Jun 23

I went to “Science” and all I got was this lousy t-shirt

May 17

Emus in space: visualising western and indigenous knowledge

2-image display for Yamajiart Exhibition 2007.


The Emu has great spiritual significance for the Aboriginal people for many male-kin initiation ceremonies. Their sacred role was (is) embedded deeply in place-based cultural attachments.1 Emus were a primary food source during the seasonal egg cycle, and remain frequent subjects in aboriginal art, reflecting their importance in the Dreaming cultures. Their consistent inclusion in stories across diverse linguistic groups is indicative of a long history.2 The rock engraving depicted in the lower section of the photo-montage lies in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, Sydney, and was used as a ritual and cultural site up to the arrival of the British Fleet in 1788.3 The changing patterns of the Milky Way were clearly visible to many Aboriginal communities throughout the year. Known as Dangarra, the ‘sky-emu’, the outline shape of the dark spaces of clouds and dust (in the upper section of the photomontage), formed the body, with the head in the top right and the body and legs towards the bottom left. This interpretation contrasts with Western readings of the Milky Way, which focus on the bright stars of the constellation as opposed to the dark spaces.4 Indigenous communities draw in the soil of ancestral and ceremonial land and on the skin of participants. Dots, circles, hatching and specific shapes signify particular geological features, individuals and events. Stories were made visible only to permitted elders or initiates; others did not see them as the soils would be flattened over and skin cleaned afterwards. Ancestral kin groups utilise drawings and stories to share knowledge in close kin or male/female contexts. The acrylic painted Emu, depicted using the ‘dot’ style painting familiar in Aboriginal art is a visually pleasing but redacted representation of the Sky-emu, hiding substantial sacred meanings to modern audiences.5 The dot paintings have now become characteristic of commercial, aboriginal art. The sky-emu echoed the flightless emus on the ground, reflecting understandings of connectivity between bodies in the cosmos and on land; ‘everything under Creation is represented in the soil and the stars. Everything has two witnesses, one on earth and one in the sky.’6

The images above embody and communicate complex indigenous scientific understandings of astronomical, ecological and social relationships. As with scientific visualisations in general, they do not stand in isolation but need consideration within ‘discursive practices within which these representations are embedded’.7 Aboriginal astronomical and ecological knowledge relies heavily on the visual/metaphorical language permeating through the fabric of indigenous society.  They explain the world differently from modern societies. Representations of the cosmos are depicted in rock art, stone structures and oral storytelling, telling origin stories and tying landscape features to social and environmental relationships.8 This oral/visual communication provides 40,000-years of astronomical knowledge from origin stories of the ‘Dreaming’ to contemporary times. The Dreaming describes an ahistorical age of creation which still flows through disturbed and reduced Aboriginal communities.9

Western science seeks to understand how the world works through a ‘scientific method’, with its systematic, epistemological processes.10 This approach contrasts with traditional knowledge systems which western science perceive of as being contextual, contingent, and less credible.11  Communication systems are similarly divergent, with Western models of science focusing on peer review, written and visual tools.12 Aboriginal knowledge transmission tends towards cultural encodings in oral and visual traditions, passed to successive generations through daily social, cultural and ritual events.13  Visual productions and storytelling are used to create analogies that explain relationships between people and the natural world; they are fundamental to social and ceremonial activity.14 The images at https://www.skatelescope.org/australia/, created for a  cross-cultural scientific programme exploring sharing of indigenous astronomical knowledge, represent and communicate indigenous science.

Since the emergence of environmental and climate change as pressing global concerns, there has been a burgeoning interest in the potential of indigenous knowledge systems to offer routes to how to live within our planetary boundaries.15 These systems of understandings have become a focus of wider ‘science’, beyond their established anthropological domain.  Visual narratives of long-term socio-ecological connections provide an alternative worldview that speaks to how the world works from a particular cultural perspective, which might be of use in facing these modern challenges.16

Indigenous narratives are not made-up stories in the western sense but form part of the rich re-enactments the Dreaming orderings of the social and natural worlds and the wider ancestral cosmos. They offer predictions about change, such as meteorological patterns, tidal flows, and seasonal variations based on transitions of the moon, planets and star systems.17 This knowledge is not ‘traditional’ in the sense of being static but transcends individual, community and multi-generational lifetimes. Indigenous knowledge fluctuates not because of inherent unreliability but because it recognises changing environmental states which require ongoing adaptation.18

The aim of both western and indigenous science is to make sense of the world. Both approaches can explain seasonal variations and landscape features, dictated by different scientific ‘subcultures’.19 Western sciences use atmospheric and radar technology to map storm systems or indicate weather events, and has a short history of experience to draw on. Aboriginal cultures assess the twinkling (scintillation) of the stars to determine levels of turbulence and moisture in the atmosphere, with demarcations applied to determine specific weather events and seasonal changes.20 Dreaming pictures and stories provide narratives of how to read and live in the ensuing conditions.

The images above exemplify this; the shape and the angle of the Emu within the dark sky of the Milky Way change throughout the year, and dark spaces appear around the ‘body’ of the emu as it moves. These visual changes identify the start of the gathering season for emu eggs – a major source of seasonal protein. Ecological studies indicate that many animals adapt their breeding season in line with astronomical movements, which vary slightly year on year. Fuller et al.21 and Leaman et al.22 both note that emu egg-laying coincides with rising of the sky-emu and match slight variations between years. The metaphysical stories of the Dreaming depicted here predict the physical availability of valuable sources of protein based on thousands of years of observation and place-specific knowledge. Both the western and indigenous approaches fulfil essential functions for managing people’s engagement with their environment:

When you first see the emu … you just see the neck and the head…and as the months go by it shapes into the emu, and then … it’s sort of lying and when it does that that’s when the emu’s laying eggs and everyone hunts for them … special time.23

Aboriginal Dreaming stories have been ratified by examining alignments between oral descriptions and identifiable geological or biological events, such as sea level changes, and meteor strikes. The communicative efficiency of this ‘long view’ transmission culture appears substantial.24,25,26 Sophisticated understandings of lunar/tidal processes and the earth as a finite object rather than a flat infinity predates ‘western’ science by thousands of years.27 This capacity for communicating observations and experience enabled indigenous communities to survive in challenging environments for 40,000years.

Science is frequently characterised as objective, and art as subjective, but Daston and Galison28 note that ‘images are inextricable from the daily practices of science, knowledge representation, and dissemination’29 such that the distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity, science and art are blurred.30 The cultural history of Aboriginal art shows that this is relevant to indigenous science too. The observational and visual processes of Aboriginal astronomers, facilitating understanding of indigenous knowledge as science, correlate strongly with Western scientific visualisation activities.

Liz Gladin

Student on Science Communication Masters Programme


  1. Norris, Ray P. and Duane W. Hamacher (2009) The Astronomy of Aboriginal Australia. Valls-Gabaud D., & A. Boksenberg, eds. The Role of Astronomy in Society and Culture Proceedings IAU Symposium.
  2. Fuller, R.S., Anderson, M.G., Norris, R.P., Trudgett, M. (2014) The Emu Sky Knowledge of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Peoples. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 17(2): 171-179.
  3. Norris Ray P. (2016) Dawes Review 5: Australian Aboriginal Astronomy and Navigation. Astronomical Society of Australia.
  4. Bhathal, Ragbir & Terry Mason (2011) Aboriginal astronomical sites, landscapes and paintings Astronomy and Geophysics 52 (4): 4.12-4.16.
  5. Myers, Fred (2009) ‘Representing Culture: The Production of Discourse(s) for Aboriginal Acrylic Paintings’, In Morphy, Howard, Morgan Perkins eds. The Anthropology of Art: A Reader John Wiley & Sons.
  6. Yorro YorroMowaljarlai (1993), Ngarinyin tribal Elder from Bhathal, Ragbir & Terry Mason (2011) Aboriginal astronomical sites, landscapes and paintings (pp 414).
  7. Burri Regula Valérie & Joseph Dumit (2008) ‘Social studies of scientific imaging and visualization’, Ch 13 in Ed Hackett et al., The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, MIT Press: p300.
  8. Bhathal, Ragbir (2006) Astronomy in Aboriginal culture Astronomy and Geophysics 47: 5.21-5.30
  9. Bhathal, Ragbir & Terry Mason (2011) Aboriginal astronomical sites, landscapes and paintings Astronomy and Geophysics 52 (4): 4.12-4.16.
  10. Littlejohn, Stephen W., Karen A. Foss (2010) Theories of Human Communication. Waveland Press Chicago: pp344,
  11. Ellen, R. F., Peter Parkes, Alan Bicker (2000) Indigenous Environmental Knowledge and Its Transformations: Critical Anthropological Perspectives. Psychology Press
  12. Littlejohn, Stephen W., Karen A. Foss (2010) Theories of Human Communication.
  13. Sonia, Meg Parsons, Knut Olawsky, Frances Kofod (2013) The role of culture and traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation: Insights from East Kimberley, Australia. Global Environmental Change 23 (3): 623–632.
  14. Jason Byrne, Neil Sipe, Jago Dodson (2014) Australian Environmental Planning: Challenges and Future Prospects
  15. Green, D., G. Raygorodetsky (2010) Indigenous knowledge of a changing climate. Climatic Change 100 (2): 239-242.
  16. Walsh F. J., P. V. Dobson, and J. C. Douglas. 2013. Anpernirrentye: a framework for enhanced application of indigenous ecological knowledge in natural resource management. Ecology and Society 18(3): 18.
  17. Haynes, Raymond Roslynn D. Haynes, David Malin, Richard McGee (2010). Explorers of the Southern Sky: A History of Australian Astronomy Cambridge UP.
  18. Harding, Sandra (20150 Do Micronesian Navigators Practice Science? In Harding, Sandra, Objectivity and Diversity, University of Chicago Press.
  19. Aikenhead Glen S. (1997) Toward a First Nations cross-cultural science and Technology Curriculum Science Education 81: 217-238.
  20. Williams, Carl. Aboriginal astronomy and the natural world [online]. Australasian Science 36 (8): 16-19.
  21. Fuller, R.S., Anderson, M.G., Norris, R.P., Trudgett, M. (2014) The Emu Sky Knowledge of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Peoples. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 17(2): 171-179.
  22. Leaman, Trevor M., Duane W. Hamacher, Mark T. Carter (2016) Aboriginal Astronomical Traditions from Ooldea, South Australia, Part 2: Animals in the Ooldean Sky. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 19 (1),
  23. Yubulyawan Dreaming Project Indigenous informant (2009)

http://ydproject.com/index.php/lowernav/general/httpydprojectcomindexphplowernavgeneralgalileo/galileo/ (accessed 12/08/16).

  1. Reid, N, Patrick Nunn, (2015) Ancient Aboriginal stories preserve history of a rise in sea level The Conversation https://theconversation.com/ancient-aboriginal-stories-preserve-history-of-a-rise-in-sea-level-36010 (accessed 12/08/16).
  2. Hamacher, Duane W., and Ray P. Norris. 2009. ‘Australian Aboriginal Geomythology: Eyewitness Accounts of Cosmic Impacts?’ Archaeoastronomy 22 (1): 62–95.
  3. Nunn Patrick D. (2014) Lashed by sharks, pelted by demons, drowned for apostasy: the value of myths that explain geohazards in the Asia-Pacific region. Asian Geographer 31 (1): 159-82.
  4. Norris Ray P. (2016) Dawes Review 5: Australian Aboriginal Astronomy and Navigation.
  5. Daston Lorraine, Peter Galison (2010) MIT Cambridge MA.
  6. Burri Regula Valérie & Joseph Dumit (2008) ‘Social studies of scientific imaging and visualization’, Ch 13 in Ed Hackett et al., The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, MIT Press: p300.
  7. Daston Lorraine, Peter Galison (2010) MIT Cambridge MA.


Apr 21

Archiving from Below: Parenthood, Mortality and the Historian’s Dilemma

Example of children's work

‘I would like to go to lundn to see oll the peepl. I thinck it will be fantasck.’

I hesitate at gurning maw of the industrial paper compacter, suffering an existential crisis.

I’m at the council tip, clearing out my children’s school exercise books.  There’s too many of them and they are cluttering up the house.

I’m at the other end of the historian’s telescope; I’m making decisions about archiving—or not.  And it’s doing my head in.

So many hours of work, from three small hands (two left, one right), are archived in these A4, paper-bound volumes.  The maths is formulaic enough—lists of near-identical sums and times-tables—but there are also poems, stories, fragments of childish insight upon the world.  I am throwing away my children’s labours.  I am throwing away my children’s thoughts.

I am throwing away my children.

No, I correct myself: I am throwing away the fantasy that my children can be frozen in time, and the relinquishment of that fantasy is to the good.  A fond memory is a dangerous thing; it takes up house-room that is needed for present realities.  What kind of parent wants to preserve their child as an innocent five-year-old?  What kind of innocence would that be?

Besides, if I keep the books, when will I look at them?  When the children have left home?  When I am old?  Intolerable thought: it entails that I am facing death.  Will I want to look at them if one of the children has died?  Not merely intolerable: this thought is unthinkable.  If I keep the book, I think superstitiously, I plan for the event.

Then I catch the snag in this train of thought: I am presuming the books are mine.  Ah, but if I ask the children, they will certainly want to keep them.  They want to keep everything: bus tickets, a sticky animal card from a box of sweets, a bit of hubcap they found on the roadside.  So I must decide on behalf of their future selves.  If I keep the children’s books, will they want them?  Do I regret the fact that I have no examples of my own school work?  Not in the least.

But suppose one of the children becomes famous, perhaps a novelist?  Literature scholars will curse the fact that they have no insight into his earliest writing.

I reprimand myself for my vicariously hubristic fantasy.  Then I think, hell, someone has to become a famous writer, and there’s no reason why it might not be one of them.

Who aspires to be a historical character?  Surely only the self-entitled and the deluded.  If only the self-entitled retain their records, then they manoeuvre themselves into their own historical afterlife.  Perhaps their future history, proleptically enacted in the act of archiving, even makes their life ‘successful’.  The act of archiving shapes the present in deeply conservative ways, re-engraving the same lines of historiography over and over again.  The archive is destiny.

However, it is no hubris at all to assume that the children will be part of some collective historical story whose outlines I cannot yet discern.  Who am I to say what sources will speak to that story?  Perhaps I owe it to historians to keep my children’s material precisely because I believe they are ordinary, to dilute the archiving of the expected.

So far as the individual concerned goes, being destined for success—for a particular kind of success, as a writer, say—might be regarded as a blessing or a curse.  By throwing away I keep my children’s choices open even as I hide them from the historical lens of success.  I gain my children mental health, but I remain conservatively passive with regard to the shape of future history.

I console myself further with the professional thought that juvenilia reveals little: that psychologising of the infant subject is an unproductive research method.

And yet…

My current research concerns a set of historical ‘nobodies’, a group of young science fiction fans in inter-war Britain.  Their very non-importance to history is what makes them interesting to me—they offer a precious clue into what (some) ordinary people thought about science: how they interacted with it.  They have not left much by way of historical traces; even their census records from the period have been lost by fire.  Their youthful enthusiasm is ephemeral, caught in a moment of hope before the Second World War, and all the more historically precious for it.  I would be cock-a-hoop if I stumbled upon their school-books.

And now I am making life difficult for future historians in exactly the same way.

I am a thrower-away of my own potential archives.  I can’t bear the thought of people reading my letters, my drafts, my notes.  I can safely assume that I won’t be famous enough to cause a biographer to curse; but I am a part of stories that might be of future interest—gender stories, stories about higher education, stories about science and society.  Do I have the right to deny future historians their sources?  Do I have a right to disinter the sources of others?

I can’t help but notice that many of my historian colleagues talk about ‘The Archive’.  Is it mere chance that this strange singularity institutionalises the life of sources, removing them from their originators’ choices about saving or discarding?

Should a historian think more about her afterlife as a historical subject, and if so, how would this change her historiographical practice?


I didn’t have time to think about all this too much, at least, not whilst I was facing the compactor.  I had to hurry away; my eldest son was in the car, a doctor’s appointment due in ten minutes’ time.  He had a bacterial infection—no big deal: the antibiotics he was prescribed are currently clearing it up nicely.  A hundred years ago, he might have died from it.  I know that from history.

Feb 10

Dinosaurs in the Garden of England

Together with the Kent Animal Humanities Network, CHOTS looks forward to welcoming Dr Brian Noble of Dalhousie University, Canada.  Dr Noble will participate in a number of informal seminars as well as giving the annual H. G. Wells lecture for 2017:

“Good Mothers” and “King Tyrants” in the Mesozoic: An Anthropology of Dinosaur Science and Spectacle

Drawing on his recent book, Articulating Dinosaurs: A Political Anthropology, Anthropologist of Science Brian Noble discusses how dinosaurs have come to make a difference to us as humans, and us to them.  Noble combines his background in paleontology and museum exhibit design, with expertise in ethnographic research and critical literary, film, and cultural studies.  He brings to bear this inter-disciplinary in tracing how fossils and spectacles collide in the resurrecting of two particular dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus rex and Maiasaura peeblesorum – and with that, details how these supposedly bygone creatures express the hopes and fears of our past and present moments.

Date: Weds 1 March, 2017
Time: 5.15 – 6.45pm followed by reception
Place: Templeman lecture theatre, University of Kent (Library building)


Nov 09

We Have Never Been Silent

by Daniel Belteki

In my research on the history of the Airy Transit Circle, I am attempting to introduce the concept of assemblage to illuminate both the internal and external multiplicity of singularity objects in their material and non-material contexts (not to be confused with interpretive flexibility which highlights the multiplicity of the interpretations of a single object). (Law, 2002, pp.1-11) To put it differently, I am interested in how things (e.g. screws, bolts, wires etc.) and non-material entities (e.g. organisational structures, practices of the users of the instruments etc.) come together to form a coherent (but not stable) whole. Through this theoretical adventure, I am attempting not only to continue with the now signature research direction in history of science that aims at uncovering the hidden actors of events, but also to demonstrate what insights can a historical visualisation of actants as multiples as opposed to isolated “ones” can offer us. (Shapin, 1989; Latour, 2005, pp. 4-5) As it was highlighted above, the multiplicity of an actant refers to both its material multiplicity (i.e. being made up of various other material bits and pieces) and to its contextual multiplicity (i.e. being part of a social-cultural network(s) that is made up by other actants). This piece was also inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s poetical vision on open and closed chests, and how both the inside and outside of a chest can be considered to be infinite. (Bachelard, 1994, pp. 85-86)

What follows is a brief elucidation of my thoughts with the help of two artworks. Damien Ortega’s Cosmic Thing has already caught and imprisoned the attention of two major scholars in the field of History of Science, John Tresch and Bruno Latour, and I would like to expand upon their dialogue of the exhibit. Cosmic Thing is a Volkswagen Beetle (or ‘vocho’ as it is called in Mexico) disassembled by the artist (following the manuals of the car) and then suspended with nylon strings from the top of the exhibition gallery room in an exploded view, thus making the various different components which make up the car visible. It is worth quoting the close description of some of the parts offered by Tresch: “[o]n the well-worn seats we see coffee spilled in the dilated present of weekday traffic. Dents on the hanging bumpers inscribe the mass somnambulism of a crowded city. The tread of the tires bears the mark of pavement and dirt road, sudden stops and anxious errands, the grip of open possibility in outward flights. Through the glass we see landscapes approached and left behind, ocean and mountain, skyscraper and brick house; on the faded grey pain are traced the relentless action of sum, dust, rain, and air, alongside residue of bird shit and crushed mosquitoes.” (Tresch, 2007, p.90) The second piece of art is a is a musical composition titled 4’33’’ by John Cage (first premiered in 1952) which still tends to startle people’s imagination as the composition consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of “silence”.

Damián Ortega - Cosmic Things, 2002

Damián Ortega – Cosmic Things, 2002

As it was mentioned above, scholars in history and sociology of science have already provided their interpretations of Ortega’s artwork. John Tresch used it as an example to illustrate his concept of cosmogram. According to Tresch, the Beetle stands suspended just like an atom or a solar system where each components are being held together through their dynamic (or in the case of the artwork, their frozen) relations to each other. These relations transcend their material boundaries in order to encompass the historical, cultural, economic, social and political entanglements within which it participated. Thus, the object becomes an “external depiction of the elements of the cosmos and the connections among them” (ibid, p.92).

Damián Ortega - Domestic Cosmogon, 2013

Damián Ortega – Domestic Cosmogon, 2013
Another piece by Damián Ortega exploring the idea of cosmos, and the relations between domestic object.

As a response to the interpretation of the artwork offered by Tresch, Bruno Latour characterises Ortega’s work with as a “thin” or idealist description of the Volkswagen Beetle as a thing. Latour criticises extensively Ortega’s view for not offering a thicker representation of the thing due to not exhibiting the actants that were involved in the assembly and production of the different parts of the car. However, this is not the final conclusion that Latour draws from the example. Instead, the French scholar highlights what remains left out in both thick and thin descriptions of things: the process of assembling. (Latour, 2007, p. 140) Similarly to Tresch, Latour evokes the right direction set out by Heidegger in focusing on the assembling, gathering or “thinging” of the elements. By describing the “assembling” process, we are able to demonstrate how things work not when they are suspended in an exploded view or “drawn in the res extensa mode”, but when the parts hide one another. Furthermore, it relocates power to the very process of assembling that becomes completed/finished (and thus hidden) once the object is assembled. (Ibid, p. 141)

Many of the ideas put forward by both Latour and Tresch seem to resonate with Roland Barthes’ meditation on the Citroen DS. For Barthes, the car was a superlative object that “fell from heaven”. According to Barthes, it is this fall that highlights the absence of its origin, transforms the passionate conceiver of the object into an unknown artist, and brings about “a silence which belongs to the order of the marvellous.” (Barthes, 2013, p.169) In the light of Barthes’ mythology, Ortega’s cosmic thing seems to overcome the otherworldliness of the object. As Tresch writes, the exhibited VW Beetle is far from showing its imperfections. Coffee is spilled on the seats, dents are visible on the body of the car, and the even the birds have laid their judgements on the vehicle. Latour, however, still imagines the object as a perfect object presenting itself in the way in which Barthes describes the divine object. Tresch’s attention to detail shows that the object is in fact a worldly object, and its history is manifested through the imperfections of the exhibited model. In consequence, while Latour rightly calls attention to the lack of “social assemblers”, Ortega’s work illuminates history itself as one of the assemblers of the Vocho.

Returning to Latour’s point about shifting the focus of our analysis to the process of “gathering”, perhaps we should look not towards artworks that are “static”, but rather at works that are “dynamic”. One of the most dynamic of arts is music itself. When music is performed, we experience the Heideggerian process of gathering and libation at the same time. (Heidegger, 2012, pp. 10-15) A musical instrument not only “gathers” the sounds (similarly to the same way as a jug holds its content), but also allows for their making through a sonic libation of sound production. In comparison to static contemporary art pieces, like Ortega’s Cosmic Things, the outpouring of the music is not created by the viewer’s or the consumer’s interpretation (i.e. through what Tresch labelled as the interpretive flexibility of the VW Beetle), but through the object’s (or the musical instrument’s) inherent “thinging”. (Ibid.)

If anything, the fields of STS and History of Science like to focus on cases when conventionality breaks down. In the world of music, one of the musical pieces that engages in an in-depth manner with the conventions of the art is 4’33’’ by John Cage. The piece itself is always a performance for any type and number of instruments, but the musicians are instructed not to play their instruments. The composition is divided into three movements. If performed on the piano, the beginning and the end of the music is signalled by the materiality of music and the performance, i.e. with the opening and the closing of the keyboard cover at the beginning and end of each one of the movements. Through these actions and with the presence of the instruments, the work of art engages with the basic conventions of music by calling attention to its most elementary components that gather and hold the sounds and music together. However, by not allowing the musicians to play their instruments, the work denies the outpouring of the “jug of music”, thus restricting the musical instruments from the sonic libation. Yet, through this restriction, other participants who take part in the musical performance are revealed: the audience and the space (or the environment) of the performance. In fact, as it is usually agreed between interpreters of this piece, music (or sound) is always created during the performance, but the sources of the sounds are not the musical instruments themselves. Rather sounds and music are created by the environment (the quiet hum of the ventilation systems, the squeaking of the chairs, the creaking of the floor, a distant sounds of ambulance sirens breaking into the concert hall etc.) and by the people themselves (people murmuring to each other, scratching an itch, yawning at the dull performance of the musicians etc.). (Marter, 1999, p. 132)

So what if we attempt to interpret John Cage’s piece with the ears of Latour? It can be argued, that 4’33’’ achieves what Latour has identified as the shortcoming of the Ortega’s Cosmic Thing. First, it brings together the actants that are generally hidden in the assembling of a musical performance (the audience and the environment) Second, it goes one step further by not even challenging the sounds produced by the “context” with the sounds of the musical instruments. It is this radical liberation of the hidden assemblers of the sounds that staggers the attentive audience. And even within the audience’s and the environment’s attempted conformation to the most basic conventions of music, they cannot be silenced. In fact, we realise that it is impossible for us not to make a sound (whether we are part of the audience or part of the environment). As if, during this whole time, we have never been silent.

Two pages from John Cage’s score for 4’33.

Two pages from John Cage’s score for 4’33.



  • Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1994)
  • Barthes, Roland, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013)
  • Heidegger, Martin, Bremen and Freiburg Lectures (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012)
  • Latour, Bruno, ‘Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?’, Isis, 98:1 (2007), 138-142
  • Law, John, Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2002)
  • Marter, Joan (ed.), Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-1963 (New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press, 1999)
  • Shapin, Steven, ‘The Invisible Technician’, American Scientist, 77:6 (1989), 554-563
  • Tresch, John, ‘Technological World-Pictures: Cosmic Things and Cosmograms’, Isis, 98:1 (2007), 84-99

Sep 28

Food science: then and now


Jacie’s dissertation focused on food in WW2

img_2031Having looked at a huge range of universities and the courses on offer I decided to apply for the MSc Science Communication and Society at the University of Kent. I chose this particular course as it offered an opportunity to study a combination of Biosciences and History modules allowing me to gain a fantastic insight into how these different disciplines are interconnected. My BSc was in Food and Nutrition and I wished to progress towards looking at the impact of food throughout history. While I really enjoyed the Biosciences modules available and found Dan Lloyd a brilliant lecturer, I took more of the history modules as they allowed me to delve into a different area from my scientific Bachelors degree. The optional modules on offer were incredibly interesting and it was very difficult to choose, but I settled on Deformed, Deranged and Deviant, which examined changing medical science and attitudes towards people who were ‘different’. The module was a fascinating insight into a delicate and sensitive subject. I also chose Places, Spaces and Things: Museums, Material Culture and the History of Science module, which really challenged me to think and look at museums and places of science from a new perspective. As a member of a Heritage Group in my town, with plans to start a local museum, this module will prove invaluable in helping me to contribute to my community. Kent has been supportive, enjoyable, challenging and mind expanding! I have great respect for the lecturers here who have developed the MSc Science Communication course as it opens a path between Science and Humanities and allows students to discover the connections between these two disciplines. The knowledge gained on this course has enabled me to gain a PhD scholarship in History where I will be researching food in rural Kent during the Second World War.

Sep 27

Wunderkammer Autumn 2016

Here are this term’s Wunderkammer sessions. We’ll be discussing the History Manifesto, SciArt, early-modern globalisation, transhumanism and the history of peer review. We meet every other Tuesday, from 17.30-19.00, in the Unicorn pub, Canterbury. Full details on the pdf wunderkammer_autumn_2016

Jul 01

‘Visualising dynamic theories, what diagrams of molecular pathways represent’ by Filippo Guizzetti

Visualisation is a constitutive and essential part of the scientific activity. From basic research to the production of evidences (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988), from the development of scientific theories to the stage of public evaluation, several methods of representation are the root from which the scientific discourse unfolds (Pauwels 2006, p.vii; Lynch 1988, p.153). Molecular pathways’ diagrams are a unique mixture of different forms of representation. They involve drawings, graphs, and diagrams, showing a dynamic process rather than a static and lasting entity. This essay will show that visualisation, interpretation and representation of scientific data is an active and knowledge-based process driven by pre-existing theories. Molecular pathways representations can be considered an effective way through which scientists display their interpretations, expectations and beliefs on molecular processes particularly difficult to visualise (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.86). Two diagrams representing a specific pathway will be analysed and compared to another type biological representation. Furthermore, it will be shown how the representations choices used for these diagrams reflect the audience of scientific experts they address. Finally, divergent points of view on to what extent theory-based and theory-driven observations can be considered reliable scientific facts will be presented. Using texts by Lynch, Hacking and other authors, molecular pathways representation will be debated as a particularly effective example demonstrating that empirical observations and theoretical knowledge are the two complementary and inseparable side of scientific investigation. Through the guide of scientific knowledge, these representations do not aim to crystallise theories, but to provide opportunities for scientific discussions and further investigations.

A constitutive feature of scientific activity is the production of visual representations of objects of study, processes and theories. Scientific publications always include images and illustrations that are irreplaceable documents enabling to perceive and analyse the object of study (Lynch 1985, p.195). In science, visualisation is performed using diverse techniques such as photographs, graphs, diagrams, maps, drawings, documents produced during laboratory research and illustrations included in published papers (Lynch 1998, p.27). Among these numerous forms of scientific visualisation, diagrams of molecular pathways constitute a unique and particularly interesting example. As the American NHGRI’s (National Human Genome Research Institute) website defines it, a biological pathway represents a series of actions and interactions among molecules (such as proteins, nucleic acids, simple molecules, chemical compounds and so on) taking place inside a cell and leading to a certain resulting change or effect in the cell itself (NIH National Human Genome Research Institute 2016). Typical “effects or changes” that molecular pathways trigger are inflammatory responses, assembly of new molecules, change in the DNA expression profile of a cell by turning specific genes on and off and myriad of other processes.

The processes necessary for visualising the components of these interactions, interpreting the data and effectively visualise these complex and dynamic networks would not be possible without a specific scientific knowledge. Moreover, some expectations and theories guiding research and interpretation are always necessary. As will be shown further in the text, molecular pathways can be considered representation of scientific theories rather than visualisation of “objects of science”. Considering these “visual dynamic theories” as trustworthy, therefore, involves relying on instrument of science investigations (Woolgar 1988, pp.31-33).

Visualisation in science involves several practices “associated with making objects observable and intelligible” (Lynch 1998, p.27). Observing is the fundamental activity that enables scientists to interpret the biological world, yet the human eye’s resolution limit varies between 0.1-0.3mm. Hence, in order to pursue studies in the biology field, it is necessary to use instruments such as the microscope enabling to see what is invisible (Bastide 1990, p.189). Microscopes and other visualisation techniques used in science allow scientists to closely observe the object of study and, thus, to accurately represent it and communicate it to other minds (Pyle 2000, p.69). Since the observational experience of biological specimens is possible only through the use of artificial organs, it will always be inevitably mediated by these instruments (Chalmers 1982, p.23). Furthermore, optical microscopies cannot be used when observing structures as small as molecules, viruses or cell’s organelles, all constituting element of biological pathways. In these cases, it is necessary to use more sophisticated techniques such as electronic microscopy, or photographic developing procedures like the Western blotting, used for visualising proteins’ presence and amount. Nevertheless, it is not the object itself what these instruments make observable, but its “trace” (Bastide 1990, p.189). A specialised knowledge is then necessary not only for using the instrument, but also – and especially – for interpreting the signal generated by this instrument, distinguishing and isolating it from the background and other signals (Hacking 1981, p.308). Every act of looking is, therefore, in itself an act of active interpretation that would not be possible without a prior knowledge enabling to use an  “artificial organ” such as the microscope (Kemp 2000, pp.42-43). Microscopes – and other instruments – are an extension of individual sense organs through which the skilled scientist can see or feel what the instrument discloses (Polanyi 1967 quoted in Lynch 1998, p.28).

The study of biological structures is, therefore, possible only through the use of highly sophisticated observational instruments that, however, enable scientists just to observe the trace of the object of study that, subsequently, need to be interpreted. Can we, thus, consider the use of these instruments as an act of seeing (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.86)? Do microscopes provide scientific realism about what could not be observed otherwise (Hacking 1981, p.305)? Microscopes and other instruments don’t allow for a direct interaction with reality, but just a projection of it (Bloor 1976, p.40). Through this process, the focus is moved to the “externalised retina”, that is the graphic field on which the “trace” is displayed (Lynch 1988, p.154). Hacking (1981) defends the act of observation through a microscope by claiming that its reliability lies on what the very act of observing is. Observation is not a passive experience, but an active procedure; a skill that is learned “by doing, not just by looking”. Scientists need to be trained and educated to interpret the partial image that they see, distinguish artefacts form real objects (Hacking 1981, p.310). To see means to recognise and linguistically identify an object, a process in which sense data emerging from an experiment or observation are translated into more solid evidences (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.85-88). Observation is, and must be, guided by the scientist’s skills, experience and expectations, (Bloor 1976; Chalmers 1982, p.23) in which his or her perception works as a filter that selects, simplifies and translates a chaotic world into perceiver’s projects and interests (Lynch 1988, p.155-156). Biological pathways fit perfectly in this theory of observation. Investigation on these events is guided by scientists’ theories, skills and ideas (Bloor 1976, p.25) and their representation is the final result of a process of translating data into evidences; evidences enabling a theory about a complex molecular network to be meticulously investigated.

Studying molecular hypothetical interaction networks is a complex, long and theory-based process of interpreting data, scientifically verify interactions between molecules, translate these connections into solid evidences and represent the subsequent final improved theory in the most effective way. But when studying pathways, what actually are the observable biological objects of study? The biological elements interacting in molecular pathways made visible thanks to scientific instruments are, using Lynch and Woolgar, not natural objects, but “proximal things”: “residues impressed on graphic matrices”, ordered and filtered samples, photographic traces and chart recordings; in other words, “resemblance or symbolisations of external objects” (1990, p.5). These data act as the basis for subsequent interpretations and discussions (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.90-93). Conventions, then, allow for making the object of study visible and analysable by fitting the raw visual data into the disciplinary organisation of scientific theories (Lynch 1998, p.196). Through this process, an observation, driven and filtered by a pre-existing theory, allows a new visualisation and representation of a biological object of study. What could, thus, be a final representation of a biological object?

Just as visualisation in science research is an active process transforming specimen materials into analysable data (Lynch 1985 p. 195), the final representation of scientific findings and theories is not just a simple replication of reality. Visualisation of scientific knowledge aims to reveal reality, to make it more understandable and accessible. Visual representation in science does not seek to be a replica of nature, but to resolve a problem, fill gaps in knowledge, or facilitate knowledge building and communication (Pauwels 2006, p.viii). Indeed, what scientists know about their object of study and what they want to communicate about it is expressed in the way they represent it (Lynch 1998, p.32; Trumbo 1999, p.270). The image in figure 1 represent this very effort.

Figure 1. Schematic representation of an animal cell. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010. kids.britannica.com

Figure 1. Schematic representation of an animal cell. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010. kids.britannica.com


Figure 1 shows the representation of a mammal cell from the children section of Encyclopaedia Britannica (Encyclopaedia Britannica Kids, 2010). The cell depicted in this diagram is not a real one, from a specific tissue with specific features, but the ideal cell, partially sectioned in order to show every basic feature that composes mammal cells. The white, neutral background helps to focus the attention on the image (Bastide 1990, p.200-203), while the use of several bright and unnatural colours and oversized inner structures makes it easier to identify the organelles in the different cell’s regions (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.112). Finally, thin lines connect the details to their linguistic identifications that surround and frame the image. What we see is not realistic, but an idealisation of an existing object that can be indirectly observed and visualised through the use of specific instruments. It represents a movement from the particularity of one observation to the generality of a scientific claim (Myers 1988, p.235-240). While in this image the process enabling these biological structures to be visualised is hidden (Lynch 1998, p.28), the knowledge that it represents is effectively concretised and communicated (Cambrosio et al 2005, p.187; Kemp 2000, p.120).

Pathways diagrams are created using these same visualisation concepts and guidelines. Nevertheless, pathways representation lies on a profoundly different level of complexity and abstraction. While the image in figure 1 is the idealisation of a lasting and observable biological structure, molecular pathways are phenomena, dynamic events in which the interaction between the participants begins, evolves and terminates during a finite period of time. Scientists can only observe the traces of these actions, by distinguishing and comparing data obtained before and after a process have taken place. These visualisations, then, must include the time dimension in order to explain processes that can be – only indirectly – observed in highly sophisticated ways. Graphs are the most used form of visualisation for such purposes since they can support more dimensions while remaining readable (Bastide 1990, p.206, pp.213-220).

Figure 2: A schematic representation of the JAK-STAT pathway in the activated state (particular). Shuai and Liu 2003, p.901

Figure 2: A schematic representation of the JAK-STAT pathway in the activated state (particular). Shuai and Liu 2003, p.901


The image in figure 2 is a representation diagram of the JAK-STAT molecular pathway taken from a review article published on the scientific journal Nature Reviews (Shuai and Liu 2003, p.901). The graphic design is, to a certain extent, similar to the one used for the animal cell in figure 1, whereas the differences between these two images help to highlight the key features of pathways representation. First of all, it is clearly noticeable that the target audience of these two images is completely different. While the cell image was included in an educational publication for children, the image in figure 2 comes from a scientific journal targeting an audience of scientific experts (Lynch 1988, pp.153-154). This difference is further underlined by the fact that while the cell image provides taxonomical annotations, the pathway diagram is completely indecipherable without a specific background knowledge. Both the images need to be contextualised by being integrated in a further explaining text (Bastide 1990, p.193-197); yet they are conceived in order to be identified and understood at a first glance by the audience they are targeting (Myers 1988, p.247).

Focusing on the pathway diagram, several elements worth being highlighted. The horizontal structure made of dots is a schematic representation of the cell membrane’s double layer dividing the extracellular space (white background) from the cytoplasm (green background); the nucleus is yellow and its membrane shows interruptions suggesting that the proteins involved in the pathway are able to pass through it. Indeed, the proteins constitute the core of the image and of the pathway as well. In order to highlight the concept over the representational accuracy (Myers 1988, p.240), proteins are represented as simple geometrical, two-dimensional and out of proportion objects with peculiar colours and shapes distinguishing them (Lynch 1988, p.168). They are also tagged with an acronym that stands for the complete name (e.g. JAK: Janus Kinase; STAT: Signal transducer and activator of transcription) (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.114). The key aspect of time, peculiar point of these diagrams, is represented using arrows and the vertical orientation of the image that must be read from top to bottom as a cascade of events (Myers 1988, p.247-249). An arrow connects a protein in its initial state (STAT on the left) to the same protein in a modified form (on the right), where an amino acid Tyrosine (Y) is modified (“phosporylated”) by the addition of a little P that stays for a phosphate groups. This transformation is triggered by the cytokine receptor, coupled with the cytokine (a small molecule working as a inter-cellular signal) and JAK proteins. Another arrow shows the movement of two modified STATs going inside the nucleus and triggering the final result of the entire pathway: a modification in DNA transcription (Bastide 1990, p.219-220).

Clearly, this is not an accurate representation of natural objects, nor is an idealisation of something that can be isolated and observed as it was for the animal cell in figure 1 (Lynch 1998, p.30-31). Pathways are a deep mathematical, visual and symbolic reconstruction of a phenomenon’s organisation (Lynch and Woolgar 1990, p.6; Cambrosio et al 2005). Their representations must be addressed more as a translation of a verbal argument into a visual discourse that unfolds through symbols and connections, as it would be for logic studies in philosophy (Lynch 1998, p.30; Lynch 1988, pp.160-162; Allchin 1999, p.291). Thanks to the acquisition of arrows and other symbols, diagrams become narrative and dynamic describing processes that, just as a theory or a discourse, have a beginning and an end (Kress and Van Leeuwen 1996, pp.83-83). They are logical demonstration visualised through a process of “figuration” (Cambrosio et al 2005, p.189).

Since it has been show that pathways diagrams are articulated visualisations closer related to a form of visual discussion on a theory than to an object’s representation, this means that a single diagram can be improved or modified in order to show different or new aspects of the theory it visualises.

Figure 3: A schematic representation of the JAK-STAT pathway in the inhibited state. Shuai and Liu 2003, p.903

Figure 3: A schematic representation of the JAK-STAT pathway in the inhibited state. Shuai and Liu 2003, p.903


Figure 3 shows another image of the same JAK-STAT pathway taken from the same article (Shuai and Liu 2003, p.903). It can be seen that the main surrounding structures (cell membrane, cytokine receptor, nucleus) and the backgrounds are the same as in figure 2. This is an important aspect that makes us instantly understand that we are talking about the same topic and theory. However, instead of showing the pathway mechanism in its working state, it shows in what way this network is negatively regulated. New proteins are represented with new colours and a new organelle, the proteasome, is visible. There is also a new logic symbol that looks like a flipped “T”. This symbols derives from the modified Systems Biology Graphical Notation (mSBGN) and represents an inhibition influence on a target, in opposition to the arrow that represents stimulation or a transition from a state to another (SBGN.org). The addiction of this simple symbol enables the possibility of more articulated discourses and improves the visual representation.

It is now clear that the research on these molecular phenomena is embedded in and guided by pre-existing theories generated by scientists’ past experiences, knowledge and expectations (Chalmers 1982, p.25; Bloor 1976, p.30). This means that the same philosophical problems that sociologists and philosophers have raised for addressing scientific theories affect also the diagrams in which these theories are embodied. Chalmers firmly states that “theory of some kind must precede all observation statements and observations statements are as fallible as the theories they presuppose” (Chalmers 1982, p.28). Since observations are permeated by theory, it could be presumed that only those observations that can confirm and shed more light on a pre-existing theory are carried out, while those considered misleading are ignored (Chalmers 1982 pp.32-33; Bloor 1976, p.25). Even on the representation and publication stage, scientists can choose what to show and what to hide in order to reinforce their theories (Morus 2006, p.105).

Considering these aspects, can representations of dynamic invisible processes be reliable? The fact that representations deriving from scientific researches and observations, especially concerning complex and elusive phenomena as molecular interactions networks, are based on and driven by theories and expectations does not imply that these observations and findings are purely fictional (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.114). On the contrary, ideas and theories are needed in order to use scientific instruments, to interpret the data that they produce and to formulate and improve conception on what we see rather than just seeing it (Hacking 1981 315-316; Pyle 2000, p.69). The image, even though “fabricated”, is the way of “visually reproducing the sense of what was seen”, which is a longer process made of numerous observations, comparison and discussions involving several scientists. Through a process of “visual thinking”, production of scientific images is incorporated as a part of conscious thoughts, deciding what shapes, lines, colours and compositions to use for making them meaningful (Trumbo 1999, p.269).  Visual evidences don’t work as a way to visually crystallise theories, but providing opportunities for discussions and further investigations (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, pp.114-115).

The study of biological molecular interactions would not be possible without the use of highly sophisticated instruments enabling scientists to visualise what is invisible and to extrapolate from the biological chaos a “docile object” (Lynch 1985, p.201). It has been shown in this essay that every aspect of the research on molecular pathways, from their observation and confirmation in the laboratory, to the graphical visualisation of the hypothetical process, needs a specific and advanced knowledge capable of interpreting and deciphering it. Pathways diagrams are a unique form of visual discourses representing scientists’ theories, ideas and expectations. They are as fallible as the theories they represent. Nonetheless, their presence in scientific articles is crucial in order to effectively communicate these theories and how they were conceived. Although “fabricated”, this mathematical representations and the scientific data they present are not fictional (Amann and Knorr Cetina 1988, p.114). Through the process of visual thinking, production of such scientific images is incorporated as a part of conscious thoughts helping the improvement of the scientific practice by sharing knowledge and triggering discussions, investigations and new researches.

Filippo Guizzetti (2016)


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Apr 12

How to give a conference presentation



Recent KentCHOTS graduate Dr Alice White (@HistorianAlice) gives her advice on how to give an academic talk in this short, downloadable leaflet.

Apr 06

‘Describing Albrecht Dürer’s Philosophy and Practice of Drawing and to What Extent His Drawings Reflect the Way Nature was Perceived at the Time’ by Larissa Warneck


Albrecht Dürer was one of the leading artists of the Renaissance. His innovative ideas in geometry and the proportion of the human body, his realistic representation of nature, and his imagination in probing new printing techniques, lead to his reputation as the Leonardo Da Vinci of Northern Europe. In this essay I am going to describe different aspects of Dürer’s philosophy and practice of drawing, and embed his artworks into the understanding of nature at the time.

Setting the Scene

At a time in which the world people knew was rapidly changing – with new landmasses being discovered, expeditions returning with exotic never before seen objects and more people on the move – art was used as a medium to vent this newly formed uncertainty, to bring order to confusion. The Renaissance was therefore a period which, on the one hand, was still anchored within the features of classic Antiquity, whilst at the same time, it was being unhinged by the after shocks of the discovery of the New World (Keller, 1972, 11; Sleigh, 2016, 1). Society was rapidly adapting to new philosophical concepts and ideas, as new technological developments increased and the traditional views on nature and its place in the Universe were suddenly being questioned (Eichberger, 1998, 13-14).

Contemporary artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Leonardo Da Vinci or Conrad Gessner sought to incorporate the changing aspects of this period into their art, an art that had undergone a dramatic change. The new way of painting shifted from the former “elegant and graceful gothic style characterised by figures of dignified beauty” and “rich with precious decorations often of pure gold”, to scenes which were full “of passion, of pain, of sentiments, and full of life” (Tonelli, 2013, 68). This ‘visual revolution’ came into being through the rise of a new assortment of techniques of representation, including perspective, proportions and the imitation of nature (Kemp, 2006, 4). An “almost systematic exploration of the visible world” developed in the early fifteenth century in northern Italy and was carried over to Germany by Albrecht Dürer after his visits to Venice and Bologna in the late 1490s (Eichberger, 1998, 15). A vast amount of his artwork from the early 1500s demonstrates his interest in naturalistic studies.

Dürer’s Ways of Visualising Nature

Dürer was convinced that nature, being God’s creation, was the very source of art. He embodied the belief that artists should draw exactly what they saw in order to make their work as convincing as possible: “The more precisely the forms in your work are compatible with life, the better it will appear. That is the truth. So never imagine that you can or should attempt to make something better than God has allowed his created nature to be. For your ability is impotent compared to God’s creativity” (Dürer in Ashcroft, 2012, 386).

Fig.1. (left) Albrecht Dürer’s The Great Piece of Turf, 1503. Watercolour and opaque, 41x31.5cm. Vienna, Graphische Sammlung Albertina. (right) Leonardo Da Vinci’s Star of Bethlehem, 1510. Pen and ink over red chalk on paper, 19.8x16cm. Royal Library, Windsor.

Fig.1. (left) Albrecht Dürer’s The Great Piece of Turf, 1503. Watercolour and opaque, 41×31.5cm. Vienna, Graphische Sammlung Albertina. (right) Leonardo Da Vinci’s Star of Bethlehem, 1510. Pen and ink over red chalk on paper, 19.8x16cm. Royal Library, Windsor.

Dürer’s own pictures from the early 1500s are impeccable representations of his opinion. With almost microscopic observation of detail he produced colourful drawings and watercolours of a number of animals and plants, which he mostly studied from life (Eichberger, 1998, 37; Panofsky, 1955, 80). One such painting is the Little Hare, 1502. He reproduced his “absolute faithfulness to nature” in three stages – after drawing the animal’s outlines, he would colour in its body, and to represent the animal’s fur he would paint every single hair onto the colour wash in full detail, producing the illusion of a real fur coat (Berger, 1994, 82/86).

Another of Dürer’s famous depictions of nature is the watercolour painting of an unobtrusive, rather mundane patch of meadow, called The Great Piece of Turf (1503). It shows a mixed patch of flowers and grasses from the perspective of a small animal (Doyle, 2013, 14). Although microscopes did not exist at the time, Dürer’s drawing looks as though he examined every single blade of grass under the lens of one of them, so that even the different species of plants can be identified – grasses, dandelion, pimpernel and plantain. It was a completely new endeavour, “never before had anyone dared to paint anything as insignificant as a piece of turf” (Berger, 1994, 76).

In the context of naturalistic representation, it is interesting to compare Dürer’s work with that of other contemporary artists. The Italian artist Leonardo Da Vinci shared Dürer’s pursuit of an art that would be universally accepted and executed, “one that constructs representations of all forms in nature on the basis of a profound understanding of natural philosophy in all its relevant facets” (Kemp, 2000, 14). The way in which they interpreted the performance of this art, however, goes into completely different directions. When comparing Dürer’s The Great Piece of Turf with Da Vinci’s Star of Bethlehem (1510), the artists’ different interpretations of similar motifs of the natural world become clear. Whilst Dürer, as explained above, goes into minute detail –  individualising each blade of grass, and therefore giving his patch of meadow an individual, distinctive and inimitable character – Da Vinci uses the general principles and characteristics of the plant, so that its representation becomes one that is transferable to all other plants of this species (Kemp, 2006, 178-179). This was a central issue around Dürer’s representations of nature – should the illustrator show the particular specimen he was observing, or should he present “a synthesis of many specimens in such a way as to represent the archetypal form”, as Da Vinci did with his depiction of the Star of Bethlehem (Kemp, 2002, 744)?

Dürer exclaimed that the diversity of nature was such, that every work of art that tried to depict the same natural object would always be a little bit different from the original, “for all out works, none is truly and completely identical with the other” (Dürer in Ashcroft, 2012, 384). This can also be read in another way, namely, that he himself as an artist would never be able to reproduce exactly what he saw in nature, and therefore, he told his readers to try their best, to “look closely at it, take it as your guide, and do not depart from nature” (Dürer in Ashcroft, 2012, 386). His fascination with nature went so far that once he travelled for several days in a boat just to examine and draw the carcass of a whale, which had been washed up on the shores of Zeeland in the Netherlands (Berger, 1994, 13; Eichberger, 1998, 27). Dürer’s numerous studies of nature – animals, landscapes, plants – can be seen as attempts to order and understand what he was seeing, to harmonise the universe, and above all to “reflect a God-given order” (Eichberger, Zika, 1998, 5-6). The combination of his religious faith and his belief in nature can be found in Dürer’s  various religious paintings and drawings.

Dürer’s Religion and Nature

Dürer believed that “God had endowed artistic people with very special creative powers” and hence it was the artist’s duty to stay close to nature, “God’s own masterpiece of creation”, and not to venture from it. The artist was to devote his unique powers into depicting nature in the best way possible (Eichberger, 1998, 27). Therefore, he often included his studies of nature in pictures of common Christian imagery. Although this was not the first time animals had appeared in traditional religious paintings, it was the first time they had a realistic look to them.

Fig.2. Albrecht Dürer’s Madonna with a Multitude of Animals, 1503. Pen and ink and watercolour on paper, 32.1x24.3cm. Vienna, Graphische Sammlung Albertina.

Fig.2. Albrecht Dürer’s Madonna with a Multitude of Animals, 1503. Pen and ink and watercolour on paper, 32.1×24.3cm. Vienna, Graphische Sammlung Albertina.

Even in the middle ages animals appeared in works of art. During that time it was common to give each animal a symbolic meaning – “the Lamb of God; or the lion, ox and eagle represent three of the evangelists” (Sleigh, 2016, 2). So when Dürer inserted animals into his religious paintings many believed that he too, gave them a symbolic meaning. Whether this is true is unknown, but the repetitiveness with which specific animals reappear in his artworks led to the belief that they did embody some form of symbolism (Eichberger, 1998, 30). Especially the appearance of exotic, newly discovered species is somewhat puzzling. Either, Dürer was “eager to incorporate newly gained knowledge and freshly made observations into his pictures” or he wanted to leave some room for interpretation (Eichberger, 1998, 31). Most probably, it was a bit of both. This can be proven by looking at another of Dürer’s paintings.

Dürer’s painting of the Madonna with a Multitude of Animals (1503) illustrates his wish to show as many different species as possible, and also leaves a lot of room for symbolism. The fox at

the bottom of the picture symbolises the evil and sly, but as he is chained, there is no harm in him – rather, his demeanour is one of submissiveness. Therefore, the viewer senses a certain harmony emanating from the painting, “all animals now peacefully coexist in an environment which recalls life before the Fall […] humankind is in harmony with nature, for the image of the Virgin and Child among the multitude of animals seems to offer spiritual place in a time of upheaval and change” (Eichberger, 1998, 37). Not only does the picture speak of harmony within itself, it also reveals the central wish of the Renaissance period – an urge for conformity and for order – in a time of development, expansion, achievements and change.

Another picture dripping with symbolism is Dürer’s print of Madonna with the Monkey (1498). The monkey, in this case, can not only be seen as a symbol of the artist’s interest in exotic species, but can also be interpreted as “the symbol of lewdness and sin” (Eichberger, 1998, 30).

The Place of Dürer’s Paintings in Collections

The discovery of new countries and continents brought with it the trend of collecting. The thirst to capture the ever growing knowledge and to structure and organise it, benefited the artists of that time in several ways. Many specimens were too fragile to be transported across longer distances, others were too valuable. An artist’s job therefore, was – in part – to produce an image that “could stand in for a specimen for the purposes of description and identification” (Sleigh, 2016, 3). The techniques, as described above, used by Dürer were so convincing to the viewer that he felt “the direct experience of the specimen, which no longer needed to be consulted” (Kemp, 2002, 744). An entire new movement developed, in which Dürer’s naturalistic drawings were purchased to subsidise the absence of the ‘real thing’ – the object or specimen – in a collection.

Dürer’s own collection of so-called Naturalia and Artefacta – specimens of rare plants, minerals and exotic animals, and a range of manmade objects – is further proof of his obsession with nature (Eichberger, 1998, 18-19). Most of these items were “received in an almost ritualistic exchange of gifts”, in which Dürer would give away a print or drawing to initiate the exchange of an object. This also meant that he soon developed close contacts with very influential people. As Dürer’s social status grew, so did his collection, and in the mid 1520s he purchased a live Meerkätzlein – a small monkey. By that time he had been studying this species for twenty years, and it had even appeared in his above-mentioned Madonna with the Monkey (Eichberger, 1998, 27-30).

However, this new frenzy of collecting brought with it certain dangers (Kemp, 2002, 744). Dürer mostly made his drawings or paintings using the ‘real thing’ as a model, but at times his interest in the novel specimen got the better of him, and he would create a piece of art based merely on written or visual evidence. So when in 1515 he heard that a real live rhinoceros had been sent as a gift from the governor of Portuguese India to the King in Lisbon, and an eye-witness sent him a detailed note and a drawing to Nuremberg, he immediately set to work (Eichberger, 1998, 16). The resulting  picture has the general outline and basic features of a rhinoceros, but its exterior looks more like it is wearing a metal plated armour – “what he did not know of the physical appearance of a rhinoceros is more than compensated for by his imagination” (Bartram, 2011).

Fig.3. Albrecht Dürer’s The Rhinoceros, 1515. The original was a pen and ink drawing. The above is a woodcut print, 23.5x29.8cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Fig.3. Albrecht Dürer’s The Rhinoceros, 1515. The original was a pen and ink drawing. The above is a woodcut print, 23.5×29.8cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

As a live rhinoceros had not been seen in Europe for over a thousand years – the specimen for the King never reached its final destination, the Pope, after the ship on which it was being kept sank – Dürer’s print spread across Europe like a wild fire. This was possible, due to the technique of woodcut printing. Between 4000 and 5000 copies of The Rhinoceros (1515) were made in Dürer’s lifetime (BBC, 2011). Unfortunately, this also meant, that whoever saw the print of Dürer’s Rhinoceros believed that this was exactly what the animal looked like, illustrating the central problem of visual representation, “a picture is only as reliable as its network of production and distribution” (Sleigh, 2016, 4).

Representing ‘The Real Thing’  – Perspective and Proportion

Although such lapses, as mentioned above, happened even to the best artists, Dürer was a man of

ability and determination. When he was thirteen years old, he drew a silverpoint self-portrait of himself by observing his reflection in a mirror. It was followed by further self-portraits in 1492, 1498 and 1500 (Ashcroft, 2012, 377). His first is the oldest preserved self-portrait of a European artist (Doyle, 2013, 5). Dürer spoke of them as Konterfei, which means ‘likeness’ or ‘making exactly like’ (Berger, 1994, 12). Again, this proves his conviction to represent the natural world as true as possible.

Dürer was convinced that the key for achieving exactly that – the beauty of nature and its true representation – lay in the mathematical formulas of geometry (Kemp, 2006, 174). Soon after his first visit to Italy around 1500, Dürer began to question his previous works. He now saw them as “powerful but unsound” and, influenced by his Italian contemporaries he began to study the main aspects of Renaissance art theory – human proportions, the proportions of animals and perspective (Panofsky, 1955, 80).

Panofsky gives three reasons why the technique of perspective was received with such a universal enthusiasm. Firstly, the placing of an object anywhere in a picture and the production of a certain distance and point of location symbolised the character of a time in which a “historical distance between itself and the classical past” had given “man a place in the centre of the universe”. Second, perspective “satisfied the new craving for exactness and predictability”. And third, the application of mathematical formulae agreed with Renaissance aesthetics (Panofsky, 1955, 261). Latour tops this theory and states that perspective is a form of fiction, “even the wildest or the most sacred […] things of nature – even the lowliest – have a meeting ground, a common place, because they all benefit from the same ‘optical consistency’. Not only can you displace cities, landscapes, or natives and go back and forth to and from them along avenues through space, but you can also reach saints, gods, heavens, palaces, or dreams” (Latour, 1990, 28). Geometrical longitude and latitude create the perception in the viewer of standing right in the middle of a painting. This also meant that the observer was not detached from the painting anymore, but a full part of it – the artist became a manipulator of visual images, able to “play perceptual games” with the viewer (Scribner, 1998, 104). Dürer’s work on geometry, Instruction on Measurement, is the first document to treat a representational problem with a scientific answer. He points out that perspective is not a technical discipline limited to architecture and painting, but rather an essential part of mathematics (Panofsky, 1955, 253).

Like perspective, proportion also has an underlying mathematical method. What perspective is for the room in a painting, so proportion is for the human or animal body. Dürer sought to set up geometrical explanations for proportions, merging each body part with a geometrical form: “The total length and general axis of the body is determined by a basic vertical […] The Pelvis is described as trapezoid, and the thorax in a square […] The head, if turned in profile, is inscribed in a square, and the contours of the shoulders, hips and loins are determined by circular arcs” (Panofsky, 1955, 262). He soon realised that he could not apply this model to every human being and abandoned the geometrical curves in his drawings, stating that “the boundary lines of a human figure cannot be drawn with a compass of ruler” (Dürer in Panofsky, 1955, 264). Instead Dürer decided to consider a series of female and male body-types, which he assembled in his Four Books on Human Proportion (published posthumously in 1528).

Dürer was influenced by his older contemporary Leonardo Da Vinci. But whilst the latter focused on the underlying structures – muscles, bones and tendons – beneath the observed object, Dürer was more interested in representing the exterior of a given object (Eichberger, 1998, 15). This can be traced back to two interacting points that were very important to him. First, he saw beauty as one of the main features of art, as art is the representation of nature and nature is the product of God – “There is no living person on earth who can say definitively how the most beautiful human form might look. No one but God knows that” (Dürer in Ashcroft, 2012, 381). Second, as his main focus lay in the education of young artists, he saw no point in observing what lay beneath the exterior of an object. To him, geometry was a part of beauty and education, he cautions his young readers to stick to the function, because “what is not functional in a human being is not beautiful. Avoid superfluity” (Dürer in Ashcroft, 2012, 381).

Although the importance of works, such as the Four Books on Human Proportion, might be overlooked or forgotten today, the world of book publishing was revolutionised by the printing press during the Renaissance (Keller, 1972, 13). However, the printing press only allowed the processing of written works and it took time and patience to replicate paintings or drawings (Sleigh, 2016, 7). The most common forms were wood or metal engravings. Most of these wore off easily and did not allow a vast amount of shadowing or detailing. Furthermore, the process of woodcut printing “is one of double reverse”, which means that the original image has to be engraved in reverse onto the wood and is then printed in the right way onto the paper (Sleigh, 2016, 7). Dürer developed the remarkable technique of copper engraving and print – “it allowed the skilled artist to engrave exquisitely thin lines or sets of lines and marks in infinite variety. Thereby, stunning effects of shading, glittering, or even movement, as in animal’s furs can be produced” (Meyer, 2004).


I have shown that Albrecht Dürer was one of the great artists of the Renaissance period. Not only did his artworks embody the Renaissance theories of proportion and perspective, but they also depicted scenes from nature – plants, animals, and landscapes – as realistic as possible. His engraving, drawing and painting techniques were known across Europe and his studies of geometry on the depiction of the human body, meant he was a pioneer in his field. The frequent travels to and from Italy ensured that the Italian Renaissance moved across northern Europe with Dürer as its messenger.

Larissa Warneck (2016)


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  • Bartram, G. 2011. A History of the World, Dürers Rhinoceros. BBC. [online] at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/0eHcrXb8RuqIEVYKkExljg
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