Scientific illustration and the illustration of science

This semester, I’m sitting in on a graduate seminar that covers a cultural history of 18th century science. Instead of a traditional research paper, the students must present, among other things, a discussion of illustrations of science.

Illustrations of science are different from scientific illustration, which differs from diagrams and sketches. This distinction is important, in that the ways in which non-scientists (I acknowledge the anachronism) depict scientific experiments and endeavors reveals cultural significance of those experiments and endeavors, as well as the cultural esteem of the scientist.

Newton's sketch of his prism experiment

Newton’s sketch of his prism experiment

Take, for example, the esteem of Isaac Newton, whose work in Opticks (1704) revealed the separation of white light into a color spectrum, when passed through a prism. His sketch of the experiment is rough, though it gives us a sense of the space in which he worked, as well as his vision as to how the experiment would unfold (or had unfolded). Sketches are more important to historians than to scientists, I would argue, because they are less fixed. The ideas that would be presented in Opticks are not firm in the sketch. Indeed, the handwriting and drawing lines are imprecise, not suitable for scientific illustration.

diagrams incorporated into Newton's Opticks (1704)

diagrams incorporated into Newton’s Opticks (1704)

On the other hand, diagrams within scientific text have a specific function. These diagrams provide visual representation and explanation of the experiments that Newton performed. On its own, this page is relatively meaningless. The explanatory text for these diagrams is a detailed and precise ten pages (36-45, available through Project Gutenberg). The detail and precision of the text mirrors that of the illustration, which has the singular purpose of visually representing the text. For the readers of Opticks, the text would inform the setup of the experiment, and the illustrations would do some of the work of confirming proper setup.

The sketches and diagrams are, for me, scientific illustrations, or scientific representations. They represent the science that happens, and are media for explanation. By contrast, illustrations or representations of science are cultural artifacts, situated in specific social circumstances that reflect certain perceptions of the scientist and his/her work. 

Pittoni Giambattista, An Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton (1727-29)

Pittoni Giambattista, An Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton (1727-29)

Newton, especially, was (and is) prestigious among scientists and also in the wider culture. His fame elevated science during his lifetime, and he was the first man of science to be honored with a burial at Westminster Abbey. Representations of his accomplishments came soon after his death. Pittoni Giambattista shows Newton performing his prism experiment in a classical temple, elevating his status. This is not an uncommon trope, as allusions to classical works have situated certain works of writers alongside the greats of the past. So, when Giambattista puts this experiment in the temple, he equates Newton to thinkers like Aristotle. This depiction demonstrates just how foundational Newton’s work was perceived. It dated back to the classical age, where it was publicly acknowledged.

Sir Isaac Newton, colorized woodcut from the nineteenth century

Sir Isaac Newton, colorized woodcut from the nineteenth century

This woodcut is likely more common in style. Though no words appear in the image, Newton’s presence is unmistakable. His prism experiment unfolds exactly as his diagrams depict, and a Newtonian telescope appears on his table, alongside a pen, which presumably wrote Newton’s Principia. The focus in this representation is on Newton, so it is a clear representation of the scientist. By comparison, Giambattista’s Newton is rather small, and the focus seems to be on the experiment, which is awed by all present.

Representations of science are as historically important as scientific representations. Scientific illustrations demonstrate what was known– what knowledge was created and disseminated through the work. By contrast, representations of science demonstrate the significance of the science in a wider culture. Both parts are important to historians, though I suspect that art historians will see more value in the latter.

About j.d.grunert

Historian, Science and Technology Studier, Librarian, Academish
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