Friday, 17 July 2009

Poincaré's Magic Binoculars

So here I am, struggling with how to build this into a ‘project’. One that has ‘wow factor’. One that can make a case for ‘new knowledge’. Something to pull in some funding from a research council or arts funder, yet something that sounds suitably well grounded in theoretical notions, with aims and objectives, all lined up and ready to go, bish bash bosh and there’s your answer – a true and justified belief and a contribution to new knowledge. Also something big and flashy that will impress a gallery curator and bag me a show somewhere groovy where we’ll get canapés at the opening.

But I’m still rummaging in the Curator’s room. I simply can’t get past the moment of opening a box, or a drawer, and there’s a quick gasp of delight and surprise and because you’ve discovered something wonderful and the first response is a clean and simple joy, the delight of discovery. Curiosity and wonder. What is it? How old is it? How did it grow? How did it evolve? Who collected it? When? Where? Did they sweat through a jungle and slap a net over it? Did they sound the depths of a tropical sea for it? Did they trade for it with local people? What does that unpronounceable name mean? What careful hand wrote that label 90 years ago? What knowledge is here embodied, what are the stories around this object? Object is too dead a word for these specimens. They might be pickled or stuffed or bagged or dusty or faded or yellowed and long, long dead, but they are wriggling with meanings. Encrusted with them. And marvellous.

The other day, when we were looking for a slide that Mark wanted to talk about for some recording I was doing, he pulled open a random drawer in a slide cabinet and as it slid out we both gasped quietly, with a slow, wondering intake of breath from us both, wide-eyed, delighted. Inside the shallow drawer lay a series of slide preparations of feathers. The slides lay on the purply-blue velvet lining, each with the finest wisp of feather clasped between two thin leaves of glass. Labels written in a meticulously tiny cursive script read ‘breast of mallard’, rhea’, ‘emu feather’, others, ‘gizzard of canary’, or ‘gizzard of budgerigar’. All we could say was ‘amazing’. Several times. 'Amazing'. Each slide a carefully labelled and mounted preparation, many with the names of the collector. Each feather as distinctive as handwriting, vanishingly delicate, yet held like a breath, for a hundred years, in a shallow drawer, in a cabinet, in a cupboard, in a store room, in a museum, in a university. And once in a decade or so, someone comes along opens the store, opens that particular cupboard, opens that particular cabinet, opens that particular drawer, gasps with delight, perhaps lifts and turns a slide, holding it up to the light, smiling, and carefully closes it again, and is the richer for it.

Is that not enough?

Every time I go in there it’s the same intake of breath. Another box, or jar, or back-of-a-shelf-hidden-away treasure.

Are these specimens only to be valued in light of their possible usefulness? Many of these samples may indeed contain information only now becoming available as technologies develop ever more subtle ways to unpick DNA. But I am reminded of those 18th century experiments when Natural Philosphers would, in the drawing rooms of Enlightenment gentlemen, grow clouds along their sleeves, create miniature earthquakes and water spouts, send lightning down tubes or create miniature snowstorms. (Dalston and Park, 1998) The sort of contraptions that Joseph Priestley would call ‘a very fine experiment’ while passing the brandy round to rouse the swooning ladies. But it didn’t ‘progress knowledge’. (Rueger, 2002) That wasn’t the point. The point was wonder and delight, which feeds curiosity and gives it the energy to go off questing for knowledge.

Delight is the soil that questions grow in. Little seedlings of wondering that, given the right conditions, will grow into fully formed questions. And as Einstein said, it’s all in the question. Once that has taken shape the business of answering it is more pedestrian (Root-Bernstein, 2002). Because answering it takes discipline, and persistence, and doing stuff you really perhaps can’t quite be bothered to do, and sticking with it when the delight has somewhat faded.

And in any case it’s important to remember that perhaps, like in the famous Two Ronnies sketch, the answer that comes might not be to the question before last, or even one nobody has yet thought to ask. CTR Wilson confessed that he built the first cloud chamber just because, like in the ‘experiments’ of 18th century natural philosophers, he wanted to have a go at recreating the ghostly effects of sunlight on mists; the ‘glories’, ‘coronas’ and ‘sun dogs’ that he had seen while walking the hills in Scotland. He had no idea his invention would be used to investigate the behaviour of subatomic particles. (Rayleigh, 1942:99)

According to Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock, “you work with so-called scientific methods to put it into their frame after you know” (Root-Bernstein, 2002). Agnes Arber recognised this thought process not as a linear progression but as a reticulated network of associations, analogies and resonances, which were translated into words and equations only with a struggle, after the original, nonverbal and empathic insight. “The experience of one’s own thinking suggests that it moves, actually, in a reticulum (possibly of several dimensions) rather than along a single line…A reticulum.… cannot be symbolized adequately in a linear succession of words” (Arber, 1964, pp. 45–46).

And here’s Poincaré also telling me it’s OK to blunder on, following my nose. ‘It is by logic that we prove, but by in tuition that we discover…logic teaches us that on such and such a road we are sure of not meeting an obstacle; it does not tell us which is the road that leads to the desired end. For this it is necessary to see the end from afar, and the faculty that teaches us to see is intuition’ Poincaré, 1946:438)

And so I carefully pull open another drawer and hope that intuition will give me Poincaré’s amazing magic binoculars of insight, so I can see from afar where I might be headed.


Arber, A. (1964) The Mind and the Eye, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Dalston and Park (1998) ‘Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750, MIT Press

Rayleigh, Lord (1942) The Life of Sir J.J. Thomson, O.M. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Rueger, A. ‘Aesthetic appreciation of experiments: the case of 18th century mimetic experiments’ International Studies in the philosophy of Science Vol 16, No 1. 2002

Root-Bernstein, R. S. ‘Aesthetic Cognition’ International Studies in the Philosophy of Science Vol 16, no 1, 2002

Poincare, H. (1946) The Foundations of Science, trans. G. Halsted (Lancaster, PA, Science Press).

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

DNA sequencer and labs

The labs and the hi tech equipment are a world away from the formalin-scented dusty shelves and cupboards of the Curator's room.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Drawing today

Today I did this drawing. I'm not sure what it is. It just grew there on the paper.

Baroque Starfish

Friday, 3 July 2009