Page 3.14

In my former life, long before I had even heard of Seed, I studied 17th century English literature and dipped occasionally into history of science. One of my favorite figures in 17th century science was mad, bad Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, who lived from 1623-1673.

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Cavendish wrote poems, plays, and novels, as well as scientific tracts. The best and most bizarre thing she wrote was a utopian novel called “The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World,” meant to be an addendum to her more serious work, “Observations on Experimental Philosphy,” a critique of Robert Hooke’s “Micrographia”.


In “The Blazing World,” a woman enters an alternate universe, the portal to which is located near the North Pole. In no time at all, she has married the world’s Emperor, who then disappears for most of the rest of the book permitting the Empress to act as sole monarch. The world she rules over is made of many different kinds of creatures, and most of them seem to be different kinds of scientists: “The bear-men were to be her experimental philosophers, the bird-men her astronomers, the fly, worm and fish-men her natural philosophers, the ape-men her chemists, the satyrs her Galenic physicians, the fox-men her politicians, the spider and lice-men her mathematicians, the jackdaw, magpie and parrot-men her orators and logicians, the giants her architects etc.” The Empress commands each class of scientist to come before her, and one by one she demolishes the basis of their professions.

The most notorious example is the bird-men, who come to her with many tales of the magical things they’ve seen through their telescopes, but have trouble agreeing on what those things actually are: “After they had thus argued, the Empress began to grown angry at their telescopes, that they could give no better intelligence. ‘For,’ said she, ‘now I do plainly perceive that your glasses are false informers and instead of discovering the truth, delude your senses. Wherefore I command you to break them, and let the bird-men trust only to their natural eyes and examine celestial objects by the motions of their own sense and reason.'”

Cavendish was an anti-Aristotelian natural philosopher, who didn’t believe that sense observation, or at least that performed through a telescope, was the best way of knowing the natural world. Hence her critique of Hooke in “Observations on Experimental Philosophy”: Hooke’s instrument, the microscope, narrowed down the world too much for Cavendish, whose scientific and artistic work both exhibit a bounty of subjective, multi-faceted perspectives. Perhaps her diminished status as a woman (women certainly weren’t allowed anywhere near Bacon’s Royal Society at this point, although in Cavendish’s case, it wasn’t for lack of trying) encouraged this resistance to the microscope’s monolithic (duolithic? two eyeholes) viewpoint, although I’m sure my old thesis adviser would call that an oversimplification. In any case, Cavendish is, in a very weird and round-about way, a predecessor to the Seed project as I see it — introducing the ambiguity and subjectivity of culture and art to the strait-laced world of science, and allowing them to perform a little waltz. No one could call “The Blazing World” a beach book, but it’s definitely on my list of recommendations for summer science reading.

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