Philip Ball | Homunculus | 5th May 2014
More objects of desire
In the Guardian online, Stephen Curry has provided a thoughtful response to my brief blog in which I implied that modern scientific instruments are soulless grey boxes in comparison to the gorgeous devices that were enjoyed by the likes of Galileo and Robert Hooke. My comment was something of a gut response to perusing the wonderful website of the Museo Galileo in Florence, where just about every instrument on display is a ravishing creation. That made me realise, however, that even in the nineteenth century many scientific instruments were crafted with an artistry that far exceeds what is strictly necessary. I would happily have them on my mantelpiece. So what happened?
Stephen explains that this lack of obvious aesthetic appeal in much of today’s kit doesn’t preclude researchers like him from having a response to their equipment that can be “immediate and visceral”. He describes the tactile satisfaction that he has derived from working with machines that are engineered with grace and precision. It is a delightful account of how even apparently prosaic devices can elicit a feeling of connection, even affection, for those who use them. I’m very glad to have stimulated an account like this. Anyone who talks of “science as a craft” is a man after my own heart.
Yet I can’t help thinking that my question remains. Galileo’s instruments can be appreciated as objects of wonder and desire by anyone who sees them, not just by those accustomed to their use. Why, I think we must still ask, were they put together not just with care and precision but with an apparent wish to make them beautiful?
And, to turn the question around, why should we care if they were? Would there really be any gain in adorning today’s scientific instruments with wood panelling and mother-of-pearl inlay? What would be the point?
I’m glad Stephen’s article has forced me to think about these things more deeply than I did when I posted my cri de coeur. I should say that there are of course others who are far better placed than I am to provide answers, such as Jim Bennett at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford and Frank James at the Royal Institution. But these, such as they are, are my thoughts.
First, there is obviously a selection effect at work here of the kind that all historians and curators are familiar with. What tends to get preserved is not a representative cross-section of what is around at any time, but rather, what is deemed to be worth preserving. No doubt there was a host of unremarkable flasks and bottles and crucibles that were destroyed because no one thought them worth holding on to.
Second, there were of course no specialized scientific-instrument manufacturers in the early modern period. When investigators like Galileo and Boyle wanted something made that they could not make themselves, they would go to metalsmiths, carpenters, potters and the like, who inevitably would have brought their own craft aesthetic to the objects they made.
And when specialist manufacturers did begin to appear, such as the instrument-maker Richard Reeve in London, they were catering to a particular clientele that their products reflected. Reeve was making microscopes and so forth for the wealthy dilettantes like Samuel Pepys, who would have expected to be buying something elegant and refined, not coldly functional.
But this touches on the third and perhaps most salient point: what, and who, these instruments were for. Even for Galileo, the scientific experiment was still at least as much a demonstration as it was an exploration: it was a way of showing that your ideas were right. (It has been suggested, albeit somewhat inconclusively, that Galileo may have slightly arranged his figures to suit his ideas, since methods of timing for phenomena like free fall or rolling down a plane were not yet sufficiently accurate to really distinguish between candidate mathematical formulae for describing them.) And in the earliest of the early modern era, during the late Renaissance, scientific instruments were objects of power. They were used by the virtuosi to delight and entertain their noble patrons, and thereby to imply a command of the occult forces of nature. For such a display, it was important that a device be impressive to look at: elegance was the key attribute of the courtly natural philosopher.
And this is, in a sense, still the case: scientific instruments are not made simply to do a job, but employ a particular visual rhetoric with an agenda in mind. OK, homemade instrumentation does often tend to have an improvised Heath Robinson quality, and this is often the kind of instrument that I like best – as I argued here, it can thereby reflect the scientist’s own thought processes. But when an instrument is manufactured, even when it is mass-produced, there is another determinant of its appearance. It has – even the most anonymous of spectrometers – been designed, and that design is geared towards a particular end. For one thing, it becomes susceptible to fashion – we can all distinguish an instrument from the 1950s (chunky, retro-Space Age) from one made in the 1990s (sleek, minimalist). But more importantly, I would submit that, just as the instruments of the seventeenth century obeyed a rhetoric of virtuosic mastery of nature, today they must convey objectivity, the hallmark of modern science. That’s to say, modern instruments don’t just look bland and uninspiring because they are made without love (and they are certainly not make without skill) – they look that way because they are trying to reflect what is deemed to be the proper way to do science. It must be impersonal, free of frippery or excess. A blank casing, functional dials and knobs, sober colours, no decoration: to look otherwise would invite suspicions that it was a toy, not a means of doing good science.
So while I accept Stephen’s assertion that the utilitarian nature of modern scientific instruments doesn’t necessarily preclude their being given satisfying and even elegant designs, I think we need to recognize that there is an aesthetic shaping the way they look that says something about the character of modern scientific research – it has to maintain the correct deportment, which means looking suitably “sciency” and neutral. Does that make the slightest difference to the nature of research itself? It’s not obvious that it will, but I am struck by how my blog seemed to touch a nerve with various other folks, so perhaps some researchers do feel that their equipment is a little too functional to offer much inspiration.
In any case, this is now a good excuse for a little more scientific instrument porn. Oh how indecently I covet these things!