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No. 261:
Old Scientific Illustrations

Today, Aesop's fables illustrate a new science. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Science began taking on its modern form in the 1600s. People began making the first systematic experiments. The idea that we should methodically dissect nature to expose a set of scientific laws was taking shape. But scientific paraphernalia was very skimpy 400 years ago. We had no armory of instruments -- no recognizable scientific laboratories. There were no set methods for doing business.

For example, no one had ever thought about scientific illustration. When Gilbert wrote his famous book on magnetism in 1600, he had to find his own way. When he told us we can align a red-hot bar in a north/south direction and then induce magnetism by forging it, he wanted a picture to go with his text.

So where did Gilbert go for a model of a blacksmith hammering metal? Not to a blacksmith's shop, nor to a copy of Agricola's book on mining, even though it illustrated many blacksmiths. Gilbert went instead to a popular book on Aesop's fables by Marcus Gheeraerts. He copied Gheeraerts's illustration for the fable of the blacksmith and his dog -- almost exactly. All he did was invert it, erase the dog, and update the smith's clothing.

It simply didn't occur to Gilbert that he should go after the most accurate source. Gheeraerts's book of fables was widely read. When people saw a picture of a blacksmith, they expected it to look like Gheeraerts's smith, so that's what Gilbert gave them. And for the next hundred years, so did every other scientific writer who needed to portray a smith.

That sort of thing grows even stranger when we read old books on zoology. A zoologist showing a picture of a chameleon is presenting data. It really ought to look like a chameleon. But chameleons were important symbols of duplicity in the 16th century. They were so powerful as symbols that Gheeraerts actually made up his own Aesop's fable about a chameleon, just so he could have one in his book. His chameleon clung to a branch with four prehensile claws. The reptile was asymmetric -- all four claws grasped the branch from the right-hand side. And for the next hundred years, every zoologist who drew a chameleon showed him on that same branch with the same crazy one-sided grip.

Of course a first order of business for the new science was clawing its way free of fable. It needed a new home -- one free of the rich and fanciful conventions in which it had been born. By 1700 science had taken on the detached austerity we expect from it today. It'd become a powerful instrument for seeking truth, but one that was, alas, no longer willing to speak in the light-hearted language of fables and fairy tales.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Ashworth, W.B., Jr., Marcus Gheeraerts and the Aesopic Connection in Seventeenth-Century Scientific Illustration. Art Journal, Vol. 44, No. 2, 1984.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 2226.