Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
“There is nothing like an “essence” of the Scientific Revolution” (161), Shapin reiterated the point emphatically in his book’s Introduction and concluding remarks. This point perhaps should not be taken literally, but rather as that the concept “the Scientific Revolution” is a difficult historical event to deal with. The term “the Scientific Revolution” itself was not in common use until around 1939, and it was not until 1954 that two authors used the term in their book titles (2). Due to the difficulty of writing about this event, historians have become more interested in the “who” of the Scientific Revolution, the important figures that brought about the changes (4). Shapin tackled the problem of historicizing the Scientific Revolution by laying out the heterogeneity of natural knowledge in the seventeenth century, giving readers an understanding of the event with a dynamic sensibility, not merely as a series of static occurrences.
Chapter 1, “What Was Known?” recounts the major events associated with the Scientific Revolution: the challenge to Aristotelian natural philosophy; the attack on an earth-centered, earth-static view and its replacement by Copernicus’ sun-centered system; and the importance of mathematics in understanding nature. Around 1610, Galileo turned his newly invented telescope to the sun and observed spots on its surface. From antiquity to Galileo’s time, people thought that the earth was subject to the process of change and decay, but heavenly bodies were the most perfect forms possible. The spots on the sun’s surface led Galileo to the observation that the heavens are as much imperfect as the earth. Galileo’s study was founded on the Copernicus’s observation of the cosmos and a rejection of Ptolemy’s anthropocentricism, which states that the earth was immobile at the center of the universe while other planets orbiting around.
The idea of nature as a machine was exemplified through the metaphor of nature as a clock, and thus, god as a clockmaker. In ancient Greek, nature was considered superior to human artifice, but now philosophers argued that all that is artificial is also natural. The clock and its intricate design were appealing to philosophers: the relation between an intelligent agent in the universe to nature resembled that of the clockmaker to their clocks. The clock also exhibited order and regularity; similarly, the philosophers believed there were rules governing the natural motions of the universe. In the 1660s, Boyle wrote that the natural world was “as it were, a great piece of clock-work” (34). Belief in a logical structure of nature culminated in Newton’s work, which marked the increasing importance of mathematics in understanding the universe.
Chapter 2, “How Was It Known?” deals with experience, experiment, and their capabilities of arriving at true knowledge. Through the image of Galileo’s telescope, Shapin emphasizes the use of individual sensory experience to evaluate traditionally established bodies of knowledge. This is also the root of empiricism, the view that proper knowledge should be derived from direct sensory experience, not from ancient texts, testimonies, stories, or fables. From this emphasis on experience arises the problem of how to evaluate the accuracy of experience reports. Senses were likely to mislead and needed to be disciplined and guided by knowledge to yield authentic observations; undisciplined experience was useless. Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Hooke, and others believed that knowledge of nature’s structure could be obtained with certainty if the mind were directed and disciplined by correct method; method was the key to true knowledge.
The idea of doing experimental natural philosophy to derive knowledge was exemplified by the air pump invented for Boyle by his assistant Robert Hooke in the late 1605s. Regarding deducing truths from experience, Newton and Hooke offered two differing opinions: Newton believed that truths could be mathematically deduced from experiment with certainty, while Hooke thought that a number of causal theories could explain the same facts. To Hooke, there was no proof but only probability in inferences.
Chapter 3, “What Was the Knowledge For?” explores the relationship of science to state power and religion. Court patronage of natural philosophers became more common. The most well-known case is Francis Bacon, lord chancellor of England and court counselor to Elizabeth I and James I. State’s interest in science could also be seen through late Renaissance and the seventeenth-century European cabinets of curiosities: “a noble feature of gentlemanly and aristocratic culture” (126). By this time, government was well-aware of possible military and economic uses of sciences. Bacon’s program for intellectual reform called for organized collective labor, and thus, natural philosophy could be a tool of state bureaucracy. Shapin observes that this entanglement of science with state power creates a paradox: just when science was recognized as objective and disinterested, it became valuable as a tool for moral and political entities; initially produced not to further any particular human interests, it could now be used to serve government and religious organizations.
The Scientific Revolution is successful in portraying the pivotal historical moment known as the Scientific Revolution by offering an all-encompassing view of the seventeenth century natural philosophy. Shapin’s use of conceit to drive his points is a strength of the book. For instance, the telescope and the spots on the sun refer to Galileo’s ground-breaking work, the clock to the idea of the similarity of nature and the artifice, and Boyle’s air pump to the central role of experiments in producing knowledge. Using conceit is helpful in moving back and forth between the same ideas across chapters without losing readers’ thinking threads. Also, the bibliographic essay section with scholarship divided by topics is particularly helpful for research into seventeenth century European science.
While map is usually thought of as cartographic material standing alone on its own right, in the Dutch Golden Age appears a painting trend in which map is repeatedly depicted in the background of interior scene. Various seventeenth-century Dutch painters such as Willem Buytewech, Dirck Hals, Gerard ter Borch, Piete de Hooch, Jan Steen, Jacob Ochtervelt, Nicholas Maes include depictions of real maps in their artworks. The finest examples of this trend appear in Johannes Vermeer’s works. Much has been said about the cartographical sources of the painted maps, especially in Vermeer’s oeuvre. By drawing on the Dutch’s communal identity at the time of forming nationhood, the artistic life of the society—collecting and displaying art among different classes, and the Dutch’s distinctive stance on art—a mode of description, I wish to draw attention to the Dutch impulse to map the outer world and display the knowledge in interior space, perhaps in order to situate oneself in the world and to feel more at home in one’s space.
Nascent National Identity
The first Dutch artist who incorporated map into painting is Willem Buytewech (1591-1624). A specialist in the merry company subject, he worked at Haarlem from around 1612 to 1617, following that, he spent the rest of his career in his native Rotterdam. One of his five merry company pictures includes a map with the eligible title HOLANDIA (see fig. 1). The painted map is comparable to the map of Holland and the Seventeen Provinces by the Dutch engraver Jan Pietersz. Saenredam (1565-1607) (fig. 2). Saenredam’s map, engraved in 1589, was quite popular in the seventeenth century, appearing in at least three publications. As many maps made in this time, the decorative border and the texts were produced separately from the map. Except for the border ornamentation, Buytewech’s map is identical to Saenredam’s map in term of content. The map is oriented with the south at the top as designing maps with north at the top was not yet a standard. The painter’s coloring scheme follows conventional cartographic materials of the period. For instance, blue is assigned to the water area, while green, yellow, and red are used to distinguish different provinces.
The painted map is situated in a central position, on a wall of a narrow symmetrical space, accompanied a group of extravagantly-dressed people. The bearded figure on the left bears the traits of Hans Wurst, the figure of comic gluttony on Fat Tuesday, the last day of feasting before the ritual fasting in Christian tradition. To the left of Hans Wurst, a man holds a goblet of wine, while a figure next to him holding out a pisspot, mockingly prepares for the wine to revert. To the right, one man smokes pipe, and the other holds his hat dangerously close to the fire. The maid behind them carries a dish of artichokes, which are renowned for their power to aid sensual appetites. The group collectively represents various human foibles and follies, gaudy attiring, gluttony, and excessive indulgence. In that context, the map behind the company serves more than a decorative purpose. In the traditional vanitas theme, the map may be considered a didactic object, pointing to the ephemerality and the futility of the material life. It could also act as a humanist ambivalence, displaying the fine craft of man as “a badge of pride,” but at the same time denoting the vulnerability of the achievement.
Pictures after these festive scenes often carry mildly moralizing connotation about the idle, newly rich children of a harder-working generation. As the newly-founded Republic became more prosperous, so grew rapidly the middle class known as the burgher. The burgher was not simply a bourgeois, for the burgher was a citizen first and homo oeconomicus, or economic man second. The display of a map of one’s own territory in a space of the burgeoning middle class is an assertion of nascent national identity.
Buytewech’s merry company was painted in a period when many lakes north of Amsterdam such as the Purmer, Schermer, and Beemster were being drained and reclaimed for agricultural use. The high rate of erosion and the need for arable land gave rise to reclamation plans, and windmills were used to pump these lakes dry. The changing boundary between the sea and the land is perhaps also emphasized with the inverted color scheme of the map in Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl (see fig. 12 – 13): luminescent blue is assigned to land, while earthly tone to water. In a country where one‐third of the land lies below mean sea level and without dunes, dikes, and pumps, sixty-five percent of the land would be under water at high tide, the relationship with water has never been easy.
The forming of the Dutch nationhood was inseparable from the struggle with rising waters and the primal flood. Simon Schama even describes the Dutch society as having a “diluvian personality.” Seaborne disaster epics sold very well in the seventeenth century. The most well-known work of all was the journal published in 1646 by Willem Ysbrandtszoon Bontekoe’s (1587 – 1657), a skipper in the Dutch East India Company (see fig. 3). The journal recounts his voyage with the Nieuw Hoorn, the shipwreck, his adventure to Java, and his subsequent years of service in East Asia. The book, illustrated with pictures, was a bestseller in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, being reprinted seventy times before 1800. The story follows a quite moralistic formula: good fortune was to be “struck by retributive calamity from which only the virtuous and the heroic might escape.” A fire at sea in the Sunda Straits in the East Indies in November 1619 caused the gunpowder magazine to explode and sink the ship (see fig. 4-5). The skipper, who was blown high into the sky and then down into the ocean, somehow miraculously escaped.
Memories of epic inundations in the late Middle Ages, and written and oral folklore—fables, ballads and fairy tales conditioned the sixteenth-century Dutch to consider themselves as “ordained and blessed survivors of the deluge.” Calvinist preachers of course seized onto this and connected the aquatic struggle with scriptural significance. Calamities were portentous in a sinful world, and from the retribution, a cleaner and better world was to be reborn. The Noah analogy was here transposed to suit the Dutch self-image as God’s new chosen people. Buytewech’s map and his jovial scene indicate the classic connotations of human follies before Noah’s Flood and transfer a moral message to contemporary circumstances of the new Republic.
Collecting and Displaying Pictures
Beside the map in Buytewech’s epicurean scene, painted maps are usually found displaying in interiors of the burghers. Jacob Ochtervelt (1634 – 1682), a genre painter and a contemporary of Vermeer, for example, painted a map to accompany the scene of a finely-dressed lady playing the virginal (see fig. 6). The man on her left, presumably her husband, is playing a string instrument while reading score from a book held out by a young woman, possibly their daughter. The dogs, usually read as fidelity symbol, are playfully chasing each other. The spotless floor, the clean wall, and an emphasis on horizontal and vertical compositions add a sense of familial harmony and domestic contentment to the scene. Like the map in Buytewech’s merry company, the map in Ochtervelt’s painting serves a vanitas theme, reminding viewers of the transience of pleasure and the vanity of human knowledge.
The appearance of the wall map in the middle-class’ interiors comes as little surprise as it was the class that was most hankering for prints and decorations in the seventeenth century. As the Republic became more affluent around 1600, particularly after the Twelve Years Truce in 1609, the market for pictures grew rapidly. Artists, before being able to sell pictures in the markets, had to pay a fee to be apprenticed under masters in a strict guild system. Once registered and enrolled as masters, they could produce and sell art and assume apprentices. Art in general was sold to an anonymous market, either directly through the studio or through an art dealer. Prints and paintings were sold in bookshops, inns, at kermis stalls, and Guild-organized exhibitions. Unlike other European markets, the Dutch picture market was virtually absent of Church patronage since Calvinists opposed the use of altarpieces and depictions of God and Christ in worship. They did, however, allow the use of images for didactic purposes or decoration in secular space.
Picture price varied greatly. Oil paintings on wood or canvas had a wide range of price; size and the quality of the frame were taken into account of the artwork value. Low-life scenes, barrack room, brothel scenes, interior genre, and “maidservant” pictures seem to be the cheapest. Small landscapes could also be cheap, while still lifes varied greatly according to size and subject. Portraits and history paintings were the most expensive; commissioned portraits historiés, the depiction of known individuals in the guise of historical figures, were the most expensive of all. The picture market catered to consumers of different income and social status, but most pictures were bought by the burghers, “from modest artisans to wealthy regents.” They hang pictures throughout their homes, the finest in living rooms and others in bedrooms, halls, and even kitchens.
As the burghers became more wealthy, especially after the Peace of Munster in 1648, they built larger homes to be able to collect and display more pictures. The doll’s house built by a contemporary woman, Petronella Oortmans-de la Court (1624-1707), is a window into the display of paintings in wealthy households (see fig. 7). Most paintings with elaborate frames or of large scale are displayed in the upstairs living room, but the first and the third floors are decorated with pictures too. The doll’s house by itself is a piece of miniature collection, in which De la Court commissioned 1,600 pieces of furniture and paintings and 28 dolls.
Significantly, the Dutch did not buy pictures exclusively for pure decoration or artistic value. Many collectors gathered drawings and prints primarily to amass knowledge about the world’s diverse cultures, its flora and fauna, and its geography. In Amsterdam, the Catholic lawyer Laurens van der Hem (1621-1678), for example, collected printed maps, landscape prints, portraits, and historical scenes to create 29 volumes about the world and its history. Van der Hem commissioned drawers and colorists as well as included texts to enrich his encyclopedic work. The Atlas van der Hem was quite well-known and attracted distinguished foreign visitors. Its geographical coverage reflected the far-reaching range of the Dutch trading empire. A map of America in the atlas, for instance, shows ships with the Netherlands flag approaching the coasts of North America and Brazil, indicating the country’s dominions oversea (see fig. 8). Particularly interesting are the views on the top of the map and the various depictions of the natives on the two sides. The natives are portrayed as rather primitive—tribal, naked, warlike, and engaging in human sacrifice (see fig. 9). Their bodies are represented as strong and muscular.
Not all owners of pictures were as affluent as De la Court and van der Hem, nor pictures were only found accompanying the leisured middle-class as in Buytewech’s merry company and Ochtervelt’s music making. To the amazement of the English traveler Peter Mundy, the shops of Dutch butchers, bakers, blacksmiths, and cobblers were decorated with a picture or two—suggesting the unusually prevalent activity of art collecting in the Republic. Quiringh van Brekelenkam’s Interior of a Tailor’s Workshop shows the displaying of picture in the home of the craftsman (see fig. 10). A cheap paper map is secured on the wall with a couple of nails. It looks tattered and worn-out, keeping with the other objects in the household such as the old book on the shelf and the fading wall paint. Another picture of still life on the wall indicates the family is able to get by with the craft. The workshop overall looks well-kept, and the work mess is present but under control, and the materials for cloth making are relatively in order.
Quiringh van Brekelenkam (1622 – c. 1669) was born in Zwammerdam, where his father worked as a tailor. The shops of tailors and cobblers, the very environment that Brekelenkam grew up with, were depicted thoroughly in his art; from 1653 to 1664 he produced around twenty-five variants of the theme. It may be important to point out that Brekelenkam was active from 1648 to 1668 in Leiden, the center of the Dutch textile industry. The textile industry boomed in the Netherlands and particularly in Leiden between 1580 and 1660, thanks to the flow of textile workers emigrated from the Southern Netherlands in the face of religious persecution. With the thriving industry came various problems. Leiden was possibly the most “socially stratified” of Holland towns, with a large number of textile workers living in crowded residences and subjected to wage cutting. Women and girls comprised about thirty percent of the labor force in Leiden and were “worked harder for less.” Painters who depicted artisans at work like Brekelenkam might consider what to leave out and what to record for an audience that was predominantly middle-class collectors. His picture therefore might correspond to the urban audience’s perception of its own society as “ordered, civilized, and preposterous.” Nonetheless, the painting is still telling of the pre-industrial era, with the youngster contributing to the labor force and the family working together to produce goods. The two boys seat on a platform with the father, sewing clothing by the sunlight entering from the window. On the right, the mother is cooking with the vessel, suggesting the mixing of the living with the working space, unlike a burgher’s interior which is devoid of work and labor. The dilapidated map on the wall perhaps embodies the family’s struggle to make end meet in an unsettling world.
Be it in the middle-class or the working-class interiors, the wall map found in many genre paintings attested to the dynamic art market in the Netherlands. It were the Dutch who were the first to seriously produce maps as wall-hangings. Maps were also produced and disseminated widely, and the Republic was the world leader in cartographic production. But perhaps more fundamentally, maps were collected and displayed in the same manner as paintings because of the close affinities of art and cartography in the seventeenth century: “map makes on us as a piece of painting in its own right,” as Alpers said. Maps are meant to provide us with quantitative data of places and the relationship between places, while landscape pictures give us some quality or feel of the place: one is science, the other is art; one is the work of cartographers, the other artists. Yet, this distinction is not clear-cut for the Dutch in the seventeenth century, “when maps were considered to be a kind of picture and when pictures challenged texts as a central way of understanding the world.” Seventeenth-century Dutch artists such as Pieter Saenredam, Gaspar van Wittel, and the Visscher family, were employed in mapmaking; maps were often sold by the same dealers who sold other kinds of prints. Maps were very often adorned with city views and figure portrayals as we have seen in a print from the Van der Hem atlas (fig. 8). The atlas by itself unproblematically combined maps, views, and drawings to create a personal view of the world. The Leo Belgicus map by Claes Jansz Visscher was not only informative because of its geographical data, but also visually striking because of the lion form imposing onto the seventeen provinces (see fig. 11).
The mapping-picture relationship dates back to at least Ptolemy’s Geography. Ptolemy distinguishes between geography, which concerns measurements or mathematics and the entire world at large, and chorography, which concerns descriptions and particular places. He connects the skills of the mathematician to geography and those of the artist to chorography, and restricts his work to the former. This distinction, however, was again blurred in the Netherlands. Dutch artists were accustomed to printmaking, inscriptions, labels, and calligraphy—suggesting a close relationship between picture and writing, both possessing the descriptive power. In a broad sense, mapping shows an impulse to record or describe the land in pictures—an impulse shared by surveyors, artists, printers, and the general public in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. More narrowly, mapping could be defined as encompassing picturing and mapmaking, as producing pictures with descriptive interest that integrate the landscape and geographical forms such as maps and topographical views.
The trend of painting map in interior scenes reached a new level in Vemeer’s art, especially in Officer and Laughing Girl (see fig. 12 – 13) and The Art of Painting (see fig. 14 – 15). While other painters simply indicate there is a map on the wall, Vermeer always renders the maps in precision and even captures the print materials. For practical reason, the detailed rendering of the map might have had to do with selling price. The paintings of Vermeer, Gerand Dou, and Frans van Mieris, uncommonly elaborate and polished in techniques and possibly taken longer than average to paint, fetched as high as several hundred guilders, compared to averaging twenty guilders for a less meticulous picture.
But Vermeer’s elaborate maps are important among the numerous painted maps because they speak powerfully for a pictorial mode of Dutch art—a mode of description. Significantly, with much time and effort devoted to rendering the map, Vermeer claims he himself is a mapmaker. In The Art of Painting, Vermeer signed his name I-Ver-Meer on the border of the map meeting the bottom text and the blue cloth of the model, who represents Clio the muse of history (see fig. 16). We know that Vermeer bases his painted map on the no longer extant map of the Seventeen Provinces attributed to Nicolaus Visscher. But in the Dutch pictorial mode of description, Vermeer’s claim the painted map is of his own making is not presumptuous, as in seventeenth-century Dutch art, resemblance is less important than distinction. Looking at the world in resemblance is problematic as it introduces confused identities; it is the discrimination between things and individual identities that matters in Dutch art.
The Dutch artist and writer Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627 – 1678) dedicated one chapter of his magnum opus, the Introduction to the Academy of Painting, or the Visible World (1678), to talk about resemblance. In the chapter, Hoogstraten gathers examples from texts and real life. One account that is particularly suggestive is the story of a nobleman riding through the street of London attracted a large crowd of followers because he was mistaken for a king. What one can deductively infer from Hoogstraten’s chapter is that Dutch art by turning away from resemblance desires to “preserve the identity of each person and each thing in the world.” Italian art, on the country, tends to depart from individuality in favor of general human traits and general truths: resemblance to certain ideals of appearance, of action, or between things was “constitutive of truth.” Interestingly enough, centuries later in Germany, the concept of resemblance resurfaces in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), in what he terms “family resemblance.” In Wittgenstein’s family resemblance, all members of the family resemble each other even though they do not share a single common feature. Resemblance is also at the core of visual recognition in today’s technology as we see that convolutional neural networks could group together images of visual similarity.
The importance of distinction in Dutch art is most illustrative in a print after Pieter Saenredam (see fig. 17). The etching represents several cross sections cut through an old apple tree growing on a farm outside of Harleem. Saenredam makes the image to refute the widespread belief that that the dark core of the apple tree represents the miraculous appearance of Roman Catholic priests. Significantly, to make the print, Saenredam looks through the glasses. Saenredam calls attention to the variety of the shapes and points out that the mistaken belief is founded on a reliance on resemblance. To return to the painted maps in Vermeer’s art, so precise in rendering that they have been used to postulate Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura, they are distinctive semblances of the original models, all the more descriptive in the Dutch picture landscape.
It is only in a country with a new sense of nationhood that we find map displaying like flag in almost any kind of interiors; in a society proliferated with pictures that we see map hung like works of art; and in a culture that painting under the glasses, the microscope, and the camera obscura becomes a source of style that we encounter elaborately rendered maps as in Vermeer’s oeuvre.
. James A. Welu, “Vermeer and Cartography.” PhD diss., Boston University, 1977, 8.
. I refer to Alpers’ notion of seventeen-century Dutch art in The Art of Describing. By “descriptive,” she refers to characteristics of artworks that are casually referred to as realistic. Descriptive artworks are characterized by actions being suspended and by a stilled or arrested quality. There exists a tension between description and narration—what she called the Albertian mode that characterized Italian art: attention to the surface of the world described is attained at the expense of narrative action.
. Scholars have postulated the use of the camera obscura in Officer and Laughing Girl using deformation analysis. The fitting position of Utrecht in Vermeer’s painted map and Berckenrode’s model map supports theory of the use of the camera obscura. See Livieratos, Evangelos, and Alexandra Koussoulakou. “Vermeer’s Maps: a New Digital Look in an Old Master’s Mirror.” e-Perimetron 1, no. 2 (2006): 138-154.
Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. University of Chicago Press, reprint edition (April 15, 1984).
In 1995, Kurt Vonnegut gave a lecture in which he described his theory about the shapes of stories. He drew on a blackboard graphs of story shapes that writers have used for centuries. “The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads,” Vonnegut said (Swanson). He plotted stories on a vertical axis, running from Good fortune to Ill fortunes of the protagonist, and a horizontal axis that represents the course of the story from Beginning to End (see fig. 1a.). One of the most popular story types is what he called “Man in Hole”: somebody gets in trouble, gets out of it, and ends up better off than where they started (see fig. 1b.). A close variant is “Boy Loses Girl,” in which a person gets something amazing, loses it, and then gets it back again (see fig. 1c.). The Cinderella story (see fig. 1d.) is the most popular arc story in the history of civilization, “every time it’s retold, someone makes a million dollars,” Vonnegut said (Swanson). He also pointed out the similarity between the story arc of Cinderella and that of the New Testament in which a person receives sudden help from a deity, is suddenly ousted from good standing, but achieves happiness in the end. Some notable works of literature have ambiguous shapes: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis starts off bad and gets infinitely worse, and Hamlet keeps us from knowing if new developments are good or bad.
Fig. 1. Kurt Vonnegut’s arcs of story. 1a. Two axes of the graph. 1b. The “Man in Hole” arc. 1c. The “Boy Meets Girl” arc. 1d. The “Cinderella” arc. Images reproduced from Swanson and Popova.
Today, with technological advances, scientists have provided empirical evidence for Vonnetgut’s outlines of story shapes. Scientists at the Computational Story Laboratory at the University of Vermont in Burlington have used sentiment analysis to map the emotional arcs of over 1,700 stories and then used data-mining techniques to identify the most common arcs (MIT Technology Review). They found six basic storytelling arcs that are the essence of all complex narratives: Rags to Riches (rise), Riches to Rags (fall), Man in a Hole (fall then rise), Icarus (rise then fall), Cinderella (rise then fall then rise), Oedipus (fall then rise then fall) (LaFrance).
Vonnegut’s theory of story shapes and these scientists’ work apply the same method—using graphical models to understand a set of data, a corpus of stories. The difference is that Vonnegut quantifies the data using his knowledge as a writer and a humanist, while the scientists use program and computer. There is not necessarily a superior method, but the two results, which overlapped, definitely complement each other.
Similarly, Frederick Turner has mapped familiar motifs of worldwide epics in Epic: Form, Content, and History, poetic meter as a universal human activity in “The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time,” and beauty as a pancultural, neurobiological phenomenon in Beauty: the Value of Values. Taking relatively large sets of literary works produced by distinctive individuals, even from different cultures, Vonnegut and Turner found the common denominator among them and provided us with a compressed understanding of literature spanning the history of the human knowledge. One can quickly dismiss these works as overgeneralization. Vonnegut’s theory of story arcs was rejected as a master’s thesis in Anthropology at the University of Chicago “because it was so simple, and looked like too much fun,” in Vonnegut’s words (MIT Technology Review). Yet, these works open opportunities to work cross-discipline for humanists, artists, and scientists. Taking a large set of seemingly unrelated data and making sense of its structure are common practices of science today. This essay argues that a new aesthetics in the arts and humanities is emerging from this scientific practice. Before going into this new aesthetics, we need to take an excursion into the concept of “Organized Complexity” defined by the mathematician Warren Weaver to understand the origin of this aesthetics.
The Emergence of Organized Complexity
In 1948, the mathematician Warren Weaver, who was then the director of the Rockefeller Foundation, wrote a famous essay entitled “Science and complexity” in the American Scientist magazine. Weaver described science as a way of solving problems and divided the history of science into three main periods: problems of simplicity, problems of disorganized complexity, and problems of organized complexity. According to Weaver, the sciences of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were largely concerned with the understanding of the problems of one or two variables or problems of simplicity. One classic example is Newton’s laws of motion. While solving problems of simplicity brought us technological advances such as the telephone, the radio, the automobile, the airplane, and the phonograph, they were too simplistic to solve biological and medical problems which often involve complex systems: “The significant problems of living organisms are seldom those in which one can rigidly maintain constant all but two variables. Living things are more likely to present situations in which a half- dozen, or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously, and in subtly interconnected ways” (Weaver 2).
Around 1900, science evolved to deal with problems involved complex systems that are more often encountered in living things and in daily life. Instead of studying problems with two variables or at most three or four, some scientists, one pioneer being Josiah Willard Gibbs, started looking at problems with million or billion variables. The methods that made this new challenge possible were powerful techniques of probability theory and of statistical mechanics. Instead of describing the motion of a single ball as Newton’s laws did, scientists were capable of building statistical models for motions of millions of balls. Weaver defines a problem of disorganized complexity as:
a problem in which the number of variables is very large, and one in which each of the many variables has a behavior which is individually erratic, or perhaps totally unknown. However, in spite of this helter-skelter, or unknown, behavior of all the individual variables, the system as a whole possesses certain orderly and analyzable average properties. (Weaver 3)
Examples of the problems of disorganized complexity are the motion of atoms, the motion of stars, Mendel’s laws of heredity, and the laws of thermodynamics. Examples outside of science are telephone companies who calculate the average frequencies of calls, and life insurance companies that calculate their financial stability from the knowledge of the average frequency with which deaths will occur.
Using probabilistic and statistical methods to deal with disorganized complexity proves to be so powerful an advance over the earlier two-variable methods that scientists leave a great field untouched, and that is the region between simplicity and disorganized complexity. Weaver describes this middle region:
The really important characteristic of the problems of this middle region, which science has as yet little explored or conquered, lies in the fact that these problems, as contrasted with the disorganized situations with which statistics can cope, show the essential feature of organization. In fact, one can refer to this group of problems as those of organized complexity. (Weaver 4)
Weaver further stresses the difference between disorganized complexity and organized complexity: organized complexity involves “dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole” (Weaver 5). To put it simply, one can solve the problems of complete randomness or disorganized complexity by using probability and statistics, but in a complex system with many intertwined variables, where order is inherent within complexity, science needs to make a third great advance. He suggests two developments that can help solve problems of organized complexity: first, the electronic computing devices, and second, mixed teams of scientist from different fields:
mathematicians, physicists, and engineers are essential, the best of the groups also contained physiologists, biochemists, psychologists, and a variety of representatives of other fields of the biochemical and social sciences… [M]embers of such diverse groups could work together and could form a unit which was much greater than the mere sum of its parts. (Weaver 7-8)
Weaver did not specifically mention artists or humanists in his ideal team of problem solving, but recent interdisciplinary research, such as in information science, cultural analytics, computational art history, and digital humanities, has seen an increasing trend of cooperation between scientists, artists, and humanists despite rancorous objections from academics who do not tolerate “impurity” of their fields. John D. Barrow captures this sentiment in his essay “Art and Science—Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (2003): “Most artists are very nervous of scientific analysis. They feel it destroys something about the human aspect of creativity. The fear (possibly real) of unsubtle reductionism—music is nothing but the trace of an air pressure curve—is widespread” (Barrow 1). This fear is indeed not unfounded. Many projects bridging the arts/humanities and science can be over-simplistic and meaningless, offering little to no insights compared to the traditional approaches of studying arts and humanities. But this situation suggests a great potential of working cross-discipline between the arts, the humanities, and science. Scientists and computer scientists who have the key to technical skills and logical reasoning need us—humanists and artists who can direct them into producing meaningful research, helping them moving beyond the mere applications of their technical expertise.
To sum up Weaver’s three periods in the history of science, I used two figures produced by two data visualists Kim Albrech and Manuel Lima. Albrecht’s graph in Culturegraphy situates the problems of organized complexity exactly where chaorder is, between order and chaos: just before chaos is reached, the most complex systems arise and organized complexity emerges (see fig. 2.). In Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information, Lima provides a graph explaining the three problems in science addressed by Weaver (see fig. 3.). Lima’s depiction of the problems of simplicity is two bodies with a directed vector; one object has direct influences on the other. The problems of disorganized complexity are depicted as random dots, in which one can possibly make sense of the structure by applying probabilistic and statistical models. The drawing of problems of organized complexity suggests the inherent structure among the dots, and in this case, there exists linkages among them, and thus the system is a network. To understand how modern science has tackled problems of organized complexity, one needs to take a glance into network science, a promising solution to problems of organized complexity.
Network Science and the Arts
The network of interactions between genes, proteins, and metabolites in live cells—the cellular network, the wiring diagram of connections between neurons—the neural network, the interconnection of one’s social ties—the social network, cyber interaction between people through the internet—communication networks, economic exchange—trade networks: these are all examples of network science (Barabasi 1.2). The official definition of network science is “the study of network representations of physical, biological, and social phenomena leading to predictive models of these phenomena” (the United States National Research Council). In visual representation, which is essential to the study of network science, distinct elements are represented as nodes or vertices, and the connections between the elements as links or edges (see fig. 4.).
This new science has received increasing attention since the last decades of the 20th century. Fig. 5. shows the frequency of use of the words “evolution,” “quantum,” and “network” in books since 1880. The plot was generated by Google’s ngram, which calculates the frequency of these words in the Google book corpus. Since 1980, usage of the word “network” surpasses that of “quantum,” referring to quantum mechanics, and that of “evolution,” referring to Darwin’s theory of evolution. The plot indicates the exploding societal awareness of networks in the last decades of the 20th century. The impact of network science can also be seen through citation patterns (see fig. 6). The plot compares citation numbers over time of high-impact papers in the field of complex systems. In the 60s and 70s, the field was dominated by Edward Lorenz, Kenneth G. Wilson, and Samuel F. Edwards and Philip W. Anderson. In the 1980s, the community has shifted its focus to Benoit Mandelbrot’s work on fractals and John Hopfield’s work on neural networks. The spikes in recent years are the two most cited papers in network science by Watts and Strogatz and by Barabási and Albert.
While network science has emerged as a separate discipline only in the 21st century, one can trace its root to the Biblical tree of knowledge of good and evil, or to the Porphyrian tree, the oldest known type of a classification tree diagram. A classic visualization of a network is Darwin’s illustration of the great Tree of Life in The Origin of Species (1859). It is the only graph included in the book, and so critical to Darwin’s theory of evolution that he included a note to the publisher to explain the importance of the diagram. Darwin’s description of this tree of life is so beautiful that it is usually considered an evidence that The Origins is more a piece of literature than a piece of scientific writing. The Tree of Life is a metaphor for the relationships between all creatures of the same class:
As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications. (Darwin 127)
The tree illustrates Darwin’s concepts of species divergence and extinction. Evolution is like a big tree: many branches emerge from a common trunk, some branches die off, representing extinction, other branches multiple and diversify over time.
Networks are not just a scientific metaphor, the concept has influenced painters, sculptors, architects, and designers in recent years. Manuel Lima coined the term “networkism” to refer to the new art movement driven by network science. The movement can be most clearly seen in new fields such as information science and data visualization, but several traditional artists also take up on the challenge. Sharon Molloy infused her skill as a painter with her curiosity about modern science to create mesmerizing paintings that are not unlike scientific graphs one usually comes across flipping through Nature or Science magazine (see fig. 8.-.9.). Exhibited in the museum, the artworks attract us not only because of the intricate lines, the interconnected structure, the rhythm of the brushstrokes, the appealing colors, or the familiar resemblance to natural patterns, they also call our attention to the impact modern science has on our lives.
There is a recurrent association between the depiction of complex networks and one particular art movement: abstract expressionism, in which Jackson Pollack is the key figure. Pollock’s drip paintings evoke large-scale views of networked systems, where the individual part is lost in the density of interconnectedness. Fig. 10. and fig. 11. show a striking resemblance between the dripping trajectories of Pollock’s paintings and the detailed view into a rat’s neuronal network. Fig. 12. and fig. 13. show similarity between Pollock’s Number 5 and an image of ten thousand neurons in a single neocortical column generated by IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer. Of course, correlation does not mean causation; Pollock might or might not have been inspired by complex networks, but the juxtaposition of the images suggests a natural affinity between science and the arts.
In architecture, the avant-garde architectural style parametricism reflects a heavy influence of technological advances and network science. Parametricism relies on programs, algorithms, and computers to manipulate equations for design purposes. It avoids rigid forms, simple repetition, and isolation of entities. According to Patrik Schumacher, partner at Zaha Hadid Architects, the most well-known advocate of the style, parametricism mimics the soft organic form of nature and requires all parts of a building correlated to reflect the network society that we are living in. Parametricism displays a very modern beauty that can be intimidating and alien compared to our familiar living and working space, but it also shows the courage of architects who readily embrace science to make a strong artist statement, and to extend the boundaries of architectural designs.
There have been some points of contact between science and the arts in the past, but opportunity to cross-pollinate between the arts and science has never been ampler given recent technological advances, especially the computer’s exponentially increasing computational capacity. From organized complexity and network science emerged a new aesthetics: a beauty that is situated between order and chaos, between simplicity and disorganized complexity, between the arts and sciences, and between the traditional and the avant-garde. Manuel Lima captured the beauty of “Networkism” in his book: “Networks show that there is order in disorder, that there is unity in diversity, and above all, that complexity is astonishingly beautiful” (Lima 243).