“Imagine a world without things.”
So begins Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science, a collection of essays examining nine objects, from creation to context. It’s a dense and serious history book, and one well worth reading.
The identity of some of the objects analyzed is clear from the chapter titles, while others are less obvious. Together they form a curious list — a “motley crew” in the words of editor Lorraine Daston. They are:
Hieronymus Bosch’s drawing The Treeman; the eighteenth-century freestanding column in religious architecture; Peacock Island on the Prussian river Havel; soap bubbles; early photographs entered as courtroom evidence; the Glass Flowers at Harvard; Rorschach inkblots; newspaper clippings; and certain paintings by Jackson Pollack as seen by the critic Clement Greenberg.
On its most basic level, Things That Talk is an attempt to refine the idea of thingness itself. Things lie, according to the authors, at the intersection of their gritty physical selves and their metaphysical and anthropological personae. For some things, there is an inherent tension in this dual role, and the object is transformed. It becomes a thing that talks.
Things That Talk is at once a serious discussion of metaphysics and a history lesson. Daston works through most of the general philosophical preliminaries in her introductory chapter, Speechless, and doing so frees her authors to write about history. I was grateful for the primer, despite its density:
The classical philosophical treatments of things are of limited assistance in overcoming the paradox [of things]. Martin Heidegger’s famous essay Das Ding blames the paradox on Kantian metaphysics, or, rather, on Kant’s reduction of metaphysics to epistemology. The “thing” must, Heidegger insists, be sharply distinguished from the Kantian “object” Gegenstand, the latter being the product of ideas and representations of the thing. . .
The chapters which follow are more accessible, yet still rich in detail. The authors approach their things as objects in situ; the art and science is examined with attention to its cultural, political and social context. In the book’s first essay, Bosch’s Equipment, author Joseph Leo Koerner cites one hundred original sources, including mathematician Girolamo Cardano: “You can tell a real from a fake mermaid by examining her joints.” Here he uses the image to flesh out Bosch’s technical expertise relative to the drawings of his contemporaries. This undertone of playfulness, running throughout the text, is a welcome complement to the discussion.
Consumer culture co-opts science in my favorite chapter. Business is Bursting: Soap Bubbles as Commodities in Classical Physics describes a moment in nineteenth-century England when newly-developed high speed photo- and cinematography, along with the scientific muscle of pathology and hydrodynamics, were marshaled to sell soap to England’s “polite company.” Essayist Simon Schaffer quotes: “Any fool can make soap, it takes a clever man to sell it.” The clever men here are company executives, assembling a truly modern, multimedia advertising campaign. The A & F Pears Corporation, among others, bankrolled scientists and sponsored public lectures to the wealthier classes on the hydrodynamics of the soap bubble. Audiences were thrilled with the first-ever film footage of bursting bubbles, while the popular magazines of the day brought these photographs into the home. At the same time, Schaffer argues, the pseudoscience of moral ecology was employed in the campaign. He cites Christian socialist Charles Kingsley: “If they [the underclass] work very hard and wash very hard, their brains may grow bigger.” The campaign effectively doubled per head soap usage in England in thirty years, and made manufacturers very, very rich.
I would have welcomed a more substantive treatment of the science behind Things That Talk. For example, the Navier-Stokes equations are nowhere to be found in Bursting Bubbles. Antoine Picon, in The Freestanding Column in Eighteenth-Century Religious Architecture , describes the moment in architectural history when it first became appreciated that “loads circulated like a fluid…” and he whets the reader’s appetite:
This intellectual context may account for the decision taken some decades later by Augustin-Louis Cauchy, who had been trained as a Ponts et Chausées engineer, to use Leonhard Euler’s approach of hydrodynamics to define stress and to organize his theory of elasticity.
But Things That Talk is a book about history, not science, and the science goes no deeper.
It would be an unusual choice to include Things That Talk in any undergraduate mathematics course, even as supplemental material; the chapters contain no rigorous math, and even those with a scientific angle would probably not translate well. This is not to say, however, that the book disappoints. For readers serious about history, Things That Talk is indeed a real mermaid.
Matthew Glomski is Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY. His areas of interest include applied mathematics, teaching, and the search for the perfect pickup truck. He can be reached at email@example.com.