😀 😀 😀 😀
This quote, taken from the preface, is a good summary of Lipking’s argument in this interesting and original look at the period known as the Scientific Revolution – running roughly between the publications of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory (1543) and Newton’s Principia (1687). He sets out to show that the discoveries that were made in this period were interpreted through the prism of the existing ‘imagined world’ while at the same time, and on into the future, contributing to its gradual change – a process he suggests is continuing to the present day. To make his case, he expands beyond science to look at literature and philosphy, showing the interconnection of all three in interpreting and re-interpreting the new discoveries.
Some of this is fairly well covered ground, especially the beginnings of the religion v. science debate – the resistance of the Church to anything that impinged on existing doctrine, the attempts of many scientists to fit their discoveries into the contemporaneous religious view of creation, and the failure of some to do so, leading to accusations of heresy.
But what is much less familiar, to me at least, is Lipking’s argument that artistic creativity had as great an impact as rational thought in driving and making sense of the new revelations in all the major fields of science. To argue his case, Lipking spends as much time analysing the work of poets, writers and philosophers as he does looking at the achievements of the scientists. Starting with Milton, he shows how poetry and philosophy dealt with the passing of old myths in favour of the new science – sometimes with regret and nostalgia, but also helping to formulate a newly ‘imagined world’ to take account of the discoveries. He takes extracts from Shakespeare, Donne, and Wordsworth, amongst others, and convincingly shows how symbolism in poetry changed over time, as poets took account of the realism that science had introduced into views of the natural world. This is done in depth, usually using well-known passages, and I found it made me see them afresh with much more awareness of their historical context. And he also shows how philosophers such as Descartes and Bacon contributed to the creation and interpretation of the ‘imagined world’ in which both science and art operated.
Milton was well informed: he had met Galileo and seems to have looked through telescopes and read some recent astronomy books. Apparently the angel Raphael had also read them. He answers Adam’s questions about the universe, in book 8 of ‘Paradise Lost’, with a brief version of Galileo’s ‘Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems’, comparing Ptolemaic or geocentric explanations with Copernican heliocentrism. But unlike Galileo he does not take sides, and in the end discourages Adam from choosing…
But Lipking also argues that art was essential to the progress of science, partly as I’ve already mentioned by imagining the world anew, but also because scientists themselves were obliged to be able to draw and write in order to disseminate their findings. He also highlights the distinction between the ability to see and the ability to perceive, suggesting that the latter was as important in science as in art. For example, he points out that some people couldn’t see what Galileo saw when he looked into the sky, even using the same equipment, suggesting that part of the reason for this is that our perceptions are governed by our expectations. Galileo and the other scientists were open to the possibility that existing perceptions were wrong, so were able to ‘see’ past them. But he also shows that, having made their discovery and built a new ‘imagined world’ around them, many of the scientists then took just as entrenched defensive positions as the ones they had helped overturn.
As a final strand, Lipking looks throughout at how the Scientific Revolution itself has been perceived over time, showing that its story has also been re-imagined by succeeding generations. He draws attention to the fact that many of the scientists who are today revered as the forerunners of rational thought held some views that would now seem to us to be superstition: for example, Newton’s obsession with alchemy. And he also discusses some of the great discoveries of the period which have subsequently been disproven or, more often, proven to have been misinterpreted. Overall, the book gives a good reminder that the scientific certainties of each generation might only last until new information becomes available – or until a new world is imagined around them. The thrust is forward, but not always in a straight line.
This is a complex book which I feel requires the reader to have at least a basic understanding of the major scientific advances of the period – that is, to understand them in general, rather than in scientific, terms – since Lipking seems to make the not unreasonable assumption that interested readers will have an existing level of familiarity with them. Some knowledge of the poetry, plays and philosophers of the period would be helpful too, though I felt Lipking explained and illustrated these aspects more fully as he went along. Personally, I found I was struggling from time to time through lack of background knowledge, especially on the questions of philosophy – hence the loss of 1 star for me, though I suspect it would be a five-star read for someone coming to it better informed. But for the most part I found the book both fascinating and thought-provoking, full of ideas that are still very relevant when looking at how scientific advances are treated today.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Cornell University Press.