Saturday, June 15, 2013

Excerpt 4

Sir David Brewster

Sir David Brewster, like many people of the time with an inclination to research and reading, studied theology to become a teacher and a licensed preacher. His interest in optics led to many significant discoveries about diffraction, refraction, and the use of lenses. Along with Fresnel, he was responsible for getting Fresnel lenses installed in lighthouses, and he invented the lenticular stereoscope (which uses a prism rather than mirrors to combine the stereo images). Brewster was conducting experiments on light polarization and happened on the design of the kaleidoscope. When Brewster showed his prototype kaleidoscope to manufacturers of optical instruments, pirate copies began cropping up all over the London and soon spread around the world:
You can form no conception of the effect which the instrument excited in London; all that you have heard falls infinitely short of the reality. No book and no instrument in the memory of man ever produced such a singular effect. They are exhibited publicly on the streets for a penny, and I had the pleasure of paying this sum yesterday; these are about two feet long and a foot wide. Infants are seen carrying them in their hands, the coachmen on their boxes are busy using them, and thousands of poor people make their bread by making and selling them. (Letter from Brewster to his wife, May 1818)
The kaleidoscope allowed the viewer to enter into a virtual world, filled with bright colors and concealed symmetries. If it was a scientific instrument (as the name implied), it was an instrument of some faerie science, a science of beauty. It partook of the potential of mirrors to create other worlds, to open up new infinite spaces. The forms were reminiscent of magical mandalas, and viewers often compared the hypnotic effect of looking through a shifting kaleidoscope to that of listening to music.1
Brewster was an early proponent of the idea that magic and beauty could be found in technology. He wrote a series of letters to Sir Walter Scott on the topic of natural magic. For Brewster, understanding how magic tricks and automata worked only increased their appeal. This was in stark contrast to his contemporaries, romantic artists like John Keats, who felt that science killed beauty:
…Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade. 2
Brewster’s conception of beauty, on the other hand, was grounded in neoclassicism. Symmetry and geometric order were key ideas in this. Beyond that, he assumed that a science of beauty was possible, that universal principles of beauty could be discovered:
If we examine the various objects of art which have exercised the skill and ingenuity of man, we shall find that they derive all their beauty from the symmetry of their form, and that one work of art excels another in proportion as it exhibits a more perfect development of this principle of beauty. Even the forms of animal, vegetable, and mineral bodies, derive their beauty from the same source...3
In The Kaleidoscope (a book on the optical theory behind the construction of his invention) he gives a theory of color harmony and repeatedly emphasizes the importance of carefully constructed devices that don’t allow the slightest imperfection in symmetry.
Yet both neoclassical and romantic concepts are evident in the kaleidoscope: the hand selected elements are romantically beautiful, beautiful in how they present themselves to the senses. The formal constraints, the mirrors, are classically beautiful in how they appeal to the intellect.
It is comparatively simple to set up a system of rules and generate new images. It is much more difficult to choose a set of rules that will produce images that are aesthetically pleasing. In order to do the latter, we need to have some theory of beauty or interest. The attempt to mechanize requires that we understand; but the attempt to understand beauty transforms it. There is essentially a paradox here: creativity must continually be pushing the boundaries of what is new. Simply being new is not enough, however; to be considered creative it must be both new and beautiful. Any static conception of beauty must quickly become inadequate.

1 The idea of an analogy between color and music dated at least to 1590, when the artist Arcimboldo invented a system for composing color-music. In 1725, the Jesuit monk Louis Bertrand Castel invented an “ocular harpsichord,” which opened a curtain concealing a bit of colored glass whenever a note was played. Isaac Newton was the first to realize that there may be a deeper connection in that both colors and sounds have characteristic frequencies. Despite thousands of related efforts over the years, including the light bars on an equalizer, Disney’s Fantasia, and MTV, visual music that is able to give the same kind of effect through the eyes that music gives through the ears is still elusive.

2 John Keats, Lamia, Part II, 1819

3 David Brewster, The Kaleidoscope, chapter 20

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