Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Lens of History

One of the things that we sometimes overlook when we tell the stories of the way the world we know came to be is how much of it happened at the same time. We look at this development or that discovery in isolation and often don't consider the other things that may have been going on at the time, perhaps even in almost the same place.

Laura Snyder's 2015 Eye of the Beholder bridges one of those gaps by observing the way that different people in the Netherlands in the 17th century began using lenses for their different work. For painters, such as the famous Johannes Vermeer, lenses were part of devices that allowed them to develop better means of showing perspective in their work. For naturalists, such as Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, they created a way of observing the world at a level never before possible.

The first used a "camera obscura" and the second a microscope. The camera obscura involves projecting an image onto a surface by using light and lenses. The same basic theory operates in movie theaters still today, even if the light sources are far more complex. Van Leeuwenhoek's microscope placed an item behind a single lens and moved it until its magnified image appeared clearly in that lens. Modern optical microscopes use compound lenses and a different light source, and van Leeuwenhoek did not invent the device. He was one of the first to use it so widely in natural observations, though.

And as Laura Snyder points out, both of these things happened at more or less the same time just a few city blocks from each other in the city of Delft in the Netherlands. Eye discusses the way people began to develop lenses that altered what they saw -- bringing the distant close, as Galileo and others did. It then works through how lenses aided painters as the technology of the camera obscura improved, and in parallel chapters describes how van Leeuwenhoek improved on a microscope design that let him and others see the very small in detail not before possible. Dr. Snyder ties this together with some meditations on how changes like these affected the way that people thought of "seeing," closing her book with some reflections on the philosophy of sight and how it continues to both change today and still depend on developments that Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek represent.

Unfortunately, Eye does all of this in messy fashion that clearly calls for better editing and a tightened vision of just what it wants to do. The discussion of which painters did and didn't or might and might not have used a camera obscura meanders far too much. So does speculation on how the different figures of the story interacted, and Dr. Snyder's exploration of some paintings by Vermeer and others isn't served by their absence from the pictorial section of the book. She obviously did significant research (the endnotes section is almost a fifth of the book) but seems to have hurried in weaving that research into a directed narrative. A couple of long and uncharacteristically thoughtful Amazon reviews highlight some more technical problems with the way she discusses both Vermeer and his work, even though some of those things would not be apparent to the casual reader.

Over the past 20 years or so, relatively brief and popular books have explored how some aspects of our modern world, now taken for granted, came into being only after some long and difficult work. They often provide a little food for philosophical thought, speculating on how these developments changed the way people saw their world almost as much as they changed how things were done. Many of these are excellent work; Dava Sobel's 1995 Longitude is an example. Dr. Snyder may have aimed for such with Eye of the Beholder, but her scattered narrative and sometimes overly chatty style significantly weaken her effort.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


So a young man in Pennsylvania was in a serious car accident just before his high school graduation. He was placed in a medically induced coma in order to reduce the chance of damage to his brain from his head injuries. He came out of the coma fine and is on the mend, but as his mom said, one of the first things he pointed out when he woke up and learned the date was that he had missed graduation.

So his principal and family got together and organized a commencement for him. And they managed to get about half his graduating class to put their robes and hats back on, march in to "Pomp and Circumstance" and applaud when they read the young man's name. And then they filed out; they had done all of this for him to be able to walk the stage when his name was called, receive his diploma and join them for the cap-tossing.

Some days I like the world.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Emily Litella, Bible Scholar

Litella was a character played by the late Gilda Radner, who would comment on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" sketch and then go off on some sort of rant about something she thought was wrong, like "violence on television." It always turned out she'd heard wrong, and the item which had aroused her ire was innocuous, like "violins on television." When anchor Jane Curtin would tell her of her mistake, Radner would smile and and say, "Oh. Never mind."

Back in 2012, Harvard professor Karen King announced what was identified as a scrap of papyrus on it with material supposed to be from an early branch of the Christian church. The Coptic Christian Church, which still exists today in Egypt, had some ideas about Christian teaching that were a little out of the mainstream, so when this scrap suggested that Jesus had been married, news outlets could not resist and fell all over themselves promoting "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife."

Although Dr. King cautioned against speculation, the fact that she had announced the papyrus before it was completely tested to see how old it was made the caution a little more moot than she might have liked. Dr. King's paper was put on hold by Harvard's theological journal.

So now, it seems that the scrap is certainly a forgery. Reporter Ariel Sabar has a long piece in this month's Atlantic magazine outlining the case against it. Dr. King, after reading the piece, commented that it tipped her towards believing it was a forgery. Kudos to her for accepting evidence that contradicted what she had thought was true. There are a lot of scholars, Biblical and otherwise, who don't do that. There are a lot of people who don't do that, either, but scholars are supposed to be a little better about accepting facts even when they don't like them.

And kudos to the Atlantic for printing this piece; usually these kinds of "shake the foundations of Christianity" events get lots of publicity at the front end when they're still uncertain but not so much at the back end when it turns out questions about them can't be answered. Which is probably what will happen with the other outlets that puffed the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" story, making the magazine even that much more of a standout amongst the Litellas.

(H/T First Things)

Monday, June 20, 2016

How's That Again?

One of the pluses of Donald Trump's candidacy for president, in the eyes of his supporters, is that as a successful businessman, he understands what needs to be done to get the nation's economy on a stronger footing.

Maybe not.

You know, it's beginning to look like there are no good reasons to vote for this guy. Who'd a thunk it?

(H/T Cafe Hayek)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Feline Figuring

An experiment in animal cognition suggests that cats may have a limited understanding of cause and effect, one of the basic laws of classical physics.

Researchers used two containers that either did or didn't contain a ball, and rattled some of them before dropping a ball out of them but didn't rattle others. After the cats were exposed to this procedure several times, they were allowed to wander freely around a test area. When they heard the rattling sound they seemed to anticipate a ball dropping nearby, but they were surprised when one dropped without a rattle.

Were any other animal to demonstrate an understanding of such level, we humans should begin to prepare for extinction as a species. Especially if that animal were a poodle, chihuahua or Yorkie -- those things cannot wait to develop opposable thumbs and take their revenge on whoever was responsible for their current appearance.

Cats, though, should prove to be a lesser danger. After all, if they killed us all, who would bring them food? The necessity of hunting it for themselves would seriously curtail nap time. So most of us are probably safe. "Except for that guy Schrödinger," they say. "We'd like to chat with him about this box business. Oh, and the guy who invented that red dot thing that zips around the floor."

I for one welcome our new feline overlords.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Post-Graduate Study

Because my college worked on a weird trimester system, this is about the time some 30 years ago that I was commencing. I arrived late and processed with some friends from the School of Speech and heard Secretary of State George Schultz tell us something important.

I kept my cafeteria job through the summer because I didn't have work lined up in my field, and I figured I could earn a little before returning home. Which means my "success" level immediately after graduation was somewhat less than Michelle Kunimoto of the University of British Columbia, who found four exoplanets -- planets orbiting stars other than our Sun -- in between returning her graduation gown and framing her diploma.

Actually, she found them as part of an independent study course after having been taught how to comb data collected by the Kepler telescope. Her advisor created the course after Kunimoto took the regularly-offered course on exoplanets and became interested in them. In other words, she took a class in which the final was finding E.T.'s home.

Yeah, my summer of washing dishes and filling soda machines suddenly looks even punier.

Friday, June 17, 2016


Yep, winning those Olympic Games is a prize like no other!