Visual Cultures in Science, Technology and Medicine – A new multilayered approach
A brief summary of Klaus Hentschel: Visual Cultures in Science & Technology. A Comparative History, Oxford Univ Press, Oct. 2014, 512 pp., 126 b/w images, 16 color pl. ISBN 13:9780198717874.
Fig. 1: A visual analogy between a fish and a ship’s hull (1586) and an oil-painting of a mineral cabinet (1813): two examples of visual cultures in science & technology
When ‘visual studies’ started out as a movement in art history, it was a rebellion against the traditional distinction between high and low art. This may have been necessary at the time, in order to create the freedom and intellectual space for the study of other cultural strands, from cinema to cookbooks, but it blinded some protagonists to the very existence of a “high-low distinction in visual culture.” Rather than studying advertisement, television or comics, I think it is important to ask whether there are specifics in the way that scientists, technologists and physicians use visual representations, whether one can speak of “visual cultures” in some (sub)disciplines of science, and if so, what defines and sets them apart from each other and from other visual cultures in human societies.
I share the frustration over lost opportunities to come to grips with the conceptual foundations of this field, but not the doomsday feelings about its future. I suggest we return to a solid, sharp definition of ‘visual cultures’ as our object, and of ‘visual studies’ as the methodological arena. This might counteract the recent impasse and revitalize this heterogeneous field, which some of its pioneers have started to pronounce as dying or degenerating because it still has not managed to reach agreement on its goals, scope and methodology, with an anything-goes mentality reigning and no coherence in sight.
First of all, we need to avoid the pitfalls of pie-eyed microstudies. One way to achieve this is to attempt a parallel analysis of many comparable cases. A bottom-up approach, starting out from the material – rather than from high-flung categories imported from Derrida, Latour, or Mitchell – would circumvent the risks of forced analyses. Analytic categories motivated by the sources (actors’ categories wherever available) are preferable. Do we still aim at a generalizability beyond the pool of selected cases? Do we still achieve a context-sensitive, cautious structural description of historical processes? Many of us have given up – too early, I think.
Generalizable patterns are most likely to be found on the medium scale of time and level of abstraction. Alluding to the same phenomenon, the famous Annales historian Fernand Braudel remarked: “history does not repeat itself, but it has its habits.” The strength of pioneering books in the field of visual studies– such as Svetlana Alpers’s Art of Describing (1985) about Dutch art, optics, cartography, science, technology and culture in the 17th century– is precisely that they dared to go beyond local microstudies and ended up with suggestions for patterns beyond the limited confines of ‘art’ or ‘science’ from within their material. This is what Clifford Geertz meant when he urged us “not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them.”
Fig. 2: Roger Hayward at work on a large 3D-model of the lunar surface (1934) – he also illustrated books by the chemist Linus Pauling and designed astronomical observatories. [copyrightLos Angeles Public Library, photograph collection],
To cope with this, I developed my notion of nine historiographic layers of visual science cultures, based on a synthesis of a myriad case studies. About a hundred are presented in the book, many more are referenced, ranging from geology to medical imaging, from stereochemistry to astrophysics, and from metallography to geometrodynamics. My claim is that their historical analysis should delve into all of these layers, not just focus on a few of them as is normally done. Only then can we hope to achieve a ‘thick description’ of visual cultures.
The following nine facets seem to me to be present throughout visual cultures in science, medicine and technology since the early-modern period:
1. highly developed skills of pattern recognition
2. mastery of visual thinking (anschauliches Denken – Rudolf Arnheim)
3. practical training in such skills (cf. Eugene Ferguson)
4. high prestige of atlases and scientific plates (cf. Daston & Galison)
5. obsessive occupation with improving the quality of flat and 3D representations
6. broader context of specialized printing establishments or media experts (draftsmen, engravers, photographers, model makers, ...(see the database DSI)
7. interest in the physiology of visual perception and in related research instruments
8. aesthetic pleasure in scientific procedures & image production, and finally
9. a fusion of profession and pastime, of labor and leisure.
These nine layers are, on the one hand, simply different aspects of visual cultures. All of them need to be looked at to gain a holistic view of these cultures. On the other hand, each of these layers also defines a different historiographic angle of inquiry from which we can approach these cultures as historians. Rather than focusing on just one or two of these layers (as is typical of ‘visual studies’ nowadays), we should tackle the whole package.
Fig. 3: Hand-colored woodcut from U. Pinder: Epiphaniae medicorum (1506), Wellcome Library, London M0007286, depicting a physician demonstrating uroscopic analysis to a student. They are surrounded by 20 urine flasks (each specimen is differently tinted) with abbreviated captions for the different diagnoses.
Skills in pattern recognition (level 1), for instance, lead straight to considerations well known among Gestalt psychologists and cognitive scientists but relatively uncommon among historians of science. I would argue that we need to delve much deeper into these aspects to understand one of the essential strengths of visual science cultures: I.e., the ability to rapidly discern recurrent features and to discriminate them from diffuse background noise. Such is only possible with outright mastery in the skills of pattern recognition and visual thinking (2). This, in turn, has to be formed and trained, either in long and repeated practice sessions at the microscope, telescope or computer tomograph, and/or by studying carefully crafted atlases, posters, slides or 3D-models (levels 4 and 5, resp. figs. 4).
Figs. 4: 3D modeling of proteins at the computer and a researcher holding 3-D model of protein, with computer screen of 3-D images of proteins. Both from the Collection of Wellcome Imagesimage call no.B0000386& B0000388
Thus science teaching (3) also becomes an integral part of our package. The makers of these plates (6) and their interplay with scientists also deserve deeper study. The aesthetic pleasure of working with visual representations (8) – quite frequently expressed by protagonists as an aside or in private correspondence, – or annual beauty contests among electron micrographs, for instance, show that aesthetics is not just a side-line but an integral part of scientific practice within visual cultures in science, technology and medicine. This gives new biographical perspectives on pioneers of visual science cultures (9), e.g., on the importance of their backgrounds (many came from artisanal families or studied at polytechnics with intense drawing instruction) and hobbies, e.g., photography, landscape painting, sculpture.
Fig. 5: John Archibald Wheeler at the blackboard. This pioneer of geometrodynamics started out as a student of engineering and took drawing lessons and enjoyed drawing throughout his life, even during lectures. From the cover of J.A. Wheeler & Kenneth Ford: Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics, New York: Norton, 1998. [photo copyright Special Collections, Princeton Univ. Library]
A few pertinent weblinks (many more are given in the book):
http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780198717874.doKlaus Hentschel: Visual Cultures in Science & Technology. A Comparative History, Oxford: Oxford Univ Press,. 2014, 512 pp., 126 b/w images, 16 color pl., ISBN 13:9780198717874;
www.uni-stuttgart.de/hi/gnt/hentschel homepage of Prof. Dr. Klaus Hentschel
Images & Illustrators:
www.uni-stuttgart.de/hi/gnt/dsi Stuttgart Database of Scientific Illustrators 1450-1950 (DSI) with more than 8,800 entries (Nov.~2014) and 20 search fields
www.uni-stuttgart.de/hi/gnt/dsi/websites/websites.php , on natural history images, illustrators & photographers
General Historiography and other Frameworks:
www.eikones.ch/ , and further links given there
www.psychology.tcd.ie/other/Ruth_Byrne/mental_models/theory.html on mental models
Examples of visual cultures in science, technology and medicine:
on visual thinking in technology
vesalius.northwestern.edu on Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica 1543
images.umdl.umich.edu/w/wantz/vesd1.htm with plates from his oeuvre 1543
special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/oct2002.html, on Fuchs’s Great Herbal 1542
www.epaves.corsaires.culture.fr/mobile/en/uc/02_04 on early-modern shipwrightry
www.kuttaka.org/~JHL/Main.html for Lambert’s collected works
www.colorsystem.com/?lang=en and irtel.uni-mannheim.de/colsys/ on historical color systems and color encoding schemes
special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/nov2009.html Darwin and others on the expression of emotions
www.wcume.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Tsung.pdf the history of ultrasound
www.zum.de/stueber/haeckel/kunstformen/natur.html on Ernst Haeckel
legacy.mblwhoilibrary.org/leuckart/ on zoological wall charts
geologyinart. blogspot.de/ on geology and art
www.minrec.org/ mineralogical record of collections, collectors, samples
www.geh.org/fm/stm/htmlsrc4/teneriffe_sum00001.html on Charles Piazzi Smyth ‘s Teneriffe photographs
www.londonstereo.com/modern_stereos_moons.html on stereoscopes of the moon
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anaglyph_3D on anaglyph 3D images
courses.ncssm.edu/gallery/collections/toys/opticaltoys.htm on optical gadgets
www.sorby.org.uk/hcsorby.shtml on Henry C. Sorby
vlp.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/experiments on the kymograph in physiology
scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v8n2/hennig.html on scanning tunneling microscopy 1980--90
, an interview with Binnig and Rohrer and various papers
www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/scivis/ , NSF International Visualization Challenge
www.fonar.com/fonar_timeline.htm , the history of MRI in a timeline
www.nature.com/physics/looking-back/lauterbur/index.html on Lauterbur’s article from 1973
www.meb.uni-bonn.de/epileptologie/cms/upload/homepage/lehnertz/CT1.pdf with a lot of information on CT scans and their history
and www.mathworks.de/products/demos/image/ipexblind/ipexblind.html on deblurring algorithms
on CCD imaging, and starizona.com/acb/ccd/ccd.aspx also on CCD imaging
heritage.stsci.edu/ , the Hubble Heritage Page , and on ‘false coloring’:
solarsystem.dlr.de/Missions/express/second/09.02.2005.shtml a 3D video of the Martian surface
www.mpa-garching.mpg.de/galform/data_vis/index.shtml , millennium simulation
Fig. 6: Leonhard Fuchs; De historia stirpivm commentarii... , Basel 1542, pp. 514f., from the Wellcome-Collection London, call no. L0051248
Fig. 7: Robert Hooke, Micrographia, 1665, fold-out copper engraving of a flea, from the Wellcome Collection of Images, call no. L0043503
Fig. 8: Two techniques of showing the inside of the
human body in quasi 3D-manner (a) Gautier d'Agoty,
mezzotint print of a female torso, back, 1746 , from
the Wellcome Image Collection, call no. L0019727 Nuclear magnetic resonance imaging 2001. This MRI scan shows the regions of the brain
involved in recognizing familiar faces, Wellcome image no. B0003533 Credit Mark Lythgoe & Chloe
End of the summary of Klaus Hentschel: Visual Cultures in Science & Technology. A Comparative History, Oxford Univ Press, Oct. 2014, 512 pp., 126 b/w images, 16 color pl. ISBN 13:9780198717874.