June 17, 2024

This Exhibit Shows How Miniaturization Maximizes Human Resources Long Before the Microchip

When Robert Hooke tried to illustrate the anatomy of an ant, he put one under a microscope and began to sketch. The ant didn’t wait for him to finish. Hooke took another and stuck it down his legs, but it was no easier to see the struggling creature. Finally, Hooke – who happened to be one of the greatest experimenters of the 17th century – experimentally dunked ants in brandy until they were drunk.

Hooke’s efforts were praised when he published his portraits of ants and fleas and other minute subjects in 1665. Micrographics it was one of the first great works of popular science. The diarist Samuel Pepys praised it as “the most ingenious book I ever read in my life”. The pictures sparked a mania for microscopes and fixed an invisible realm that could only be captured with powerful lenses, giving an early glimpse of how optics would advance science.

But the recognition of the invisible world was not the only way in which small things greatly influenced Enlightenment thinking. Tiny Treasuresa new exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts provides good grounds for appreciating how science has simultaneously benefited from miniaturization.

Around the same time Hooke was publishing Micrographics, artisans in the French commune of Dieppe were carving ivory globes small enough to fit in a gentleman’s bed. An example on view at the MFA Boston includes a compass, revealed when the orb is destroyed at the equator.

The ivory globe reflects the luxurious taste of the century. (Made of turned wood and gold-embossed leather, Hooke’s microscope was equally fancy.) Scientific and philosophical instruments were status symbols. And status could be communicated effectively by making symbols portable.

However, the small scale of a world held in the palm had the advantage of providing a comprehensive view. The geographical compression facilitated an understanding of material that was too vast to really be seen at the same time. The miniaturization of the universe served a purpose equivalent to the enlargement of the ant or the flea.

When Pepys bought his own microscope, he found that the view through the eyepiece bore little resemblance to plates Micrographics. Even if he got his ants drunk – a trick Hooke revealed in the text of his book – he only saw the details. By Pepys’s own account, it was difficult to resolve any image. What he did not understand – and Hooke did not care to explain – was that Hooke’s images were composite perceptions derived from many imperfect observations of imperfect specimens. More than just cunning, the ability to synthesize so much information is a testament to Hooke’s scientific wit.

Again, there is a significant parallel to microscopy in miniaturization. In past centuries, natural philosophers often collected miniatures and organized them in cabinets of curiosities. Within these cabinets, handheld models of objects in the world could be manipulated to achieve meaning through grouping and juxtaposition. In a cabinet of curiosities, knowledge consisted of exemplary objects. The synthesis of meaning was achieved by transforming the world into human dimensions. And like the images derived from Hooke’s microscope, the representation of reality existed only in the overlap of materiality and intellect.

In the 21stSt century, the power of miniaturization is accepted. Technology is driven by Moore’s Law. A microchip is so small that the etched circuits could not be identified with an old-fashioned Hooke’s microscope. But, as the MFA Boston exhibition shows, miniaturization precedes the transistor. It is pervasive across cultures. And less is not necessarily better.

Cabinets of curiosity were very effective as computers in their era: thinking machines excellent. There is every reason to believe that they could be just as efficient today, and arguably more efficient than nanoscale processors that we can barely interact with.

Both Hooke and Dieppe recognized the power of reconstituting the world on a scale that is naturally accessible to our eyes and hands. In the MFA exhibition we see many examples from all time periods. They are ready to make meaning. All that is required is the ingenuity of the visitor.

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