Today, Aesop's fables illustrate a new science. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Science began taking on its
modern form in the 1600s. People began making the
first systematic experiments. The idea that we
should methodically dissect nature to expose a set
of scientific laws was taking shape. But scientific
paraphernalia was very skimpy 400 years ago. We had
no armory of instruments -- no recognizable
scientific laboratories. There were no set methods
for doing business.
For example, no one had ever thought about
scientific illustration. When Gilbert wrote his
famous book on magnetism in 1600, he had to find
his own way. When he told us we can align a red-hot
bar in a north/south direction and then induce
magnetism by forging it, he wanted a picture to go
with his text.
So where did Gilbert go for a model of a blacksmith
hammering metal? Not to a blacksmith's shop, nor to
a copy of Agricola's book on mining, even though it
illustrated many blacksmiths. Gilbert went instead
to a popular book on Aesop's fables by Marcus
Gheeraerts. He copied Gheeraerts's illustration for
the fable of the blacksmith and his dog -- almost
exactly. All he did was invert it, erase the dog,
and update the smith's clothing.
It simply didn't occur to Gilbert that he should go
after the most accurate source. Gheeraerts's book
of fables was widely read. When people saw a
picture of a blacksmith, they expected it to look
like Gheeraerts's smith, so that's what Gilbert
gave them. And for the next hundred years, so did
every other scientific writer who needed to portray
That sort of thing grows even stranger when we read
old books on zoology. A zoologist showing a picture
of a chameleon is presenting data. It really ought
to look like a chameleon. But chameleons were
important symbols of duplicity in the 16th century.
They were so powerful as symbols that Gheeraerts
actually made up his own Aesop's fable about a
chameleon, just so he could have one in his book.
His chameleon clung to a branch with four
prehensile claws. The reptile was asymmetric -- all
four claws grasped the branch from the right-hand
side. And for the next hundred years, every
zoologist who drew a chameleon showed him on that
same branch with the same crazy one-sided grip.
Of course a first order of business for the new
science was clawing its way free of fable. It
needed a new home -- one free of the rich and
fanciful conventions in which it had been born. By
1700 science had taken on the detached austerity we
expect from it today. It'd become a powerful
instrument for seeking truth, but one that was,
alas, no longer willing to speak in the
light-hearted language of fables and fairy tales.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds