeing in and around Galileo one of the major steps towards the modern idea of science is certainly on target.  But Copernicus himself holds my attention here.  It is almost impossible to state how significant his combination of insight and rigor was in creating a Copernican “party” amongst the learned of Europe.

It was that impact that gave both license and direction to the ongoing and expanding European inquiry into nature, an effort that over the next 150 years became a scientific transformation so total that there was not going back.

There is one best place to trace how that which I am misleadingly calling a party took form. It comes courtesy of the near-legendary Harvard historian of science Owen Gingrich, who has carried on a decades long love affair with Copernicus and his book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres).

I owe Owen thanks for help he gave me early in the process of writing my Newton book– and for a happy afternoon in his unbelievably book-crammed office, looking over facsimile editions of Copernicus to puzzle out the meaning of a diagram or two. (That is– he was puzzling them out and I was holding his coat.)

But I owe him a greater debt of gratitude for his The Book Nobody Read, his tale, part memoir, part brilliant intellectual history, of tracking down every extant example of the first and second editions of De revolutionibus… and analyzing who wrote what marginal notes in each copy.  In doing so, he reconstructs the path Copernicus’s ideas took through the learned of Europe.  It’s a great read, a great glimpse of what it means to have a revolution in ideas at the level of individual thinking, feeling human beings exhilarated by a new thought.

(My own encounter with Owen’s book led me to grab the opportunity that came when I visited the Newton scholar Scott Mandelbrote at Peterhouse College, Cambridge.  Scott is or was at the time the man in charge of Peterhouse’s library, which owns a first edition of De revolutionibus. At lunch the day we met the topic of Copernicus came up, so he incredibly kindly took me into the library and pulled that treasure off the shelf for me to pick up and turn the pages.

It may be an odd passion, but I can’t describe how thrilling it was to pick up an almost five hundred year old book — such a little thing — that set off so many fireworks.  It is, by the way, a beautiful book just from the point of view of the printer’s art.  In particular, the woodcut drawings are truly elegant:  they possess a sharp, precise line that still has the quality of an individual craftsman’s gesture; there are sweeps to the curves, and slight deepening or widening of the stroke that gives emphasis to the diagrams.  They literally don’t make ’em like that anymore.)

Images:  Teothor de Bry, copperplate portrait of Nicholas Copernicus, 1598.

Nicholas Copernicus, diagram of the heliocentric system from De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, 1543.