Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Let’s Dance

"Preparatio Animalium" from
Treasure of the World by Antonio Neri (1598-1600)
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Italian Renaissance began to bear fruit of a curious nature. Principles of the natural world, which had been assumed without question for hundreds or even thousands of years, began to fall under scrutiny. Groups of experimenters sprang up in the form of "academies" that were dedicated to no other proposition than the careful observation and understanding of the physical world. 

Perhaps the most famous example of this new empiricism is the legendary (and probably apocryphal) dropping of two masses by Galileo from the leaning tower of Pisa. While the demonstration may have never actually taken place, the principle that Galileo had discovered was very real; that all things being equal besides weight, a bean and a lead sinker dropped together will fall at exactly the same rate, and land simultaneously. Counter to intuition, yet undeniably the way of the world. Galileo may have picked up his experimentalist streak from his own father, Vincenzo, a musician who through trial and error investigation determined that the prescription laid down by Pythagoras for musical chords and tuning left something to be desired in the real world. 

In the so-called era of enlightenment that followed in Europe, experimentalism was tagged as a philosophical position; that 'truth' is only discovered through verified demonstration. The Royal Society, London's premier association of scientific learning, adopted the motto "nullius in verba" which roughly translates to 'take nobody's word for it' or more bluntly 'seeing is believing.' But long before experimentalism became a philosophy, experiment or "experience" as it was often called was a practical tool for getting results. 

In his book on glassmaking, L'Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri assures us that his recipes are the result of actual practice, "not as I was told, or persuaded by any person whatsoever, but as I actually did, and experienced many times with my own hands." Like exceptional poetry, Neri's recipes are rooted in ground truth and aim to reveal his subject, as he tells us, "with the greatest clarity I am capable of." In combining ingredients, setting the stage and letting Nature take her course, raw materials almost miraculously transform into glass. Just as poetry reveals, "more than ordinary speech can communicate" (T. S. Elliot) so too Neri's technical recipes reveal his deep grasp of what lens-grinder and philosopher Baruch Spinoza called nature's immutable order.  

I would like to advance the case that before experiment became the gospel of scientific inquiry, it was a practical method that was and still is engaging on a very human level. Because most of us do not have experience in making glass, I will switch to a more familiar venue, the kitchen. Seriously. An undeniable part of the joy of cooking is that when we gain experience in a particular recipe, we come to learn the effect of various ingredients and interactions. A little more salt or a lower temperature will have one set of consequences, more of these and a different result. There are no guarantees, but slowly, over the course of many trials, we start to see the effect of our interactions. By engaging with Nature, we are joining a sort of dance, letting her lead, learning her steps. Whether it is perfecting a dish in the kitchen or making glass in a furnace or doing atomic physics, there is a powerful appeal to learning Nature's dance, one that gets to the very heart of what it means to be human. 


  1. I just lost my comment [now twice but I learned to copy it] - I used to be able to leave comments using any google account and wanted to leave my name this time, but found out that to do so I would have to create a blogger profile which I would rather not at this time; the comment disappeared when I tried to go back. I will do my best to rewrite the comment - if the muse allows!
    Hadot in The Veil of Isis compares a "being with" nature (in the words of Claudel) to a Promethean forceful extraction from nature for desired ends. He writes that for Francis Bacon, experimentum is "opposed to abstract and purely rational knowledge. It was instead an immediate knowledge or lived experience that might be either sensible or spiritual. By means of experimentum, we may become 'experts,' skilled at uncovering and using the secrets of nature". Bacon, Hadot writes, used the "vocabulary of violence" - which makes him Promethean (pps. 119-20). Yet this has a precedent in Genesis, Hadot writes, wherein "God ordered human beings to dominate the earth". These themes could be connected to some of what you have written here, so I wanted to share these notes, for whatever they are worth. They certainly imply the challenge in piecing together the frame of thought of those who have come before us - not entirely impossible, though; I am now curious about what Neri's "vocabulary" says - does it speak more to the vocabulary of the time or does it reveal his thoughts? I have not yet read all of your earlier posts, so please excuse me if this has already been addressed.

  2. Ane,

    Thanks for your comments- sorry for the vagaries of Google blogs. The comments are moderated here, which for most simply means waiting until I have a chance to review them for spam/trolling. You are more than welcome to comment anonymously if you wish.
    -Paul Engle