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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1993 Follow Me on Pinterest

There are times when the future turns up in unexpected places–and sometimes that imagery is quite unintentional, and belongs only to the viewer in that future, looking back. It seems to me that many of these examples belong in the history of scientific illustration

Thomas Dick's Celestial Scenery, or, The wonders of the planetary system displayed
was published by Harper & Brothers in New York in 1838 is a good example for a home of some of these flashes of future brilliance. What we're seeing in the pages of this chunky book–which was an influential object in the early reading of a number of people who were to become influential astronomers, one including E.E.. Barnard–are lovely, simple, and include some relatively simple images of size comparisons. The result seems to my eye to suggest Suprematist art, geometrical art that would come into being another 75 years hence or so. (This movement was founded by the great Kazimir Malevich in the 19-teens, who said of it: "Under Suprematism I understand the primacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth.") Of course the Dick images were simple comparatives and not-yet-art–but they certainly do suggests themselves as something more than what they are. The full text of the book is located at the Internet Archive, here. (Thanks to Trevor Owens and his interesting Pinterest collection here who brought my attention to the Dick book via images of the Martian canals.)

A plan of the rings of Saturn relating their size and some of their imagined composition:

Astronomy dick saturn
Kazimir Malevich, Black Circle, 1915:


Comparative of the Earth to Saturn's rings; image bottom, depicts the Sun and Jupiter

Astronomy dick earth saturn

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1980 Follow Me on Pinterest

With the endless images of the Land of Oz in our minds from the book and movie it is easy for the other lands generated by their creator L. Frank Baum to escape our attention Oz isn't the only place that Dorothy traveled to–far from it. She went very far and wide in the mind of Baum, who was extraordinarily prolific both inside and outside of the Oz series.

From 1900-1919, Baum (1856-1919) wrote 17 Oz books, as well as another 18 books in the non-Oz realm, plus 17 books in a juvenile series for girls under the pseudonym of Edith Van Dyne, plus six more books under the name of Floyd Akers, plus another seven other books under five other names, plus a pretty wide assortment (200+) of short stories, plus plays. Plus all of the stuff he wrote before 1900. That's a LOT of writing in 19 years.

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1975

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In preparing an alphabetic sampler atlas of imaginary places (a thing which looks much finer capitalized, so An Alphabetic Sampler Atlas of Imaginary Places), I wondered about the non-existent relationships between these nonexistent places, and thought that this too might make an interesting alphabetization project. So an Alphabetic Sampler of Non-Existent Relationships Between Non-Existent Places came to be, and since it has such an oddly appealing ring to it, with a certain amount of surrealist qualities (really more affectations) it might be appropriate to start with Alfred Jarry, and here with his wonderful creation, Laceland1. and its relationship to Edwin Abbott's Flatland2.. Their's could be a war in the relationship of their light–or more exactly, their relationship of shadows.

I can see across the vast and extremely limited sea that separates these two places a commonality in at least one dimension–and maybe only one, though being light, it is a rather large one. Light plays a big part in Flatland. The slender book Flatland is perhaps one of the best books ever written on perception and dimensions, a beautifully insightful book that was quick and sharp, and in spite of all that was also a best-seller. Written in 1884 when Abbott was 46 (Abbott would live another 46 years and enjoy the book’s popular reception), it introduces the reader to a two dimensional world with a social structure in which the more sides of your object equals power and esteem. Thus a lower class would be a triangle (three sides) while the highest (priestly) class would be mega-polygons, whose shape would then become a circle. On the lowest but complex strata is woman, who is represented as a line, but which is also the most contentious and unpredictable of all of the Flatland shapes. That is, until they all encounter a sphere, and the introduction of the third dimension, where Abbott’s magistry comes in explaining to the three-dimensional reader what it was like to be in a two-dimensional world.

Jarry's Laceland–along with Amorphous Island, Fragrant Island, Bran Isle and what is almost the pluralization of my surname, Ptyx–was an island kingdom that was surrounded by shadow and semi dark, but upon approaching it there would appear absolutely brilliant and blinding light the power outmatching that of the sun, glorious and fantastic, the light greater than that of the light of creation. The light is beautifully described by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi in their excellent The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (1980):

"The King of Lace spins this bright light, weaving pictures of madonnas, jewels, peacocks and human figures which intertwine like the dances of the Rhine-maidens. Clear patterns apper against the pitch-black darkness of the surrounding air, like shapes painted on windows by the first, and then disappear again into the shadows" (Page 204)

Now in Flatland, light is a different sort of thing, coming as it does in only two dimensions, which means that two-dimensional light in a two dimensional world makes for a different sort of shadow, one that is rather flat and uninspired, especially compared to those of Laceland, which must be magnificent. Perhaps the shadow relationship between Laceland and Flatland is one of opposites. Polar opposites. Impossibles.

This all seems to come together a little when considering that the Dr. Faustroll of the Laceland adventures, is the inventor of "pataphysics", which is "the science of imaginary solutions".


1. Alfred Jarry. Ptyx, Laceland, Amorphous Island, Fragrant Island and Bran Isle, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, pataphysician, 1911 .

2, Edwin Abbott. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884).

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post

People have been thinking along the lines of "electrons" for a long time, though the word is of relatively recent origin (1874), coined by the wonderfully-named Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911) after deducing that ther must be some type of electrical bit that vibrates within the atom that would generate light. J.J. Thomson (1856-1940) stated later in 1897 in his paper "Cathode Rays" that evidence points to the fact that there must exist particles that are less massive than the hydrogen atom–he called these objects "corpuscles" but he was referring to what we now know as "electrons". The gorgeous "oil drop" experiment of 1910 by R.A.Millikan (1868-1953) determined the charge of the electron, and in the next year–1911–Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937, and one of the 20th century's greatest Kiwis) proposed the structure of the nuclear atom. Then the major development of Louis de Broglie's (1892-1960) particle/wave duality, and so on into our near-present. But in between the beautiful work of Millikan and Rutherford came this little beast, a very unsatisfyingly-assumed image of an atom and its swirling electrons. The image appeared in the December 1920 issue of Illustrated World and just seems so unfair to the cause of beauty that I thought to share it.


JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post

I wonder if Bartleby is more a "structure of words" than was famously said of Molly Bloom?

The question just came up from Patti about what Bartleby's classic rejoinder was in Herman Melville's (1819–1891) classic noirish "Bartleby, the Scrivener…" (1853)–was it "I would prefer not to" or "I prefer not to"?

Instantly I thought the former, but then, well, I wasn't sure if it wasn't the later.

This is one of those instances that shows how magnificent the internet is: I was able to conduct a quick census of Bartleby's own spoken variations on this phrase in like ten minutes. And the results are conclusive but a little complicated.

As pure stand-alone phrases, "I would prefer not to" and "I prefer not" are used three times each. However, there are variations on this theme, each used only one time by Bartleby: "I would prefer not", "I prefer not to", "I would prefer not to go", "I would prefer not to make any change", "I would prefer not to be a little unreasonable", "I would prefer to be left alone", "I would prefer not to take a clerkship", "I would prefer to be doing something else", "I would prefer not to make any change at all", and then "I prefer to give no answer" and the fatal "I prefer not to dine".

So. When comparing the use of "would" in the "not" and "not to" and all of the other extensions on the theme, "would" does come out on top, in general, 12 times to 6.

I have no preference for either phrase.

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post Follow Me on Pinterest

It is interesting to think about the newness of old things, particularly English words that we have in use every day. In this case I'm referring to words in the sciences–and not necessarily the words coming in the 20th century following the explosion of modernity beginning in 1895. It is surprising sometimes to realize the relative newness of some terms, like, for example, "scientist". The word "science" is very old and very old in English, but the word "scientist" is coined only in 1833. It is surprising to think of the modernity of some of the words when by their constant use they seem as though they must be ancient, but of course are not so.

Here's a quick lising of some interesting candidates, everyday words with a not-very-old lineage, their dates taken from first-usages identified by the Oxford English Dictionary:

Altimeter, 1847; Ampere, 1861; Aphasia, 1867; Bacterium, 1847; Biology, 1802; Cambrian , 1836; Centigrade, 1812; Chlorophyll, 1810; Chromosome, 1890; Claustrophobia, 1879; Cosmology, 1730; Cretacious, 1832; Diatom, 1854; Electron, 1891; Embryology; 1859; Ethnology, 1842; Gastritis, 1806; Gynaecology, 1847; Histology, 1847; Joule, 1882; Jurassic, 1833; Kleptomania, 1830; Morphology, 1830; Ohm, 1861; Palaeobotany, 1872; Palaeography, 1822; Palaeolithic, 1865; Palaeontology, 1838; Petrology, 1811; Pilocene, 1833; Scientist, 1833; Symbiosis, 1877; Synthesis, 1804; Taxonomy, 1828; Triassic , 1841; Voltmeter, 1882; Watt, 1882.

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post

This lovely if not very convincing argument was produced and directed by "a German engineer, Herr" (Enrst) Horgiger, of Munich. He attempted to wed belief and mythology and astronomy, providing a worlds-in-collision explanation for the Flood. From the caption to the drawing I do not know if it is The Flood of Noah, as it occurs in the book of Genesis in the Bible, or the flood of Apollodorus, or Hygenius, or of the Eridu Genesis (some 2000 years or so before Genesis) or the flood of Atrachasis (of about 1650 bce) or the flood of Gilgamesh (of about 1100 bce), or if it is the flood of Emhil, or Zeus, or Allah, or Yahweh, or the other 150+ great floods of mythology categorized by James Frazer in his astounding but unreadable books. But it is a flood, and his reason is that a wandering body in space came into temporary orbit around the Earth with a resulting gravitational soup that caused the waters to rise up after which the flood occurred and the orbiting sphere to break apart.

The flood 1925057
As I said, it is a pretty picture, with a nice deep blue background that my scanner won't capture.

Source: The Illustrated London News, 21 January 1925, "A New Theory of the Flood: How it Might Repeat Itself".

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post

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"None of us has time to live the true dramas of the life that we are
destined for. This is what ages us – this and nothing else. The wrinkles
and creases on our faces are the registration of the great passions,
vices, insights that called on us; but we, the masters, were not at
home".–Walter Benjamin on experiencing M. Proust

In sliding my way through found pieces of Proust this morning I bumped quite a bit into aging in general and mothers and the "very painful sense of things" ["une impression fort pénible1"] . And then in Marcel Proust on Art and Literature 1896-1919 I found Proust quoting Hugo, "I fancy that old age invades us trough the eyes, and that they age too soon who dwell among grey heads"2. This can go on for quite a while, and it is a little too much before the first coffee. I did want to post this picture of Jeanne Proust with her two boys because of her hands: not only because their attitude is very very uncommon for late-19th/early-2oth century portraits, but because they see strong and assured, which is I think just what his mother was, not creaking off to the grave covered in moss and age.

Proust hands

A detail from:


[Source: the Morgan Library]


1. Mme Proust in a letter to her son Marcel, from Michael Wood, "Proust and his Mother", in the London Review of Books, 22 March 2012

2. Sylvia Townsend Warner (translator), Marcel Proust on Art and Literature, 1896-1919, Carroll & Graff, 1954, page 105.

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1968 Follow Me on Pinterest

I was reading the ending of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and found it a highly unusual occurrence that the novel ended on its single-word title. It doesn't seem to happen very often at all (though it also occurs in Toni Morrison's Beloved). And so I set to check out the last words of some significant works of fiction that are on the shelves here at home and see what these books ended on, and to give this project an hour of search. Nothing comes very close to Nabokov, though Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun ends with "gun", and Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night ends with the entire title, along with the author's name: "Just a moment, I’ve almost finished If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.” (Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49" ends with the title of the book, as well). But on my hour's journey into ending, that was about it. It all seems a little useless, except that there were a few nice bits that broke away from this time-hole.

First, when you read the words and their books, they sorta/maybe suggest the essence of what came before–I think if you squint your eyes a little and connect the last word to the title, the word occasionally feels like a micro-summation. Second, I found that when taken together and in order, the last word of each of the short stories in the beautiful Jorge Luis Borges' Ficciones (edited by Kerrigan for Grove Press in 1962 with a number of different translators) presents themselves as not-bad found poetry/musical word arrangement. Third, it might be a fun idea to set up a chess set of pieces composed on the one side by Last Words in Great Fiction and on the other the Last Words in Famous Scientific Papers.

Another interesting bit is a challenge to write a paragraph using the following last word from the accompanying list of novels (you can have your choice of punctuation and prepositions and whatever else is necessary). Dr. Seuss managed to create a great classic with a 236-word allowance from his publisher and somehow managed to write The Cat in the Hat, so there is a precedence for such things. Taken as a random group, the words aren't necessarily a collection of momento mori, but could make a nice beginning for something.

Found Poetry in the Last Word of the Short Stories in Borges' Ficciones:

Burial memempschosis

counsel him,

chance ruins, hope, heart

congestion me foreseen,

fired morning evil,




–I added punctuation and the spacing.

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1967

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Instrument seller Yarwell[Image source: Science Museum Group]

Instrument seller Yarwell detailI was looking at this trade card for the optical instrumentalist John Yarwell ("Traded at Ye Archimedes & Spectacles in St. Paul's Church Yard
(1671-92), North Side of St. Paul's (1672), St. Paul's Churchyard
(1676-96) & Archimedes in Ludgate St.(1697) & Archimedes &
Crown (1698-1712), all London, England") and was struck by something a little bit "odd". For as many times that I have seen early images of compound microscopes I don't think I've ever looked at how the instrument was attached to its stand. Now that I am seeing it, it is remarkable how efficient and careful the early users were. Basically, the microscope was attached bya hair to its stand–well, not really, but just about.

Yarwell features spectacles, looking glasses, microscopes and a variety of telescopes. Here's a detail of a compound microscope from the Yarwell image (left), and it is remarkable how potentially unstable the attachment makes the instrument. Just a slight bit of turmoil, or a bump near a table leg could upset the image.

Take for another example this very famous compound microscope made by Christopher Cock for the great Robert Hooke (1635-1703):

Hooke microscope

[Image of the Hooke microscope via the Billings Collection at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology]

This famous instrument was evidently the one with which Hooke first observed living cells (25 March 1663, nearly 350 years ago) and which he used for the first investigation and of cork and the naming of the "cell" (13 April 1663), and which was the basis for the images gathered for his masterpiece of investigation and exploration, the Micrographia (1665).

It seems even less stable than the Yarwell instrument. The astonishing thing about this fish-skin-covered instrument, this gateway to a completely undiscovered miniature world, is that so much of it depended upon such a little bit of engineering…it just seems as though taking the next little step could have been taken for a more basic base, a heavier mount, a more stout connection from stand-to-microscope, just to make the instrument more stable. But it didn't happen just then for Hooke, and it evidently didn't matter.

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