How Nature Works, in Stunning Psychedelic Illustrations of Scientific Processes and Phenomena from a 19th-Century French Physics Textbook
By Maria Popova
A century before the trailblazing photographer Berenice Abbott created her arresting visualizations of scientific processes and phenomena, the French mathematician, science writer, and liberal journalist Amédée Guillemin (July 5, 1826–January 2, 1893) enlisted gifted artists in illustrating his wildly popular science books. In consonance with the pioneering 19th-century information designer Emma Willard’s conviction that knowledge is most readily received when “addressed to the eye,” Guillemin understood that the fundamental laws of nature appear too remote and slippery to the human mind. To make them comprehensible, he had to make their elegant abstract mathematics tangible and captivating for the eye.
He had to make physics beautiful.
Although Guillemin published prolifically on many distinct scientific subjects — the Sun and the Moon, volcanoes and earthquakes, railways and the telephone, the nature of sound and light — his magnum opus was the comprehensive 1868 physics textbook Les phénomènes de la physique, which became the backbone of his five-volume 1882 popular encyclopedia Le monde physique, or The Physical World.
Featuring 31 colored lithographs, 80 black-and-white plates, and 2,012 illustrated diagrams, the encyclopedia owes much of its success to this beguiling visual presentation of the processes and phenomena Guillemin elucidates: gravity, sound, light, heat, magnetism, electricity, meteors.
The most arresting illustrations, many of them preserved by the Wellcome Collection, were done by the Parisian intaglio printer and engraver René Henri Digeon, based on sketches by the physicist Jean Thiébault Silbermann, who made the first measurements in thermochemistry.
Reminiscent of Goethe’s graphically daring diagrams of color perception, the psychedelic images depict the spectral distribution of color and the behavior of light as it passes through various materials, ranging from a bird’s feather to a tourmaline-coated crystal.
Said to have inspired Jules Verne, Les phénomènes de la physique enchanted masses of lay readers and modeled for generations of scientists an engaging new way of presenting their work. On the borderline between these two worlds stood the scientifically voracious but formally untrained Winifred Lockyear, wife of Norman Lockyear — the world’s first professor of astrophysics, discoverer of helium, and founder of the journal Nature. In the final years of her life, Lockyear set about translating Guillemin’s masterwork. It was published in 1877 under the title The Forces of Nature: a Popular Introduction to the Study of Physical Phenomena (public domain) — her legacy to the English-speaking world.
Lockyear took especial care to preserve Guillemin’s spellbinding prose. True to the expository sensibility of his century and to the great literary tradition of his country, he approached his science books with a philosopher-poet’s sensitivity to the underlying human hungers driving our search for knowledge. He writes in the preface:
From time immemorial the mind of man has felt a strong desire to fathom the laws which govern the various phenomena of Nature, and to understand her in her most secret work in short, to make itself master of her forces, in order to render them as useful to material as to intellectual and moral life; such is the noble undertaking to which the greatest minds have devoted themselves. For too long did man wander in this eager and often dangerous pursuit of truth: beginning with fanciful interpretations in his infancy, he by degrees substituted hypothesis for fable; and then, at length, understanding the true method, that of experimental observation, he has been able, after innumerable efforts, to give in imperishable formulae, the most general idea of the principal phenomena of the physical world.
Half a century after Schopenhauer contemplated the essential difference between how art and science illuminate the world, Guillemin subverts the common stereotype of art belonging to the passions and science to the cold intellect, and adds:
In order thus to place itself in communion with Nature, our intelligence draws from two springs, both bright and pure, and equally fruitful — Art and Science: but it is by different, we may say even by opposite, methods that these springs at which man may satisfy his thirst for the ideals, which constitute his nobleness and greatness, the love of the beautiful, truth and justice, have been reached. The artist abstains from dulling the brilliancy of his impressions by a cold analysis; the man of science, on the contrary, in presence of Nature, endeavours only to strip off the magnificent and poetical surroundings, to dissect it, so to speak, in order to dive into all the hidden secrets ; but his enjoyment is not less than that of the artist, when he has succeeded in reconstructing, in its intelligible whole, this world of phenomena of which his power of abstraction has enabled him to investigate the laws.
We must not seek then in the study of physical phenomena, from a purely scientific point of view, the fascination of poetical or picturesque description; on the other hand, such a study is eminently fit to satisfy that invincible tendency of our minds, which urges us on to understand the reason of things — that fatality which dominates us, but which it is possible for us to make use of to the free and legitimate satisfaction of our faculties.
Complement with French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning astronomical drawings from the same era and Goethe’s theory of color and emotion, conceived half a century earlier, then revisit artist Vivian Torrence’s enchanting depictions of scientific phenomena, created a century later.
Published August 20, 2019