Bethany Nowviskie

“but who looks east at sunset?” gerard manley hopkins & scientific observation

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[This is the abstract of a talk I gave last weekend at “By the Numbers: The Victorian Quantification of Everything,” the 2010 gathering of the Victorians Institute, held at the University of Virginia. It was a splendid conference, hosted by NINES, and featuring an inspiring keynote address in which Dan Cohen presented the early results of his work in data-mining the Google Books corpus to study Victorian intellectual history. For me, the conference was notable because it was the first time in twelve years that I gave a paper not on digital humanities or institutional issues in publishing and higher ed. Since the conference didn’t publish a collection of abstracts, I thought I’d post mine (sans notes!) here. The paper itself goes into much greater detail on Hopkins’ approach to observation and the scene of Victorian scientific amateurism, and is available upon request.]

In October 1884, a letter appearing in the scientific journal Nature enjoined readers to place their faith in the measurements of “exact instruments” rather than in “untrustworthy impressions of the eye” in attempting to draw conclusions about sunsets and other natural phenomena. Spectroscopy, the correspondent suggests, is to be preferred to the idiosyncratic response of a human observer: colors should be calculable. He dismisses the recently-published sunset-speculations of a fellow amateur contributor, the painter Robert Leslie, as being founded more on conjecture and faulty observation than on measured analysis, and sharpens his own critique of observational subjectivity by insisting that the issue is not merely “a question of terms,” but that unsystematic examination can become “a hazardous thing” capable of reversing scientific progress.

And then this disciplined scientist becomes Gerard Manley Hopkins: “If a very clear, unclouded sun is gazed at, it often appears not convex, but hollow; – swimming, like looking down into a boiling pot or swinging pail, or into a bowl of quicksilver shaken: and of a lustrous but indistinct hue.” Read the rest of this entry »

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.