ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Guest Blog

Guest Blog


Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American
Guest Blog HomeAboutContact

The Art and Science of the Diagram: Communicating the Knowledge of the Heavens, the Earth and the Arcane, Final Part

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



In this final blog post of the Art and Science of the Diagram (see Part 1 and Part 2) series, I will venture away from more overt conceptual (and computational) diagrams in the practices of science to consider what it means to have all these diagrammatic models and schemas. As a refresher of what I had said in the first part of the series, it is important to reiterate the importance of diagrammatic thinking in the sciences as being a result of centuries of evolving media even as the goal of knowledge preservation and transmission remains unchanged.

While well-developed, hand-crafted diagrams have existed in the manuscript-form long before the invention of the printing press, the work involved was so laborious, and required such specialized skills, that not too many were ever produced, and even less of such artifacts have been able to survive unscathed.

Credit: nyam.org

Credit: nyam.org

Many of these objects that are now part of esteemed collections in the Rare Book archives and museums were actually ancestors to the plastic versions that were produced as series of collectibles in children’s encyclopedic series and science models.  Some of these science education series would come with paper and plastic models that the reader is able to put together with the aid of accompanying instructions. The main purpose is to simplify and make sensible a knowledge that is not always linear or intuitive.

It Began With the Heavens

The charting of the dark heavens started with an interest in determining the fate of humankind, first by way of calculation of seasonal and climate cycles, and then, through the possible influence of the constellations and astronomical objects on the health and well-being of the people.

Credit: http://members.westnet.com.au/gary-david-thompson/page11-24.html

Credit: http://members.westnet.com.au/gary-david-thompson/page11-24.html

Each ancient civilization had its version of the ‘almanac of the stars’ with very detailed configurations and calculation guidelines pertaining to the movements of the extra-terrestrial objects founded on the knowledge available at the time. The findings inveigled out of the calculations of observable physical phenomena are then extrapolated into the interpretation of life and social events.   The Chinese are known for such guides that have been in existence for centuries, and which are still consulted to this day by certain more ‘superstitious’ members of the society.

However, the earliest versions of such charts have as much impetus from astronomy as it does from astrology. There are parallels between the development of astronomy/astrology in ancient China and Greece, such as in the geography and mapping out of the constellations, the allusions to myths and a pantheon of gods and goddesses, the relationship between fate and the geo-positioning of the stars and planets (though the Chinese have a more elaborate system that connects the heavens to the materialism of the four ‘elements’ of the earth’), the importance of the seasonal cycles, and also the zodiacs (however, while the zodiac signs change annually for the Chinese, the Greek version stretches across overlapping solar months).

How the health line of the body is connected to the stars. Credit: awesomestories.com

How the health line of the body is connected to the stars. Credit: awesomestories.com

As the centuries progress, the astrological aspect of the Greek’s astronomy would fall out of the picture, though Renaissance and early modern physicians were still known to have attempted to chart the medical destiny of their patients in conjunction with specific loci of the stars. These were seen less as any kind of other worldly beliefs than a belief that natural elements have a role to play in influencing the physiognomy and inclination to certain health issues.

credit: barnesandnoble.com

credit: barnesandnoble.com

The Chinese, on the other hand, developed very elaborate structural representations of the life cycle of a person through the use of architectural-anatomical nomenclatures that had survived centuries to the present moment. If one were to go to a Chinese astrologer and request for a birth chart reading, depending on the level of the detail in the request, one might be presented with a full scale detailing of mansions, pillars, wooden frameworks, and references to various bodily organs.

From the pages of the ‘Nine Chapters’. Credit: mathisgoodforyou.com

From the pages of the ‘Nine Chapters’. Credit: mathisgoodforyou.com

However, ‘superstition’ aside, what is marvelous is that the drive to chart the fate of humankind has led to the development of more sophisticated forms of computational methods, such as in the using of the Chinese version of geometry to create more precise calculations of the coordinates of the heavenly objects. One such example can found in the Chinese mathematical treatise referred to as “The Nine Chapters of Mathematical Procedures”1.

However, despite the difficulties of charting three dimensional entities onto a two-dimensional frame, instead of any concerted effort to produce a three-dimensional replica, the Greeks and Chinese mostly used their own version of projective geometry to reduce the three dimensional objects into two-dimensional representations.

From the pages of the ‘Nine Chapters’. Credit: mathisgoodforyou.com

An example of a volvelle. Credit: http://socrates.acadiau.ca/courses/engl/rcunningham/CC/CoTech.htm

The use of a three dimensional diagrammatic device known as the volvelle did not take place until the early modern period, probably sometime around the second quarter of the sixteenth century when scientific publishers (who tend to be also the printers), decided to include handcrafted pedagogical tools in the form of paper wheels, discs, caps, and dials, among other ‘cut-out’ and moveable devices, that functioned not only as science demo apparatus for knowledge dissemination of the post-Renaissance age but also as a possible paper calculator for working out any specific dates, time, and season for a specific day, and for charting vast expanses of space from the heavens to the oceans for navigational purposes. Some would refer to the volvelle as an analog computer program that enables the reader to compute the end result through a combination of variables (Drennan 318).2 There are evidences of similar mechanical objects developed in the Islamic world but they were not incorporated into the printed texts in the same way as in Europe, because modern printing did not develop in the Islamic world until the nineteenth century.

The volvelle becomes the early version of a diagram used for demonstrating a mathematical construction, but through the use of highly defined geometrical and topological structures to signify the mathematical framing of the heavenly entities in terms of their physical relationship to the human conscious perception.  Certain mechanical-constraints are built into this paper and wood mechanical device to allow the reader at that time to develop a more intuitive relationship to entities that may not necessarily fit into their daily mental models.  While the device is meant to advance a certain form of knowledge sets and beliefs, it does not protect against erroneous perceptions stemming from fundamental miscognition of the observation, or the inability to connect observation that appear paradoxical in existing frameworks.

An example of a volvelle. Credit: http://socrates.acadiau.ca/courses/engl/rcunningham/CC/CoTech.htm

This volvelle is taken from a French side detailing how calculations can be made with this volvelle involving the measurement ‘space-time’. Credit: assprouen.fr

Everything about the volvelle, including the material of its construction, would place it squarely within the realm of the analog. However, if one is to peer closely at the way in which the volvelle has been constructed, very precise measurements are made to ensure that the dials are pointing to where they are supposed to be pointing, and that each turn of the right combination of notches would produce a desirable outcome. While there might be some level of fuzziness in that what one thinks of as exact is not always exact, there is an exactness in the measuring tools used to make these cut-ups that try to render as precise as possible the tasks of making predictions concerning coordinates and the onset of a particular event. In that sense, one might therefore consider the volvelle, as a computing and predicting ‘machine,’ to be an early forefather of the digital; with paper, and later, wooden cogs and wheels, except that the ‘programming’ took place at the level of ‘hardware’ rather than ‘software’.

This volvelle is taken from a French side detailing how calculations can be made with this volvelle involving the measurement ‘space-time’. Credit: assprouen.fr

Credit: ubergizmo.com

Even in today’s highly sophisticated computing, it has not yet been successful in reproducing the desire for the tactile as part of the learning senses, even though this might be changing now that it is possible to produce three-dimensional models of a less complex nature using special printers that can print in the three-dimensional.  Many of the functions of the volvelle can be animated through the use of simple gif image scripts but that could not reproduce the feel and texture of the materiality of objects that continue to awe. Most importantly, it might not be able to reproduce the learning through the feel of the ‘original’ material.

Flapbooks, Pop-Ups and the Folding in and out of Anatomy

Diagrammatic thinking plays a powerful role in medicine, especially in the depiction of the human anatomy. Though there have been intricate drawings of human biology since medieval times in the Arab and other ‘Oriental’ worlds, with very detailed lines and labels attached to each anatomical section featured, the cut-out versions were only found from around the period of the Renaissance, in medical and some physical sciences books.

Credit: ubergizmo.com

Credit: booktryst.com

Since the Renaissance marks a period of preoccupation with the human body, as well as development in printing technology, the scientific illustrations produced were the outcome of new techniques in art such as perspectives and projections.  At the same time, there was also a growing preoccupation with all things mechanical and their representations, since at the philosophical level, there were schools of thoughts that adhere to the mechanical ideal at varying degrees, usually as a reaction against the type of interpretations favored by the church. Therefore, anatomy and physiology were basically studied as part of the organic mechanical process. As universities, old and new, as well as the newly opened medical schools, began to flourish, new ways of teaching were being experimented with and the development of ‘three-dimensional’ teaching tools in the form of the flapbooks were therefore also developed.

Credit: booktryst.com

Credit: http://dclramage.wordpress.com/2004/03/page/2/

If you curious about what a flapbook is like, especially a medical flapbook, I suggest visiting Duke Library’s website here and watching the video demonstration of the complex layers hidden beneath the ‘cut-ups’ and ‘cut-outs,’ not unlike the kind one finds in children’s books. Such a complexity of layers involve careful scaling and measurements based on observations of multiple drawings representing the different systems that one might find in an ‘average’ body (the muscular, the skeletal, the digestive organs, the reproductive systems etc), and then a superimposition of each of these systems within an as accurate a representation as one is able to observe.  Such inclination towards the production of 3-D learning and the demonstration of printed texts was just part of a larger fascination with the building of models that were meant to represent the early modern Philosophy of Life. By the time the 18th century rolled around, one could already find metallic representations of automatons and clockwork dolls that were realization of some of the same models found in the anatomical flapbooks.

Credit: http://dclramage.wordpress.com/2004/03/page/2/

Credit: atlas.ch

Since many of the famous medical schools of the Renaissance and early modern period were based in Italy, much of the provenance of these texts originated in Italy. As the language of the educated class was Latin, anyone who entered medical school would come with a ready command of the language. The flapbook was premised on the idea of using multiple layers of stiff paper where, for example, one may then draw the entire system, inside out, to show the multiple gestational phases of the embryo, or more simply, to show what a heart may look like. This is not unlike the traditional use of transparent slides whereby each slide would represent a specific system, except that, in the case of a flapbook, the diagrams are moveable. One of the most famous versions of this is Andrea Vesalii’s Epitome Anatomica (also known as De humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome).3 The artistic mastery in its production was unsurpassed in its time, and it probably would have cost as much to own one back then as it would today.

Even today, and despite all the animation and visuals produced digitally that are readily available from its databank, CERN and the ATLAS experiment has decided that the production of a pop-up book would further their outreach. Hence, one such book was published in 2010.4

Sketching Nature

The anatomical flapbooks are merely part of a constellation of the preoccupation in representing nature through printed matter, and other objects. If the Renaissance and the first half of the 17th century saw a certain level of anthropocentrism, there was also a growing interest in how other organic, and also inorganic, matter would connect to the biosphere of the human. As mentioned, there had been a growing interest with the representation of the mechanical world, and as explorations and colonial expansions began to take place from the 18th century onwards, Europe, and later North America, became exposed to a range of exotic curios outside their usual purview. At the same time, the opening up of international trade in that period also enabled new objects to be created to cater to the demands of its foreign trade partner, which led to the production of many new articles such as highly ornamented time-telling devices that were also an outcome of control in trying to make sense of nature’s interactions.5

As natural history developed through the eighteenth century and nineteenth century via the work of increasingly ‘professional’ explorers such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, the scientific illustrations produced were no longer rough sketches accompanying the notes, but rather, full-blown drawings of professional métier.  In fact, I would like to talk a little about the diagramming of nature as a form of bio-geo-historiography that also functions as a colonial observation and critique of the other, through Wallace’s work in The Malay Archipelago.  The publication contains drawings made by Wallace himself, who is no mean artist, with his attentive descriptions of the region and vegetation of the place he visited. As a natural historian, he went beyond the usual description of nature with acute, and politically astute, description of the lands, peoples and animal forms he came into contact with, even if his language is not entirely unencumbered by colonial politics6.

Credit: mjt.orgWhat I find interesting about the sketches accompanying his writings were attempts to provide as faithful as possible a rendering of the ‘alien’ observations. At the same time, one may find, rather obviously, that the more distant the entities described were from the milieu of the humans, the more accurate were the sketches rendered. As a Malaysian, I would argue that the drawing of a Dayak youth produced by Wallace bore no actual resemblance to the Dayaks, natives of Malaysia, in terms of the facial structure. Of course, one might argue that this is subjective, or that Wallace had a repertoire of life-drawing techniques to draw from, and this rendition was probably based on his personal impression of what the ‘natives’ should look like, with the injection of certain Europeanized ideals.

Therefore, to connect this to the anatomical books produced in that period and before, one can argue that the emphasis on scientificity does not detract from the formation of biases. The aforementioned Vesalii also produced another medical-anatomy book called De corporis humani fabrica libri septem that contain elaborate anatomical features not unlike his other book, but which are posed in such a way that reminded one of dramatic tableaux rather than ‘indifferent’ science. That, itself, is not necessarily a bad thing, but it leads to the opening up of the discussion of what constitutes legitimate science and knowledge, which the next, and final section, will dwell on.

However, does this mean that the physical sciences, considered less likely to be subject to anthropomorphic biases, be freed from perception biases? As the discussion into ancient astronomy/astrology above has shown, the main difference between the astronomy of more recent times, in comparison to its earlier genesis, is the greater emphasis on only theorizing about observations, or the subtension of those observations, without including the narrative of the metaphysics for which one has no tangible forms of demonstration. The diagrams represent the observable though the interpretive narrative can be more than made up.

The Chamber of the Curios: the Artifice, the Virtual and the Real

When you enter a museum, what expectation comes to mind? Regardless of the objects on display at that museum, you would still be expecting a veracity of that provenance even if the objects constituted a world of artifice and fiction.  But what if you enter a museum that is a museum about museums, or even a critique of museums. A museum containing idiosyncratic objects, and specimens, all included in the museum for a reason, and each of these objects representing traces of what might have been, and what is possible.

Credit: atlas.ch

The stink ant of Cameroon. Credit: http://futurechimp.blogspot.com

The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, Los Angeles, is exactly that. It is like a life-size cabinet of curiosity containing natural philosophy, the archaeology of media (the object-history of sound, visual, and tactile technology of various forms), and the history of ideas.

In the Jubilee Catalogue of the museum, among the specimens to be found in its collection were a 7-inch Asian quail and the stink ant of Cameroon. The pages of the catalog contain specimens that could give Ripley’s Believe It or Not a run for its money.  For example, the first specimen listed was a horn purportedly to have grown at the back of the head of a woman.

Towards the quarter end of the catalog is a description of the work of microminiaturist Hagop Sandaldjian who carves from materials with such minuteness that the details were only perceivable under the microscope. One of the most intriguing stories in the catalog involve an exhibit about Madelena Delani and Geoffrey Sonnabend, whose stories were told in the same partition of the museum even though they had never met, nor had they any relationship to each other.

The stink ant of Cameroon. Credit: http://futurechimp.blogspot.com

Credit: mjt.org

What created that ‘bond’ between them, is the intriguing story of the ‘geometry of forgetting.’ Delani was a virtuoso soprano with short-term memory issues while Sonnabend was interested in how one could visualize memory, and thus, forgetfulness. Sonnabend argues that all living organisms have a ‘cone of obliscence’ where one is able to “experience experiences”. As far as Sonnabend is concerned, these cones, and the way they intersect with the planes, represent the way in which the process of memory takes place. Do you agree that our memory is shaped in a specific manner, and that the deployment of memory in particular ways basically represents the locus of the memory function, and what memory is doing at that point of time?7 Is it possible that diagrams are nothing more than a way of visualizing cognition that usually operates in abstraction and thought to operate randomly.

Conclusion

We have reached the final installment in this series. In all the examples that we have seen, diagramming is about creating a medium for aiding insight, understanding, and memory. It is also about mapping out all that is observable, and in the process, brings us to consider what is not as visible. There is no standard representation of the diagram: however, one thing for sure is that it is the mediator by which we measure, calculate and ‘normalize’ our apprehension of our universe.

Notes:

1 “Mei Wending.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 14 May. 2013. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1072849/Mei-Wending>.

2 Drennan, Anthony S. “The Bibliographical Description of Astronomical Volvelles and Other Moveable Diagrams.” The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, 13.3, September 2012, pp. 316-339

3 For more information on this and other flapbooks, please check out http://www.library.unt.edu/rarebooks/exhibits/popup2/introduction.htm, http://blog.whitneyannetrettien.com/2011/06/these-are-evelyn-tables-set-of-four.html, and http://collections.nlm.nih.gov/ext/pub/HIDDENTREASURE_NLM_BlastBooks.pdf. See also Kusukawa, S. Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

4 http://www.atlas.ch/popupbook/.

5 In 2010, the Philippe Patek Museum in Geneva staged a large-scale exhibit of ‘Chinese’ timepieces designed by the master craftsmen of Geneva for the Chinese market of the 18th and 19th century. I happened to be in Geneva at the time on field research. While I could not locate any full scale virtual exhibition of such pieces, attached is a short write-up on the topic http://www.keithstrandberg.com/documents/WJ7_PatekChinese.pdf.

6 See http://www.papuaweb.org/dlib/bk/wallace/toc.html which also contains illustrations from the Malay Archipelago.

7 More information about the museum can be found at http://mtj.org.

Clarissa Ai Ling Lee About the Author: Clarissa Ai Ling Lee is a Phd Candidate in the Literature Program at Duke University, specializing in science and technology studies and comparative media studies. She also possesses an undergraduate degree in physics and a MA in English from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. She blogs alternately at Unquiet mind of an academic libertine and Epistemic Circus. Follow on Twitter @normasalim.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Add Comment

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Back To School

Back to School Sale!

12 Digital Issues + 4 Years of Archive Access just $19.99

Order Now >

X

Email this Article



This function is currently unavailable

X