Experiment With A Bird In The Air-Pump

Last visit to London, I made a quick stop at the National Gallery in London to see this for real, Joseph Wright of Darby’s “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air-Pump”, which has relevance for me from my work and interests in the history and social studies of science. This was one of those odd tourist-y moments for me, I enjoy doing the not-for-tourists activities — think “go local, go native” — rather than “seeing the sights.” Need to get over that, I suppose.

In this case, I got excited a day or two before arriving to London as I was giving a talk in Aberdeen Scotland and sought a digital image of this painting as I was preparing. When I realized the original was at the National Gallery and that I would be able to see it face-to-face, the weekend in London took an entirely new urgency.

The Air Pump was the Cyclotron of its day, in the 18th century, as best explicated by Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer’s remarkable historical investigation of the late prehistory of modern science in Leviathan and the Air-Pump. I’m turning back to this material, especially as I hash through new thinking on the role of the “invisible” behind-the-scenes technicians of design fictions.


An Experiment on a Bird in the Air-Pump, 1768 by Joseph Wright of Darby.

The image provides a useful backdrop with which to tell the story that Steven Shapin does of the “Invisible Technician” who does the important hand- and craftwork, placing the action of creating knowledge, or matters-of-fact or, to stitch in Bruno Latour’s considerations on these points, the matter-of-concern. Between the reified, established matter-of-fact and the speculation, or imagining of what that might be, is the craftwork of making things — this “invisible technician.”

Parenthetically, at the time I was first studying this bit of social, technical and science history, I was mostly interested in this idea of the invisible technician as a metaphor for the backstage work done within science films — mostly science fiction films — by the moment of the films’ production. I was curious how invisible technicians as described by Shapin could also be the invisible technicians who translate a very imaginary world into one that appears as actuality, as a bit of fact based in science principles. The invisible technician was the production people, mostly in my mind the special effects artisans who are able to create this representation of reality, removing the wires of production to create a truly compelling visual story about what could be. I wanted to learn about special effects as a way of creating visions of a possible world and use the visual story as a point of departure for conversations about more habitable environments. Telling stories, through images, of possible near-future worlds – that about sums up this point.

In the painting, we see the Air-Pump apparatus and its demonstration by a traveling scientist of some sort, visiting a (likely well-to-do) family to share the most recent advances of knowledge of the day. Prior to this was the hard spade work that Robert Boyle and, to a large extent, his assistants, craftsmen, artisans, etc., who had to create the necessary experimental materials to turn the fiction of a vacuum into a demonstrable fact.

As with all good knowledge work, there was perhaps more material effort — making things, enduring material failures, etc. All the things we can comfortably take for granted today were high technology at the time — the 1660s. Blowing glass to create a large containment vessel without the kinds of flaws and defects that would cause it to collapse under the pressure of the atmosphere was very much rocket science. Creating seals to keep the air from leaking was high technology for the leather smiths employed to create cocks and fittings. Etc. The painting shows the result in a fashion, as well as a tableau of the various social and cultural meanings of the absence of matter, something that had religious significance, as does most such bold adventures into the unknown.

Why do I blog this? A canonical image of the relationships amongst knowledges and their circulation, spectacle and theater. Meme propagation in the pre-history of networks, where ideas spread by presentation, in-home sharing and worn boot leather.
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Measuring the Immeasurable

Good, Fast & Cheap, a measure of things. Designed by Rhys Newman, modeled & machined by Simon James. A useful epistemological wrench — a conversation piece to discuss the measures of things and the things lost and gained when some things gain priority over others. It’s a wonderful, crucial instrument that shifts perspectives hopefully towards more habitable creations.

Everybody needs Money. That’s why they call it Money.
(From “Heist” by David Mamet. Danny DeVito playing Mickey Bergman.)

In the Laboratory’s Bureau of Instrumentation, Weights-and-Measures and Ways-and-Means, we’ve been curious for a time, and more so recently, about the history of quantification and, as well, why numbers as such have a kind of primacy over other things that are more qualitative. Most specifically, why do we measure the things we measure, and why do some things get to be measured while other things do not get measured, or are seen as immeasurable?

This question is a thorough-going one in the effort to find other measures that can be prioritized, perhaps even more so than the things we consider without even thinking about where these “natural” (they never are..) measures come from. For example, we measure things designed based on such things as their monetary cost, and how much profit can be obtained. With this measure, to simplify things, many principles that would be invested in a design get tossed out. The accountant or the engineer would sooner shrug in such a circumstance — this is the way it should be. I want to consider the “natural” way of such things, and consider how other sorts of measures can be prioritized that are not necessarily about money first, but always first about creating more habitable future worlds. What are the other measures of things that maybe previously have been thought of as “immeasurable” or incapable of being quantified? Thus, this interest in how things got to be the way they are. What are the measures of quantities and where did they come from? How could they be different? What things can be designed/made/prototyped the experiment with other measures?

There must be a variety of histories here, skirting up against the science of calculation and computation and close to the Laboratory’s interests in the history of things, such as sciences, design, technology and always deeply imbricated and layered and inextricably tied to all of these things — the histories of cultures.

Where to start?

Our Studio Library Day reading book last month was Alfred W. Crosby’s intriguing “The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600” which I’m happy Manuel Lima mentioned at his talk during SHiFT 2008 in Lisbon. It took a holiday to actually finish the book, which lead me in a zillion other vectors and converged in a recent interest in the meaning and technology of money. It now takes me early mornings when fresh and not muddle-headed to re-read it for the over-arcing traces of Crosby’s perspective.

I’ll have my overdue book report on “The Measure of Reality”, but first a short trek down the footnote rabbit hole to Joel Kaye‘s essay “The impact of money on the development of fourteenth-century scientific thought” found in the Journal of Medieval History 14(1988), p. 251-270. (Wonderful these academic essays tucked away in journals nearly impossible for anyone except academics to get a hold of, truly. Sadly, the availability of this essay is quite limited unless you have an “in” at a university or such, or a particularly flush public library system somewhere. So much for the academician’s edict to create and circulate knowledge.)


No matter. Onward…

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