The science writer Philip Ball recently published a post on his blog Homunculus in which he wondered why modern scientific instruments seem to lack the beauty and soul of those of centuries past. Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College, wrote in response, on Occam’s Corner, the Guardian-hosted science blog, a wonderful little essay, in which he questioned some of Philip’s assumptions but made also a case for scientists to have more than an instrumental relationship to their instruments. Philip Ball then wrote an equally insightful reply in which he argued that scientific instruments are made not simply to do a job but also to express a certain image of science, to ’employ a particular visual rhetoric’ in his words. The changing character of scientific instruments, he suggested, reflects the changing image of science that scientists wish to covey.
It has made for a wonderful conversation, and a fascinating and important discussion that has significance beyond merely the question of the form of scientific instruments. I am, with their permission, republishing here both Stephen Curry’s essay and Philip Ball’s response. My thanks to both Stephen and Philip for allowing me to do so. I hope the discussion continues both on their own blogs, Occam’s Corner and Homunculus, and here on Pandaemonium.
The Apparatus of Feeling
Have scientific instruments lost their soul? That was the question posed by science writer Philip Ball last week as he bemoaned the fact that much of the equipment found in modern laboratories — centrifuges, incubators, spectrophotometers and PCR machines in the case of my lab — consists of an anonymous assortment of beige boxes. Where, he asked, are the beautifully crafted instruments of yesteryear, the elegant constructions of wood and brass made by the likes of Galileo Galilei?
I sympathise, though I think Ball has taken a wrong turn somewhere. It’s an easy mistake to make, especially if, like him, you have visited the wonderful collection of instruments in Florence’s Museo Galileo (though the squeamish should steer clear of the display of the celebrated Italian’s middle finger).
Ball has a point. There are a lot of boxes in shades of lifeless beige or grey in 21st century labs, while other pieces of equipment bristle with incomprehensible wires or are unshaped by ragged foil. It’s also true that most scientists today miss out on the particular affinity that comes from involvement in the design and manufacture of their equipment, as many early investigators must have been. I think not just of Galileo’s apparatus, but of Hooke’s microscope or the elegant brasswork with which James Joule revealed the equivalence of heat and work.
Even so, that doesn’t mean that scientists today are out of touch — in either sense of the phrase — or have no feeling for the machines they work with. My immediate reaction to Ball’s piece brought to mind Gilson pipettes. As a life scientist, I have spent many a long hour handling liquids in precise amounts using these slender tools. They fit in your hand, ‘snug as a gun’, as Heaney might put it. The heft and grip; the resistance of the spring on your thumb as you depress the plunger; the watchful eye squinting at the liquid level within the tip; the satisfying click when the used tip is ejected — these sensations all belong to the internal pulse of wet-lab work. It may be over five years since I picked up a pipette to do any serious lab work but my access to the memory of these feelings is immediate and visceral.
Those memories are mostly of process rather than particular moments because liquid-handling work with pipettes is often repetitive and tedious. So as I mulled my bridling response to Ball’s lament about the soullessness of contemporary scientific equipment my thoughts turned to the sleek silver ring of the synchrotron particle accelerator at the Diamond Light Source, where the intensity of experience has forged a trove of memorable interactions with the machinery of modern science.
The synchrotron produces powerful beams of X-rays that we use to probe the inner architecture of protein molecules in tiny crystalline samples. It is a gargantuan machine of mind-boggling complexity, even for ‘expert’ users like me. We are granted only a few hours access on each visit, so trips to Diamond are invariably fraught with tension, exacerbated by the fact that your allocated shift could be at any time of the day or night.
These days there are computer-controlled robotic arms to load each crystal onto the apparatus for data collection but just a few years ago all this had to be done manually and at frequent intervals through the shift, requiring hours of concentrated activity. Every crystallographer would bring their goniometer head, a plum-sized device with adjustable stages that allowed crystals — each held in a glass tube or within a nylon loop — to be positioned with sub-millimeter precision in the path of the X-ray beam.
The goniometer head was something that you worked with every time the crystal was changed, each new sample refreshing the hope that it would be the one to give the long-sought data. In the days when crystals were mounted in thin glass capillaries, these would be fixed to the apex of the goniometer with a blob of plasticene (yes, I know) and the crystal position, monitored though a microscope eyepiece, adjusted up and down, side to side and forwards and backwards by a turn of the key on the square-headed control screws. You had to move the crystal to the point of intersection between the spindle axis and the X-rays so that, as the goniometer was rotated during the experiment, your sample held steady in the beam of radiation.
I can still feel in my hand the bite of the screw thread, firm but yielding to the turn, the machined metal responding with steady rather than slavish obedience. The goniometer was always beautifully reliable — an articulate, knowing reminder of the debt owed to engineering. But you had to be reliable too, working quickly to change the crystal, twisting and turning the goniometer and its sliding platforms to get the sample precisely positioned so that the experiment could continue. It didn’t take long to acquire the facility that comes with experience because the crystals died quickly in the intense X-ray beam and needed continuously to be replaced. Working together, you soon got to be on friendly terms with your goniometer.
The object recalls the events, its image or feel even now threading through my memory to fluorescent nights at the synchrotron that marked the make or break point of months of preparative work. I remember dizzying joy when suddenly the spots made by X-rays scattered from the crystal flared across the computer screen; but also the hours of deadening disappointment as crystal after crystal refused to utter any whisper of information beyond the fact that the experiment had failed.
The robots may now be moving in, taking on the grunt-work of sample changing at the synchrotron, and perhaps Ball is right to fear that scientists are once again being distanced from their equipment. But I don’t yet sense that disconnection, and am sure I am not alone, at least among those still working in real laboratories. Science is a craft as much as anything and can only be done well by practitioners who know something of the heart and soul of their machines.
First published on Occam’s Corner, 3 May 2014.
Objects of desire
Stephen Curry has provided a thoughtful response to my brief blog in which I implied that modern scientific instruments are soulless grey boxes in comparison to the gorgeous devices that were enjoyed by the likes of Galileo and Robert Hooke. My comment was something of a gut response to perusing the wonderful website of the Museo Galileo in Florence, where just about every instrument on display is a ravishing creation. That made me realise, however, that even in the nineteenth century many scientific instruments were crafted with an artistry that far exceeds what is strictly necessary. I would happily have them on my mantelpiece. So what happened?
Stephen explains that this lack of obvious aesthetic appeal in much of today’s kit doesn’t preclude researchers like him from having a response to their equipment that can be ‘immediate and visceral’. He describes the tactile satisfaction that he has derived from working with machines that are engineered with grace and precision. It is a delightful account of how even apparently prosaic devices can elicit a feeling of connection, even affection, for those who use them. I’m very glad to have stimulated an account like this. Anyone who talks of ‘science as a craft’ is a man after my own heart.
Yet I can’t help thinking that my question remains. Galileo’s instruments can be appreciated as objects of wonder and desire by anyone who sees them, not just by those accustomed to their use. Why, I think we must still ask, were they put together not just with care and precision but with an apparent wish to make them beautiful?
And, to turn the question around, why should we care if they were? Would there really be any gain in adorning today’s scientific instruments with wood panelling and mother-of-pearl inlay? What would be the point?
I’m glad Stephen’s article has forced me to think about these things more deeply than I did when I posted my cri de coeur. I should say that there are of course others who are far better placed than I am to provide answers, such as Jim Bennett at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford and Frank James at the Royal Institution. But these, such as they are, are my thoughts.
First, there is obviously a selection effect at work here of the kind that all historians and curators are familiar with. What tends to get preserved is not a representative cross-section of what is around at any time, but rather, what is deemed to be worth preserving. No doubt there was a host of unremarkable flasks and bottles and crucibles that were destroyed because no one thought them worth holding on to.
Second, there were of course no specialized scientific-instrument manufacturers in the early modern period. When investigators like Galileo and Boyle wanted something made that they could not make themselves, they would go to metalsmiths, carpenters, potters and the like, who inevitably would have brought their own craft aesthetic to the objects they made. And when specialist manufacturers did begin to appear, such as the instrument-maker Richard Reeve in London, they were catering to a particular clientele that their products reflected. Reeve was making microscopes and so forth for the wealthy dilettantes like Samuel Pepys, who would have expected to be buying something elegant and refined, not coldly functional.
But this touches on the third and perhaps most salient point: what, and who, these instruments were for. Even for Galileo, the scientific experiment was still at least as much a demonstration as it was an exploration: it was a way of showing that your ideas were right. (It has been suggested, albeit somewhat inconclusively, that Galileo may have slightly arranged his figures to suit his ideas, since methods of timing for phenomena like free fall or rolling down a plane were not yet sufficiently accurate to really distinguish between candidate mathematical formulae for describing them.) And in the earliest of the early modern era, during the late Renaissance, scientific instruments were objects of power. They were used by the virtuosi to delight and entertain their noble patrons, and thereby to imply a command of the occult forces of nature. For such a display, it was important that a device be impressive to look at: elegance was the key attribute of the courtly natural philosopher.
And this is, in a sense, still the case: scientific instruments are not made simply to do a job, but employ a particular visual rhetoric with an agenda in mind. OK, homemade instrumentation does often tend to have an improvised Heath Robinson quality, and this is often the kind of instrument that I like best – as I argued here, it can thereby reflect the scientist’s own thought processes. But when an instrument is manufactured, even when it is mass-produced, there is another determinant of its appearance. It has – even the most anonymous of spectrometers – been designed, and that design is geared towards a particular end. For one thing, it becomes susceptible to fashion – we can all distinguish an instrument from the 1950s (chunky, retro-Space Age) from one made in the 1990s (sleek, minimalist). But more importantly, I would submit that, just as the instruments of the seventeenth century obeyed a rhetoric of virtuosic mastery of nature, today they must convey objectivity, the hallmark of modern science. That’s to say, modern instruments don’t just look bland and uninspiring because they are made without love (and they are certainly not make without skill) – they look that way because they are trying to reflect what is deemed to be the proper way to do science. It must be impersonal, free of frippery or excess. A blank casing, functional dials and knobs, sober colours, no decoration: to look otherwise would invite suspicions that it was a toy, not a means of doing good science.
So while I accept Stephen’s assertion that the utilitarian nature of modern scientific instruments doesn’t necessarily preclude their being given satisfying and even elegant designs, I think we need to recognize that there is an aesthetic shaping the way they look that says something about the character of modern scientific research – it has to maintain the correct deportment, which means looking suitably ‘sciency’ and neutral. Does that make the slightest difference to the nature of research itself? It’s not obvious that it will, but I am struck by how my blog seemed to touch a nerve with various other folks, so perhaps some researchers do feel that their equipment is a little too functional to offer much inspiration.
First published on Homunculus, 5 May 2014.
The pictures from the Museo Galileo are, from top down, of a ciphering device, clinometer, astrolabe and thermoscope. All can be found the museum’s superb website. Stephen Curry’s photos are of a goniometer head and a Gilson pipette, from his Flickr account.