While not strictly related to science, this link takes you to a fantastic photo essay on the construction of the last of the great nineteenth-century steamships, The Great Eastern. It’s designer was a diminutive man of titanic vision and energy named Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I think we can all agree that his name belongs in the pantheon of great names. I love looking at these photos because they capture something essential about the period – it’s love of grandiosity. If we find ourselves in a historical moment obsessed with the minuscule (e.g. neutrinos, quarks, etc.), then the Victorian era was equally marked by their love of the impossibly large. Just look at these pictures and tell me that you wouldn’t have loved to stroll along the docks while this behemoth was under construction. One additional note: The Great Eastern was also the ship that laid the first Atlantic cable, essentially binding the Old and New worlds and allowing something resembling modern telecommunications to arise. We often forget that the first Atlantic telegraph cable represented something like time travel to the Victorians.
I’ve been a big fan of Dan Hillier’s work for a long time now. When I’m old and crusty and rich, several of these etchings will grace the walls of my study.
For those of you interested in such things, this is a link to Georges Méliès’ 1902 classic, Le Voyage dans la Lune. Clearly influenced by writers such as Verne, this film is considered by some to be the world’s first science fiction movie. My favourite part is where the lunar explorers destroy the cellonites (moon inhabitants) with their umbrellas. As my friend Ryan reminded me some time ago, The Smashing Pumpkins paid homage to this film with the video for “Tonight, Tonight.” The image of the moon with the rocket sticking out of its eye is one of the most iconic sci-fi images of all time and I love it to death. It’s all just so creepy, wonderful and French.
One of my dissertation’s areas of interest is the relationship between aesthetics and science. For the last decade or so, there has been an annual contest called The Art of Science. Below is a link to this year’s winning images, in case you’ve never seen them before. I don’t think this year’s winners are as strong as some previous years, but it’s still a wonderful example that illustrates the convergence between science and aesthetics. The erroneous belief in the incompatibility of art and science is a theme that will recur on this blog, and, as time goes by, I will provide many more instances of how art and science are more dynamically intertwined than is commonly assumed.
This year’s winning image (from the Princeton site): “A picture of a Hall-effect thruster (plasma accelerator) plume. The Hall thruster, is an electric propulsion technology that uses magnetic and electric fields to ionize and accelerate propellant. In this image the plasma accelerator is operating on xenon propellant.”
I find these eminently preferable to the real ones.
One of these Travis Louie works would look absolutely glorious above my bookcase.
This somber looking fellow is William Herschel (1738-1822). The erstwhile discoverer of Uranus (the first planet discovered since Ptolemy) and the individual more responsible than any other for our modern conception of the universe, Herschel revised the notion of a static, architecturally eternal universe and replaced it with a three-dimensional, deep-space version that had more in common with organic models of growth and decay. To put it mildly, he blew people’s minds with alarming regularity. He also was one of the last great amateur scientists, transitioning from a career as a musician to that of an astronomer. His telescope designs revolutionized the practice of astronomy and we are all more indebted to his creative reinterpretation of the universe than we can possibly imagine. Oh, and he also submitted scientific papers to the Royal Society arguing the case for life on the moon. So there’s that, too.
I was going to write a post about photography being a paradigmatic instance of nineteenth-century technology and how it dramatically altered ideas about aesthetics, history, and objectivity in science. Instead, just go look at this site. It’s weird and you’ll love it. Promise.
“In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.” — Jorge Luis Borges