|"Preparatio Animalium" from |
Treasure of the World by Antonio Neri (1598-1600)
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.