Gulliver's Other Travels

The Irish writer Jonathan Swift wrote in 1726 a book titled "Gulliver's Travels", a satire of the society of the time. From all stories in this book, the most famous are the ones which sent the main character, doctor Lemuel Gulliver, first to Lilliput, little people's land, and thereafter to the giants' land. The traveler always found human beings of different size from the standard, both bigger and smaller, who often had the same moral and social problems as any "real" political community of the context and age when the author lived (1667-1745); in his opinion, all human societies, wherever he went to, presented the same ethical issues. Swift lived during the so-called "Enlightened Period" and, without a doubt, he wrote "Gulliver's Travels" using the metaphor of travel, a comprehensible resource in a time of journeys and expeditions to remote places which started to look as more accessible and closer territories.

A Look Into The Eagle Nebula




Besides those geographical journeys where the adventurers displaced from one point to another of the globe, other types of journeys were starting to take shape, in which the traveler stayed immovable in a specific place and were always the eyes that traveled towards the disproportionately big or small. From outside, nobody would ever say that the person in question was traveling, because they didn't even move a finger, they only stare at an object that seemed to transport them to a distant world. It was the journey of the observer's eyes.

The eyes, the sights, the looks, up to which point have we developed a visual culture and science? Our representation of the world depends on the sight sense in such a degree that we often identify in our language "see" with "understand"; when we consider that something is indisputable and undeniable we say that is "obvious" because it's a truth that stands out in front of our eyes. In the same way, human beings always have found enigmatic how the eyes work, how they form the images and which virtue they possess that allowed them to carry the world to our interior. Always, the question "how we see?" has been considered simultaneously from the philosophical and geometrical points of view. In the 10th century, a Persian mathematician called al-Hacen wrote a treaty called "Treasures of Optics" where he defended that the eye could form figures thanks to the light that penetrates from the outside. In his time, glasses and lenses were used to magnify words and letters that copyists should reproduce in their work on handwritten books. The lenses modified the size and the quality of the letters, to achieve this, they were attached to the parchments or to the paper from the books and so, they made the work of the copyists far easier. al-Hacen tried to find out the laws of light when this passed through these lenses, and his influence in Occident was important in what refers to the theory of optics and the theory of vision.

The lenses had a decisive function in the rooms of copyists in the monasteries, in the libraries and in the archives where documents were stored: they made reading easier. In the 16th and 17th centuries emerged in Holland the lens polishers, who managed to liberate the lenses from the confinement of the cabinet, as they were able to fabricate portable lenses which could be used as monocles or eyeglasses called "impertinent", which were attached to either the orbit or over the bridge of the nose to facilitate reading or even vision in general. Among all of these lens polishers, stands out the name of the optician Hans Lipperhey, who patented in The Hague a product that he called "spyglass" that possessed the function to facilitate the vision of things that were located very far away. Without a doubt, to him belongs the patent of the invention, but the idea was already disseminated across all northern Europe and in the north of Italy, the most industrialized regions in the world at that time. For the Dutch, the invention of Lipperhey had a military interest because it allowed the soldiers to watch sharper the movements of the Spanish troops who threatened the safety of the Republic.

Actually, the Dutch "spyglass" was a big success in Europe in the 17th century and it became an authentic gadget for curious minds and voyeurs. Up to this point, the fate of the invention brought up by a Dutch lens manufacturer, concerned about the quality of vision, could be entirely reviewed, or not. This invention was, without any doubt, an interesting discovery but it probably wouldn't have a prominent position if a book that collected the ideas and inventions of the millennium was to be written. The man who patented it, Lipperhey, wouldn't appear in the books as his initiative had already been shared by artisans and natural magicians during the Renaissance.

Let's imagine a mathematician, a geometrician or a mechanic who receives Lipperhey's spyglass (I think it's time to say that the spyglass is today what we call "telescope") in their work cabinet; let's think that intellectual, as a good heir of the Renaissance, had interest for the developments of the ideas of his time, especially for one, the craziest, the most radical, the one on which Copernicus had contributed in the past. This character is called Galileo Galilei and, back then, it was a "supported actor" who appeared as a mere propagandist of other people's ideas and who now we present for his own merits, for having lifted that terrestrial spyglass, used to observe horizontally, and for having directed it pointing to the sky. There were many historians who attributed him the invention of the telescope but he denied this several times; today we know that the invention of the telescope could even be attributed to the English Thomas Harriot, contemporary to Galileo, great inventor because he pointed his lenses to the skies, giving the first description of the Moon in history. However, despite these circumstances, it could be attributed to the Pisano, the use of the telescope to observe the skies and, especially, the fact that he understood perfectly the importance of his discoveries made looking through that apparatus.

The telescope turned out to be a more effective tool that Galileo would have ever thought, and it didn't only serve to prove that the solar system, made up by the sun, planets, and satellites, was actually heliocentric, but it also became the medium through which a person could stare at distant worlds. The refinement of the instrument was carried out during the 17th and 18th century and it allowed researchers to look further and better. Using the telescope, nebulae and comet tails were discovered, and the location of the stars could be measured with more accuracy. The astronomy after Galileo became a science that invited scientists to visit the depths of the skies, composed of much more bodies than it seemed at the naked eye. They were discovering different planets, satellites, new types of stars, comets that return after decades, like the Halley comet, new nebulae... At the end of the 18th century, Charles Messier did a catalog of these nebulae and nowadays that catalog is still used for the description of celestial objects. The aim of this catalog was not to describe them in deep but to warn of their existence to the astronomers, as they could be easily mistaken for comets. Finally, the brothers Caroline and William Herschel built the first reflecting mega-telescopes and inaugurated the astronomical spectrophotometry, opening the path for the astrophysics age.

Those travels towards the exterior universe had a correlation with the travels towards the microscopic universe. In that case, the eye acted like a Gulliver, submerged in the Lilliput land. The telescope initiated the journey towards the big and now the microscope would do it but towards the extremely small. The invention of the microscope could also be attributed to Galileo, but in this case, this attribution is not exact, as the invention emanated from the Accademia dei Lincei, made up of a group of intellectuals who wanted to sow the seeds for a new science from the Renaissance and Baroque, exploring the nature with lynx eyes. It was necessary to have a very acute sight to be able to see the details which go unnoticed, like a bee's works. Galileo belonged to that academy and was interested in building a tool to see the small.

However, the first reviewable microscopy studies were carried out by Italian physician Marcello Malpighi, who lived in the 17th century. Malpighi made use of lenses to study the structures of living beings and described in his works not only anatomical aspects but also physiological ones from organs such as the lungs, the kidneys, and the spleen. Today the anatomists and physiologists still pay tribute to the Italian, talking about the Malpighi follicles. The anatomy of the tissues of the living creatures, the histology, became this way a new science based on observation. Regarding this, besides the journeys to the depths of the smaller parts of the living bodies of Malpighi, we should also mention the other pioneer in this field, the English Robert Hook. Both were contemporaries. Hook was not only committed to carrying out detailed observations of Lilliputian beings, like dust mites or fleas, but he also explored the different possibilities that the microscope could offer. His work, Micrographia has similar aspects to Galileo's work Sidereus nuncius. It is a research study written in an understanding and easy style where the author describes what he saw under his microscope: ice pieces, snowflakes or cork cuttings.

Almost in the same age as Malpighi and Hook, lived also the most famous microscopist from the Baroque, the Dutch Anton Van Leeuwenhoek. With him, the passion for the observation of the minuscule became a science, even a new kind of art. His interest in the observation brought him to improve the microscope, combining high-quality lenses and he also became the first microscope manufacturer in Europe. The result of his research in observing the tiny creatures, called microbes (in Latin micro-bios, "tiny lives"), goes from the swimming creatures in the still and dirty waters, like the protozoa, to the sperms of the human semen.

Following this tradition, the golden age of the microscope arrived in the 19th century when, thanks to Leeuwenhoek's help, was discovered the existence of abundant life in the depths of the smallest. First, two Germans, Mattias Schleiden (1804-1881) and Theodor Schwann (1810-1882), opened the path towards the cellular world. The former one was a botanist and the latter one was a physician, but both of them showed great interest in the improvement of the microscope. Germany disposed of good artisans and industrials of the glass, among them, was Carl Zeiss, who had founded in Jena a prosperous optic industry. Thanks to the new microscopes, each one separately, studied the ashlars of the living beings and managed to reach a mutual conclusion: all living beings, both plants, and animals are composed of the same basic elements, the cells. It was the mid 19th century and the microscopic passion was growing incredibly fast. One must described how looked the cells from each of the vegetable and animal tissues, how they communicated with each other, how they fed, how they reproduced... A new distinguished investigator of this new variant was the Spanish Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who demonstrated the existence of cells in the nerve tissue thanks to a dyeing technique that emphasized the neuronal ramifications.

The cellular investigation was truly important for the development of biology and depended on the good use that scientists made of the microscope. However, their contribution to the cellular theory was not the most spectacular contribution of this modest optical instrument. Where it found a more immediate and brilliant application was in the new biology branch that was called bacteriology, as it was the result of studying the unicellular beings, called "bacteria", some of them were responsible for very severe illnesses throughout history, like tuberculosis. The negligible life, the microbial life could be grown, scientists managed to create different bacteria strains which, later on, would be studied using microscopes, fundamental allies in the war against illnesses. Robert Koch was one of those champions in the race to identify the microbes, one of these, the one that produces the tuberculosis, bears his name, the Koch's bacillus.

In both cases, with the telescope and with the microscope, the gates to the wonderful journeys carried out from the astronomical observatories and from the naturalists and physicians' cabinets opened, offering to our eyes new ways of knowledge and proving that the laws that rule the physic worlds change with the size: the relativity and quantum laws.

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