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)


  • Ashcroft, J. 2012. Art in German: Artistic Statements by Albrecht Dürer. Forum of Modern Language Studies, 48(4): 376-388.
  • Bartram, G. 2011. A History of the World, Dürers Rhinoceros. BBC. [online] at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/0eHcrXb8RuqIEVYKkExljg
  • Berger, J. 1994. Albrecht Dürer. Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH. (7-13).
  • Doyle, M. 2013. Albrecht Dürer, Master Drawings, Watercolours, and Prints from the Albertina.               National Gallery of Art. [online] at https://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2013/durer/durer.pdf
  • Eichberger, D. 1998. Dürers Nature Drawings and Early Collecting. Chapter 2 in, ed. Eichberger, D and Zika, C. Dürer and His Culture. Cambridge University Press.
  • Keller, A. 1972. Mathematical Technologies and the Growth of the Idea of Technical Progress in the Sixteenth Century. Chapter 2 in, ed. Debus, A.G. Science, Medicine and Society in the Renaissance, Essays to honour Walter Pagel. Heinemann, London. (11-28).
  • Kemp, M. 2000. Visualisation, The Nature Book of Art and Science. Oxford University Press.
  • Kemp, M. 2002. Naturally Natural, Albrecht Dürers Studies of Animals have a Life of their Own. Book Review of Science in Culture. Nature Vol. 420. Nature Publishing Group.
  • Kemp, M. 2006. Seen and Unseen – Art, Science, and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope. Oxford University Press.
  • Latour, B. 1990. Drawing Things Together. In, ed. Lynch, M. and Woolgar, S. Representation and Scientific Practice. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England. (19-68).
  • Meyer, J. 2004. Albrecht Dürer at the Crossroads of Art and Science, Response to Wadsworth. Endeavour. 28(1).
  • Panofsky, E. 1955. The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford. (80-106; 242-284).
  • Scribner, B. 1998. Ways of Seeing in the Age of Dürer. Chapter 5 in, ed. Eichberger, D and Zika, C. Dürer and His Culture. Cambridge University Press.
  • Sleigh, C. 2016. The Paper Zoo: Introductory Essay. British Library. (1-24).
  • Tonelli, F. 2013. Science as Ground of the Renaissance Artists. Clinical Cases in Mineral and Bone Metabolism. 10(1): 68-69.


Feb 17

From Course to Collider: My adventures at CERN

A view from inside CERNby David Lugmayer

Science can be complex. Even with a lifetime spent studying the sciences one could still not learn everything it has to offer. Yet much of this knowledge can be very important to our lives, whoever we are and whatever occupation we have: This is why we need science communication and is one of the reasons I decided to embark on the Science, Communication and Society MSc program at the University of Kent.

Shortly after I handed in my final dissertation, I became aware of an offer for an internship at CERN in Switzerland. “CERN! That would be a fantastic place to work wouldn’t it?” I thought to myself. But this wasn’t some sort of pipe dream. This, I found, was something I could do: my Science communication course had given me the confidence, the skills and the experience I needed to do this internship. It also involved me writing informative (but easy going) articles, which happened to have been my favourite part of the MSc course. To my delight the application to the internship was accepted, and having recently returned from CERN I feel it went rather well (even if I do say so myself)!

After making the necessary preparations I travelled to CERN (which straddles the Franco/Swiss border) where I would be working for the next two months. The region around CERN has some truly stunning scenery – being nestled between the Swiss Alps and the French sub-alpine mountain range called the Jura, and next to the beautiful city of Geneva and its lake. CERN (which formerly stood for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire but is now called the European Organization for Nuclear Research) is the world’s most eminent organisation for high energy physics research, and is the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. It houses the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which is comprised of a huge circular tunnel 27km in circumference that runs deep underground; as it happens, the tunnel runs right under the accommodation I was staying in during the internship. The LHC is a particle accelerator that collides two high energy beams of particles travelling close to the speed of light to help answer some important questions, such as the existence of a particle called the ‘Higgs Boson’.

CERN 'animal shelter for computer mice'

However my role at CERN was not to be directly involved with the physics experiments being conducted. So on a surprisingly mild morning I found myself in an office at CERN’s IT department. My job was to write feature articles for a website called Science Node; which is a joint USA/European hosted website. The website reports on the types of research that has been made available by the use of such things as supercomputing, grid computing, and other forms of high performance computing. It also covers new developments regarding tech trends, the technology community, research networks, and big data. If you are interested in topics such as these, or information technology and science in general, I would highly recommend checking the site out. But, as I soon found out, the site is about much more than this, because some of the research that high performance computing enables is as far removed from the world of IT as you can get.

To write these articles I first had to source some of the weird and wonderful research that relies on these computing technologies. The topics of these articles could encompass almost anything- from unlocking the secrets of photosynthesis, to an amazing project by a school in Canterbury involving a satellite and the youngest ever person to be allowed to use high powered ‘grid’ computing. Once I knew what I would be writing I got into contact with some of the individuals involved, contacting people from all corners of the globe to ask them more about what they had been doing. The purpose of these articles was itself a form of science communication: The site exists to show the world how these advanced computing technologies have affected not just the world of IT, but also the progress of scientific research and understanding.

On the face of it CERN might seem an odd place to work for someone writing articles on a website that is primarily about advanced computing – a subject that falls squarely into the realms of IT. But aside from practical reasons (CERN is one of the sites funding partners) it is actually a very fitting location to host the website. The facility also acts as the main hub for the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG): an international grid of over 170 computing centres spread across 42 countries. This vast network of computers is used to process the enormous amounts of information that the experiments produce. My office was in fact located in the building that housed the central datacentre at the heart of the WLCG! There are also other historical reasons that entwine CERN and the world of computing: CERN was the location where Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web, and published the first ever website.

1207154_01-A5-at-72-dpi CERN

CERN’s data centre

CERN has always been about spreading knowledge. In 1953, the ‘CERN Convention’ was signed, which stated that research conducted there would not be concerned with military requirements, and all its results should be made public. On reflection of the time spent on the internship I came to realise the parallels between the communication of science and the role advanced computing plays at CERN. In the same way that the WLCG boils down the mountains of data produced by the LHC into information that can be used and discussed, science communication plays the role of filtering down the fruits of scientific endeavour into a form that can be consumed and manipulated by everyone.

Jan 25

Science in Public annual conference at Kent

The Centre for the History of the Sciences is pleased to be hosting the 10th annual Science in Public conference this summer. It will be held on 13-15 July 2016 on the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus. We are welcoming proposals for papers and sessions from scholars and practitioners in all fields interested in researching the relationship between science, technology and medicine and their varied publics. Follow the links below for more information and details of our plans for exciting plenary and workshop sessions.


The call for papers is available online here and you can find out more about the Science in Public Research Network by following the link.

Jan 14

Wunderkammer reading group, Spring programme

The Centre for the History of the Sciences’ reading group, meeting alternate Tuesdays, 17:30 in the Unicorn Inn, St Dunstan’s

**except Week 20


26 January 2016 (Week 14) – Technology, Groups & Users

  • Christina Lindsay, “From the Shadows: Users as Designers, Producers, Marketers, Distributors, and Technical Support”, in Nelly Oudshoorn and T.J. Pinch (eds), How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technologies (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), pp. 29-50.
  • Lars Backstrom et al, “Group Formation in Large Social Networks: Membership, Growth, and Evolution”, in Proceedings of the 12th ACM SIGKDD International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining (Philadelphia: ACM Press, 2006) http://www.cs.cornell.edu/~lars/kdd06-comm.pdf.


9 February 2016 (Week 16) – Modernism and Fiction

  • Paul March-Russell, “Modernism and Science Fiction” and “Pulp Modernism”, in Modernism and Science Fiction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 1-10 and 85-116. (Paul will join us for this week)
  • Sara Danius, “The Antitechnological Bias and Other Modernist Myths: Literature and the Question of Technology”, in The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Aesthetics (Cornell University Press, 2002), pp. 25-54.


23 February 2016 (Week 18) – Ian Hacking

  • Ian Hacking, Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 1-31
  • Ian Hacking, The Emergence of Probability: a Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975/2006), pp. 1-48.


8 March 2016 (Week 20) – Animal Histories Special Event **6pm Grimond Lecture Theatre 2 (GLT2)**

Guest lecture Amanda Rees (University of York):

“Anthropomorphising the Anthropocene: The Pragmatics, Politics and Poetics of Animal Agency”

Book launch with wine reception to follow in honour of  Kaori Nagai, Karen Jones, Donna Landry, Caroline Rooney, Monica Mattfeld, and Charlotte Sleigh (eds), Cosmopolitan Animals (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and other recent animal publications by Kent staff.


22 March 2016 (Week 22) Euclid in Victorian Education

  • Alice Jenkins, “Genre and Geometry: Victorian Mathematics and the Study of Literature and Science”, in Ben Marsden, Hazel Hutchison and Ralph O’Connor (eds.), Uncommon Contexts: Encounters Between Science and Literature, 1800-1914 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013), pp. 111-123.
  • Joan L. Richards, “Euclid and the English Schoolchild”, in Mathematical Visions: the Pursuit of Geometry in Victorian England (Boston: Academic Press, 1988), pp. 161-200


Readings will be available in hard copy in the School of History Office Post Room. Any queries contact Rebekah Higgitt.

Oct 27

The way things go: science and art

I heard more spontaneous conversations today about science than I have ever heard in any exhibition anywhere.

‘Why are those rings rolling uphill?’

‘Why is that water burning?’

‘What will happen when the balloon fills?’

der-lauf-der-dingeI was not at a science exhibition, but at the Turner Contemporary Gallery’s new show, Risk.  The piece I was looking at was called The Way Things Go (German: Der Lauf der Dinge), a film made in 1987 by the Swiss artist duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

This film, made in a warehouse, is a sort of mash-up between Blue Peter and Heath Robinson and Wallace and Gromit.  It is a continuous stream of actions, each one triggering the next in the chain.  Bin bags swing until they stroke tyres to roll; delicately poised and weighted cardboard rings progress up a slope; balloons fill and drop onto levers.  Some triggers exploit physical processes – the conservation of energy – while others are chemical: burning, explosion, melting.  The whole thing is 30 minutes of cartoonish, breath-holding, audacious inventiveness.

I went with my own children.  We joined the video, which was shown on a loop, about 10 minutes in.  We watched it to the end, then we watched the first tem minutes to join up to when we started.  Then we watched it all the way to the end again.  After we’d been round the rest of the show, we came and watched it again.  Nor were my children unusual in their attentiveness to the feat which, let’s face it, is not paced like contemporary media.  It is slow, and there is no commentary, no music: no sound at all except the drips and clops and fizzings.  There was a whole crown of them around the screen and they couldn’t hold their questions back.  Some, I’m afraid, were being shushed.  The parents were coming back as best they could with fragments of physics and chemistry; the children were filling in with knowledge and hypothesis.

However, despite the science chat the show, and this piece in particular, did not purport to be science; it was art.  Moreover, I had the feeling that its success pointed to a very profound asymmetry between science and art in public.  When we see science on display – at science museums and expos – there are heaps of explanations: panels to tell us the principles we see on display.  Often, we read the panel, then press the button to see the theory demonstrated for us in some clever model.  Art is different.  Art in galleries is presented with very little explanation.  It’s a high risk strategy, with the risk that the audience will write it off with the cliché, ‘my 5-year-old could have made that’.  But when it works, it works brilliantly.  The audience must do the work of figuring out why it matters; what research underpins it.  The audience meets the art in a raw and mostly unmediated encounter.  They are not told the answers, but left to figure them out for themselves; indeed, they are left to figure out the questions.  In science galleries, by contrast, the encounter is highly mediated; the process or direct results of science are not shown; and the learning outcomes are predetermined.  You can either take them, or leave them and proceed straight to the giftshop.

Of course there is always trickery behind the scenes.  If you look closely at Fischli and Weiss’s film, there are some cuts, just as there are in science.  The results always take a little cleaning up.  But somehow seeing that work done in an artistic context changed the way I felt about it.

What I saw at The Way Things Go was, ironically, the best example of science communication I have ever seen – in the specific sense that it got its audience asking questions.  I can’t think of any better outcome for a show, whether science or art.

Postscript: You can watch a bit of The Way Things Go on Youtube; better yet, see it in its entirety, and the rest of the exhibition, in Margate.

Oct 01

Wunderkammer reading group – Autumn term programme

WUNDERKAMMER: Centre for the History of the Sciences Reading Group

Alternate Tuesdays, 17:30 in the Unicorn Inn, St Dunstan’s except Week 9


13 October 2015 (Week 3) – Stuff and NonSense


27 October 2015 (Week 5) – Childish Science


10 November 2015 (Week 7) – Instruments & Observatories


25 November 2015 (Week 9) – Slowly Does It **at 14:30-16:00 in CNWsr6


8 December 2015 (Week 11) – Audiences

  • Florence Grant, “Mechanical Experiments as Moral Exercise in the Education of George III”, British Journal for the History of Science 48 (2015), 195-212.
  • Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman, “Science in the Marketplace: An Introduction”, in Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 1-19.


Everyone is welcome! Readings will be available in hard copy at the School of History Office, or please contact Rebekah Higgitt if you would like more information, to join the Wunderkammer or CHOTS email newslists, or to suggest future readings and themes.

Jun 04

CHOTS Away! at Down House

Yesterday was the annual Centre for the History of the Sciences (CHOTS) Away Day. Last year’s visit was to Chatham Dockyard: this year, although there were some maritime connections and we continue to make the most of Kent’s heritage, we were considerably more domestic at Down House.

The front door to Down House (added by Darwin).

The front door to Down House (added by Darwin).

Down House is, as the English Heritage website tells us, the “Home of Charles Darwin”. Like the Charles Dickens Museum or Pasteur Museum, it is in essence an attempt to convince us that the genius has just left the room: letters and pens are on the desk, coats hang in the hallway, and the family might just let us stay for a cup of tea. These men, famous in their lifetimes, were being memorialised even before they had kicked buckets and shuffled off coils – their families and colleagues kept not just their writings but also their handkerchiefs and desks, making full-blown recreations a possibility.

Down House was, however, not quite ready to open as a memorial and museum by the time of Darwin’s death in 1882, or even that of his wife Emma in 1896. The family let the house for a period, and for twenty years in the early 20th century it was a girls’ school. The second of the two schools closed in 1927, at which point an appeal was made by the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to save it for the nation. The benefactor who stepped up was the surgeon Sir George Buckston Browne and the house was opened as a museum in 1929, since when it has been overseen by the BAAS, the Royal College of Surgeons (1953-1996) and now English Heritage (with financial assistance from the Wellcome Trust, Natural History Museum and Heritage Lottery Fund).

Although we heard briefly about the later history from our guide, it does not feature in the displays, and neither do any of the pre-1840s owners of this Georgian villa. It is, unsurprisingly, all about Darwin, with recreations of the famous study, the sitting room, billiards room and rather splendid dining room downstairs, and attractive displays about the history of natural history, the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin’s work and family upstairs. The period rooms are, we were assured, full of genuine items from Darwin’s time, although props certainly featured and we were left unsure about whether or how much of the library was Darwin’s. The rooms have been recreated with the help of photographs taken by Darwin’s son Leonard.

Upstairs was equally full of treasures, this time in more conventional museum case displays, with the notebooks, the finches and Annie’s box featuring alongside other items from Darwin’s time on the Beagle and at Down. There were also galleries aimed at schools and children which amused us and, I’m sure, any children who visit.

For us, however, it was the gardens that were the main feature of the visit, partly because they are lovely and very evocative of Darwin’s passions, but also because we were treated to a knowledgeable tour by Down’s head gardener, Rowan Blaik. He was more than capable of giving this bunch of historians of science chapter and verse on the many experiments that Darwin conducted within the garden, and which had been used and how within Origin of Species, as well as helping us see how the family used the gardens (Emma ordered flowering plants haphazardly from catalogues; the children used the “ancient mulberry” tree to climb down from the first floor; the family set up one of the earliest hard tennis courts late in the century; and everyone stepped in and out of house and garden through the low dining room windows).

We saw a recreation of the “seedling mortality experiment”, through which Darwin showed that only 1 in 8 of the seedlings that germinate reach an age at which they can reproduce: competition, struggle and death within a few square inches of English countryside. There were also the climbing plants (which Darwin categorised), the primulas (that he showed did not speciate within a generation), the carnivorous plants and orchids on which he published, the worm stone and bees, all ready to be tested for their route-following and comb-building instincts.

Also, of course, there is the Sandwalk, on which Darwin strolled twice daily – you too can see if it works as your “thinking path”.

The planting in the gardens is meticulously managed, recreating what we know of Darwin’s world. The plants that have survived since his time are carefully maintained or, if they’re no longer viable, cloned and regrown. If he received plants, as he often did, from Joseph Hooker at Kew Gardens, then clones of surviving plants there – collected at the same time – can be grown. The surrounding fields are places in which the diversity of the flora has been studied longer than anywhere else on earth.

There has been an attempt to make Down and its surroundings a World Heritage Site (this decision was deferred in 2010, and it awaits renomination). It is a fascinating and unusual case as heritage, based not on outstanding architecture or a particular national cultural tradition, but on this long history of a relationship between scientific ideas, a particular geographical location, national heritage and celebrity. As Charlotte said (on the Sandwalk, of course), the extent to which the plants have been given agency in this context is particularly intriguing. So too is the overriding focus on the preservation of individual plants, species and a particular historical moment, given the context of waste, death and change that is natural selection.

As a day out, whether or not you are a Darwin fan, it is highly recommended – close London, as Darwin always wished, and yet (despite being reached by London bus and Oyster card) utterly within its village and countryside. A tea room beckons or, for later, Bromley’s CAMRA pub of 2014 is handy in Downe village. And, above all, the place retains a fascination, even for a cynical bunch of historians.



May 12

Wunderkammer reading group – summer term programme

The Wunderkammer reading group meets on alternate Tuesdays at 17:30 in the rear room of the Unicorn Pub on St Dunstans. The programme for the summer term is as follows:


19 May 2015 (Week 26) – 20th-century British Science (led by Oliver Hill-Andrews, Sussex)


2 June 2015 (Week 28) – Work in Progress

  • Rebekah Higgitt, “Caricature and control: Lieutenant E.J.W. Noble’s drawings from the 1874 transit of Venus expedition to Hawai’i”
  • Justine Cook, “Laboratory routes: the science behind road-building, 1923-39”


16 June 2015 (Week 30) – The History of the Emotions (led by Thomas Dixon, QMUL)

If you have time and interest, it would be worth also having a look at the introduction to Jan Plamper’s The History of Emotions: An Introduction (2015), which is free to download from the OUP website.


All are welcome. Readings are (or will be) available in hard copy at the School of History Office. Unpublished pieces will be circulated via the Wunderkammer email group – please let me (RHiggitt[a]kent.ac.uk) know if you would like to be put on the list.

May 01

H.G. Wells Lecture by Patricia Fara now available to view

In March Patricia Fara from the University of Cambridge delivered the Centre for the History of the Sciences’ annual H.G. Wells Science and Society Lecture. She spoke on ‘Fighting for the Vote: Science and Suffrage in World War I’. You can now see her excellent lecture on YouTube, or by clicking below.


Apr 09

Whewell and the coining of ‘scientist’ in the Quarterly Review

[William Whewell] ‘On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. By Mrs. Somerville’. Quarterly Review vol. LI, no. CI, March 1834, pp. 54-68.

This is the full text of the article in which Whewell discusses the BAAS coinage of ‘scientist’, scanned in from the original.  It includes the alternative (presumably not very serious) suggestion of ‘nature-poker’ as an alternative to ‘scientist’.



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