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.

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