Today, we throw a new light on experience. 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.
Art historian Kenneth Clark
describes the 17th century. He begins with the odd
words, "The Light of Experience." The 1600s saw the
emergence of modern science, and to tell us about
that, Clark begins with the Dutch masters -- with
Hals, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. He begins with their
use of light.
Clark uses the words light and experience in their
metaphorical as well as their literal senses. The
Dutch masters were consummate handlers of light.
Sunlight etches buildings in stark morning clarity.
It flows through windows. It carries images through
mirrors. Light illuminates and clarifies our
The rise of 17th-century science was built on a new
kind of experience. It gave us the first scientific
experiments. An experiment is a synthetic
experience that illuminates our understanding. The
Dutch had also invented telescopes and microscopes.
When the Italian Galileo got hold of those lenses,
he knew what to do with them. He was one of the
first to isolate experience into experiments -- to
focus light on component pieces of nature in
We see the very character of this revolution in
thought in those remarkable Dutch paintings. Here's
a group of farm animals drawn in a documentary
detail that outreaches modern photography. There is
a doctor doing an autopsy for seven observers.
Bones and tendons are laid bare along with the
intent horror of the onlookers. No detail is
missed. The light of the new science floods in as
the doctor creates an experience that forever
changes the lives of those seven startled watchers.
Hals illuminates the face of René Descartes
in a portrait whose eyes bore into the 17th-century
This remarkable century finally gave us Isaac
Newton, who broke light into its spectrum of
component colors -- whose experiments and whose
mind finally gave us a new dimension of control
over light. Alexander Pope expressed the 18th
century's awe of Newton when he wrote,
Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in Night.Well, all this began a long time before
Newton. Newton, in fact, ended the 17th century by
casting light of a new kind on experience. He
abstracted experimental results to a point at which
the common observer could no longer recognize them.
He brought in the 18th century by basing science on
mathematics. Newton transcended the color of everyday
experience. The acute observation of nature that had
begun in Holland had finally penetrated beyond
anything the eye could look at directly.
God said, Let Newton be! And all was light.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds