Monday, March 3, 2008

My Books part 01: Dictionary of Science & Technology

I collect dictionaries. The Wordsworth Reference series has a number of interesting dictionaries. My favorite of theirs is "The Wordsworth Dictionary of Science & Technology." The tag line reads, "A 'user-friendly' guide to the modern world."

At over 1000 pages and packed with tiny type it's positively dense with useful information and definitions.

But it's the choice of cover that fascinates me. Is it a picture of the Space Shuttle (as in another edition)? Is it that first crystallographic image of a DNA molecule? Is it a picture that in any way celebrates science? No.

It is the haunting painting "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" by Joseph Wright, 1768.

The painting depicts a demonstration of a bird suffocating in a vacuum, to the mixed reactions of the audience. The man on the far left is rapt with fascination. The woman next to him gives him the "I'm not sure I know who you are" look. Cropped off the cover is a young girl fixated on the suffering of the bird and (presumably) an older sister shielding herself from the view. Father figure looks like he's attempting to comfort her with an explanation of the science going on. The eldest person is lost in troubled thoughts -- but he is painted in the same lifeless colors as the bird. And on the far right, a boy opens a window to the open air -- not so much for the bird but for the viewer.

The genius of the painting is in the depiction of the "natural philosopher" looking at us directly. His hand at first appears to be inviting us in. But a closer look shows that the hand is operating the pump. His face is disturbingly ambiguous. Maybe he is placidly explaining the principle of the vacuum. Maybe he is asking forgiveness. Maybe he just lost his soul. He's a cypher looking at us -- but there is a clear sadness in his eyes. He does indeed suck the air out of the room.

It's an outstanding painting. But it's not the celebration of science you'd expect on the cover of a trade paperback dictionary.

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