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JF Ptak Science Books

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4-1 prop meat 001
I was making my way through LIFE magazine for 1943 and was struck by the ratio of the number of advertisements using the war as a backdrop (and American soldiers as convenient props) for sales against the actual space dedicated to war reporting. Concentrating on just two randomly selected weekly issues (November 1 and November 15 1943) I was surprised to find 28 ads (most of which were full-page); there was no war reporting in November 1 and just half a story (on the history of the Prussian General staff) in November 15. Most of the ads were directly war-related, the companies mostly relegated to vast production of war goods, like General Motors, Cadillac and Boeing. The others were less clear, like the ad pictured here for Green Giant peas and corn. This company was informing the home front that if there were shortages of their product it was because they were selling it to the Army or Navy–others were more adventurous for their spirited attempt at patriotism. I'm not sure that Wembly Ties really needed to include a GI in their ad, nor did I like the use of American soldiers to sell Interwoven socks.

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JF Ptak Science Books

"Sometimes a book is just entirely bad, and sometimes it is entirely nothing. It is impossible for a book to be both very bad and very nothing. Impossible. Except for this book, whose badness is exceeded only by its nothingness, and vice versa ". –Oscar Wilde

And so into this black hole of imaged Wildeian description we go, into a very real-ish book.

I found a novel tonight, bought long ago and long ago mostly lost. It was written by a doctor who worked in the District Hospital in Lima, Ohio, and written in 1934. The Lima Hospital was the largest poured concrete structure in the world when it was built in 1915, and stayed so until the Pentagon was completed. The hospital was established for the criminally insane, had 14"-thick walls, and reinforced steel bars laid into the walls that went "right down to bedrock".

It was somewhere in there that this doctor wrote something that was really so toweringly bad that it escapes comprehension. I own the carbon copy of the unpublished work, which is typed on 14×8.5" sheets of paper, front and back, running 94 pages. It is a very crowded affair, with 90 lines of single-space typed lines, making the work about 115,000 words long.

There wasn't enough space evidently for paragraphs, which gives the work a kind of insistent, casket-cramped cruelty. To read it takes your breath away for its dullness–the book moves so weirdly and at the same time so very slowly that it doesn't move at all even while moving.

Manuscript insane one

A few months ago I found the seven-foot-long scroll of the book's plan–a work of crowded magnificence of nothing and confusion, being very orderly at the same time. It went to a friend of mine who created artwork around it, and as it happens made a very noticeable appearance in a very significant yearly show in NYC last week. I was stunned to find that there was actually a text to go with the scroll-outline–it emerged from the warehouse this week, so perhaps this too will find a very celebrated life as art as well. Certainly the book would go nowhere on its own as a book, though it stood a chance at surviving on the grounds of its considerble design weirdness, which is of a complexified beauty.

Manuscript insane two

In the meantime, before all of the letters slide themselves off the page from sheer boredom and before the thing is resurrected as a magnificent artistic effort, I'll share some ianges of the extra-ordinary book of reversed brilliant badness. I've also culled a few imaginary descriptions of the book from writers known and not:

Potboiler scribbler:

"He couldn't speak. He could barely see. Blinded by the flames ignited inside his eyeballs from the novel in his lap. The words were like molten lead, sucked off the page by his eyes, forming a vacuum in his brain. It was a bad book".

The first-time published novelist's approach:

"He couldn't speak the words of the thoughts in his head, because they and all of his breath were stolen by the magic of the complete badness of the book in his lap".

Gertrude Stein:

"The book was bad and bad, and bad was the book. Even the badness of the bad was bad, a whole new insight into being bad. It was the bad book by which bad books are called bad".

Ernset Hemingway:

"He didn't read the book so much as he looked through it. It was easy–there was nothing there. As bad as it was, it could get no worse. So he shot it, and poured a drink".

You might wonder what this book is about. Me too.

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 Quick Post

This image stabbed me right in the eyeball. It popped out while I was grazing in a heavy lap-busting volume of The Illustrated London News for 26 March 1949–the yearly volume resists being held in just one hand. Anyway it was first a photo of new tanks in an American cavalry regiment; beneath that, though, was this image:

Negro troops980

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JF Ptak Science Books Part of the History of Blank, Empty and Missing Things.

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Blog--14 nov--fantastic arch

Returning to Jean-Jacques Scheuchzer's1 magical, inventive, fact-bending naive-surreal work on universal history based on the Old Testament, I've found these two glorious and odd images of the Tower of Babel. The first ("Genesis Cap.XI.v.4. Orthographia Turris.Mediummetalis") is terrific, shocking even in its abrupt construction and flat-out stumpiness, because it is one of a very small minority that shows the structure to be canonical, with a little church at top. The enormous stairway is just completely out of proportion to the purpose of the structure, the effort falling into some sort of odd advanced-child category.

If Italo Calvin's "Invisible Cities" or (better yet) Jorge Borges' "The Circular Ruins" were to be illustrated, this image would fit right in.

The other very unusual bit here, is that Scheuchzer also provides a plan for the city that was to be built around the tower–I'm pretty sure that I haven't seen references to this before, and the Biblical references to it are no help whatsoever in determining its physical aspects.

There are probably very few things that could be as blank or as empty as combative, competing, nonsensical and completely self-referential language or communication. Well, except for Scheuchzer's very empty town plan locating the tower in an urban setting–a listless place of surrounded circles of nothingness for a place in which everything is said and nothing is understood. Ground Zero for blank Blog--nov 14--planlanguage.


Two interesting books that I should mention that address the ideas
of fantastic/imaginary architecture and decay are C. W. Thomsen, Visionary
Architecture: From
Babylon to Virtual Reality, (Prestel, 1994) ; and Paul Zucker, Fascination of Decay (Gregg Press, 1968).

1. Kupfer-Bibel, in welcher die Physica sacra, oder geheiligte
Natur-Wissenschafft derer in heil. Schrifft vorkommenden naturlichen
sachen, deutlich erklart und bewahrt,
printed in Augsburg and Ulm
by C.U. Wagner, 1731-1735. Offered in four volumes, illustrated with
758 plates, it is a magnificent work, if not altogether correct, or
even near- correct, with an enormously confused pedigree, implying the
wisdom and text of the Bible (and the old Testament at that) as the
background for a physical history of the world.

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1954
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  • QUESTON: If great but not-popularly-known scientists could be represented as a chess piece, and that chess piece was on a game board opposite Popularly-Known-Celebrities-Not-Known-to-Scientists (and etc.), what piece would the great and dusty Robert Hooke be? And conversely, (on that opposite side), what piece would someone like, say Paris Hilton be?

See also earlier posts: The History of Dots Part 9: the Cell and Robert Hooke and Horse Poop and the Stars: Robert Hooke, 1673 (No, it Wasn't Pegasus) and When a Compliment is Not: Newton and Hooke and the "Shoulders of Giants"

I wonder about poor old Robert Hooke. He was such a tremendous thinker, a terrific rush of ideas, with revolutionary insights in many fields; he was a leading architect, a physicist, a microscopist, a chrononaut, a mathematician, an everything. He carried the Royal Society for years, carried on hundreds if not thousands of experiments, and of course was famously on the other side of a bad series of arguments with Isaac Newton. At the end of his long life, Hooke was afraid of not being remembered, of not having enough money to see
himself through hi sold age, afraid of others taking credit for his
work. He just seemed not to matter, anymore, in the last decade of his
life (and a period in which he was still doing significant work), and I
just wonder why he managed to become so semi-invisible.


He was so dedicated. I have an image of him scurrying with a friend, removing the estimable library of a patron and donor to the Society, trundling the books in wheelbarrows across a mile and then-some of bumpy London streets finding a home for these great treasures. He was an older man at this point, marching these books across parts of the city that he helped to restore after the fire, passed buildings that he helped to build and design, bumping his way through London, a great and famous scientist, saving books by the handful. [An idealized portrait of Hooke, at right.]

He was a tireless,
relentless observer and experimenter, who lost little effort in a stranded idea
and pursued interesting and problematic questions relentlessly. More than others too he chased his won glory—minor
but long and insistent—the years of which wore thin on many people in the
scientific community. But there were
many characteristics of the man that made him not quite so lovable and
endearing—not that Newton was any of those things, as he was not, but if you
are going to be a secondary luminary to a super nova you’ve got to have
something else going for you that the other man doesn’t have—sharing, helpful,
greatly generous—to get you into the long pre-dusty pages of history. Also it would’ve
helped if Hooke chose his battles with a little more aplomb and ingenuity—the
war which began in 1672 with Newton went very badly for Hooke and followed him
to the grave (and far beyond).

He just didn't "catch on", I think–at least he not for the long term. His brain teemed with ideas, but perhaps by the last decade of his long life, his tireless brain still working on innumerable bits, he just sucked the air out of a room.

He also never had his likeness recorded during his lifetime. And that is saying a lot. And I still don't know why.

Back to chess: I figure Hooke to be a Knight. I prefer Knights. He moved like a Knight. He importance was "higher" than that of a Knight, but, well, the Knight seems a good fit (and so he seems to get downgraded, in a way, even in this game). And Paris Hilton? I think she might be a queen (with a small "q")–as someone who is ultra-well-known but not for anything in particular except for the quality of being well-known.

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1943 (Part of the series on the History of Blank, Empty and Missing Things.)
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"Where is abstract without solids, I ask you?" — William Gaddis, on the solids in Uccello, The Recognitions, 1955

Actually, I think that there's plenty of abstract without solids, so long as you've seen solids before.

I've returned to a slightly recurrent theme in this blog dealing with the great Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) and his study of perspective–but most directly as he was observed by William Gaddis in his Great American Novel The Recognitions. (I am forever grateful to my brilliant Patti Digh for really hooking me into Gaddis so many years ago–Patti was long intrigued by Gaddis and wrote her UVa master dissertation on his Big Book. Gaddis' book can be found here.) Among other things Uccello is recognized as being one of the greatest and among the earliest artist to re-discover the science of perspective, and was throughout his life a passionate student and practioner.

Blogsan_romano[Much of Uccello's work can be found at Paolo Uccello Complete Works website, here.]

"Painting is exquisite as the punishment for the thinker."–William Gaddis, The Recognitions

The “solids’ recognized by Gaddis (and not really
discussed, and mentioned only twice in the book I believe) are incredible to me. Looking at his painting Battle of San Romano
(1457) we see Perspective in her place; but when we look at, say, the rumps
of the horses, we see almost no detail, just a mass of color, a solid,
with spectacular plainness. What in the world was he thinking? He could
certainly have painted the horse and the other solids with texture and
detail, but he didn’t, and to me it seems antithetical to the painting.
What in the name of all motherly things was he thinking? And who else
on earth was using such huge amounts of plain solids in their
paintings? I’m not aware that anyone else was, and I am relatively
clueless as to why he did it, abandoning detail in order to raise awareness of the surrounding parts of the painting, or perhaps heightening a sense of the not-yet-existent abstract, or drawing attention to the perspectival aspect of the work?

Blogsan_romano_rump[A detail of the missing detail, above.]

But the solids are not just limited to Uccello, though they may have appeared there first, especially as the "exhibited" variety of this thinking. Jacopo Bellini (ca. 1400-ca. 1470) was a contemporary, living pretty much during the same period of time as Uccello, and who was responsible as much as anyone else for introducing oils in painting and establishing the Venetian style. He was a brilliant artist, the teacher of Mantegna, ran a fabulous studio, and was the father of two great artists. (One son, Giovanni, was a highly regarded artist who was also the teacher of Girgione and Titian.)

In looking through two volumes of Jacopo's drawings, I was struck by the number of times that horses and other objects appeared without detail, as solid solids, or mostly solid, quite outside the way in which these things were painted in the 15th century. Pacing though the books flipping through the open pages is like looking at a pop-up book in reverse–each set of pages opened are like looking into, looking through, the book, into space. They are collections of perspective. And they are populated by those other solids, which was surprising.

His horses appear very much like those in Uccello–except of course that these images were personal, workbooks for the artist, idea-machines and memory devices. There was plenty of detail in other aspects of these drawings, but the lack of the detail int he Uccellian manner really struck me.

Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier's "Jacopo Bellini's Interest in Perspective and its Iconographical Significance" found in Zeitschrift fuer Kunstgeschichte (1975)
makes a very learned and eloquent case for the overwhelming interest
that Belinni had in the study of perspective–not to the exclusion of
all other things, because there were still patrons to be satisfied and
religious and triumphal scenes that needed to be painted–and
concentrated on that interpretation focusing on Bellini's stylebooks.
(Most of Bellini's output has been lost, but there are two volumes of
manuscript studies that have survived.)

many of Jacopo Bellini's drawings are reminiscent of model-book notions
in that they illustrate a variety of suggestions for the representation
of traditional themes – for example Flagellations, Adorations, Davids,
and animals -they are, taken as a whole, entirely different from model
book drawings. Jacopo rarely concentrated on a subject for the sake of
its thematic content. Almost never does a bald statement of fact appear
to describe, for example, a biblical event. Rather than focusing on the
event itself, Jacopo's compositions characteristically are concerned
with other things. In the vast majority of cases the subject is set
within the context of a variety of architectural motifs or in that of an
extensive naturalistic world. It would appear that for Jacopo Bellini
biblical subject matter was a justification for his participation in a
variety of other new interests. Primary among these was the special
attention given to perspective…"
No mention of course of the Uccello horses. And perhaps they're really not there there, but it certainly looks like they are, at least to me. They might not have been there for Gaddis, either, as Bellini doesn't show up in the book, Gaddis thinking more about Uccello, and then even more so of Hieronymous Bosch, Hugo van der Goes, and Hans Memling.

And here it is, Bellini's solids, an example:

Solids bellini913
There are others as well, examples of what, I am not sure–fantastic visions into blankness and into the future of what painting would become 450 years hence.

Perhaps they were just place-keepers, to be filled-in as neededm just a shrt-hand expression of a horse rather than a transcendental imperative. After all, Bellini knew horse muscles, and decided in his workbooks that he just didn't need to draw them, or that in the sense of Bartleby the scrivener that he'd prefer not to.


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JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post

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The fantastic Jesuit Andrea Pozzo published results of his researches on perspective in his Perspectiva pictorum et architectoru (1693),
explaining how he was able to compellingly, unbelievably represent
three-dimensional images on two-dimensional spaces, this image showing
plan and projection and profile, effectively giving you a
three-dimensional cross section of the architectural element…and having them seemingly float in space. His work is just absolutely gorgeous.

Pozzo 7

Pozo 2

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1942 (Part I)
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 I silently laugh at my own cenotaph
And out of the caverns of rain..  Percy B. Shelley, "The Cloud", 1820

[John Ruskin, Cloud Perspectival, 1860. Source for all Ruskin images: "Cloud Studies: The Visible Invisible",
by Mary Jacobus,

And this:

[John Ruskin, Cloud Perspective: Curvilinear., Modern Painters, Vol. V, Plate LXV.]

In a way the first image reminds me of Andrea Pozzo's work in his monumental Rules and
examples of perspective proper for painters and architects


but really more in the way that Pozzo's work seems to be elevated and floating in a heavy perspectivist space, bigger and blockier sky-borne marble than with ruskin. But still, the disembodied floatiness of the Pozzo work is ethereal.

Ruskin does round out his blocky and beautiful geometry, which definitely reminds me of work w=that would appear 90 years later: Ruskin, again:

And Georgia O'Keefe's Clouds III (1963), though her clouds tend towards a more rigid geometry in Clouds IV (1965, following):

Clouds O'KeefeO'Keefe, Clouds Above the Sky III, 1963

Clouds okeefe sky above iv 1965O'Keefe, Clouds Above the Sky IV, 1965

Ms. Georgia is definitely seeing her clouds with different eyes than Ruskin, and they are entirely different creatures–but still, the two come together in my head as relatives. The clouds, I mean.

I started looking around for early hard-line cloud geometries and thus far I haven't found very much, though there is a tremendous example by Henry Van de Velde's (1863-1957) "Sun at Ocean (Rhythmic Synthesis”) which I found in Werner Hoffman’s Turning Points in Twentieth century Art, 1890-1917 and which was executed in 1888/9, looks to me to be absolutely incredible for its time, a nearly non-representational, proto-abstract something, done three decades before these genres came into being.

Clouds van de velde
I don;t know where the designer Van de Velde fits in the early history of non-representational art, but his effort in the second to last decade of the 19th century certainly seems to be very unusual for its time, and a good example of creative cloud representation.

Non-standard cloud imagery is much easier to finding the 20th century, like those of Georges Braque in his La Ciotat Harbor (1906):

Clouds braque
Even this starts to have the look of something earlier, particularly if you turned the clouds-in-art clock way back, say, into the Renaissance. For example Martin Schoengauer 's spectacular The Temptation of St. Anthony, which was printed in 1470/5 , has
a beautiful, fluid circularity to it, full of an earthy roundness even
as the saint is pursued by demons. But the sky in the background is
populated with nothing but dashes to suggest clouds , and which also starts to look something like the Fauvist and Expressionist works to come, 400/500 years later.

Clouds schoengauer

(There are many examples of the sky being simply not represented at all, particularly in woodblock,

like this image from Ovid ( Accipe Studiose Lector P. Ouidij Metamorphosin...printed in Venice in 1509:

Clouds no couds livy913

"You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead –
There were no birds to fly".–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

There are many non-sky images like this.

Another interesting modern example is this Paul Klee (though it comes fairly late in that career, in 1940):

Clouds Paul Klee 1940And an example from the ubiquitous Picasso, still later, in 1962:

Clouds Picasso

But earlier images are harder to locate. The obvious early-ish source (though still much later in the century) would be Van Gogh (say, with Starry Night) and Monet, though the fractalesque Van Gogh gets much closer to the re-interperative power of the Ruskin images than the reflected impressionist beauty of the Monet.

Clouds Monet
On a cursory look around the antiquarian painterly sky-world, it is becoming obvious that the cloud geometries of Ruskin are very uncommon.


1. For full text of Ruskin's Modern Painters , see (1873)volume 5 for (1860) and (1873)

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1938
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Gasseni eye of god det_edited-1
Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) published this God's-eye-view of creation a few years after his death in the fourth volume ( Astronomica) of his six-volume Opera Omina. His friends and supporters of course saw to the publication of this mathematician/philosopher/logician's work1 back there in 1658, so Gassendi–a very prominent thinker from a long-line of thinkers nearly on the verge of great discovery here and there and certainly a witness to it–made his greatest adventure in publishing only in death.

Imaging a physical god is a tricky business in the history of the printed book. Bits of the creator of the universe turn up in book illustrations over hundreds of years, though I am not sure when the very first picture of a part of god appears. The hand of the creator (generally seen as the Primum Mobile) is not terribly uncommon in images of a scientific nature in the 17th and 18th centuries, and is perhaps best exemplified by Robert Fludd's famous Monochord:

Robert fludd celestialOf course there are many instance of the full-bodied god being seen through a break in the clouds, though in all the instances of this that I have seen the tantalizing peak into whatever region it is that this god exists is left entirely blank, a small white space. As so:

God in the sky

(Title page is for the narrative poem Le Metamorfosi, Ovid’s Metamorphoses,
translated into Italian by Gioseppe Horologgi, and published in Venice in 1563. See an earlier post on this blog, A History of Blank and Empty Things: God in a Hole in the Sky, here.)

The eye of god is also not very uncommon, and is represented by an eye and also in a sacred triangle. Less common though are images like Gassendi's, which in a way, in an odd and almost offhand way, give the reader a sense of what it is that god might be seeing in agodly-lineof-sight Perhaps this is incorrect–but in judging his image with others in my experience it seems to me that the representation is a little more "personalized" here than just about anywhere else.

Gasseni eye of god


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