When Scientists were Poets. And artists.

Ah, those were the days. Back when scientists were not just technicians tickling keyboards and gingerly thumbing pipettes filled with tiny volumes of nucleic acids — but the Poets of Nature.

Like the ancient druids, our forebears in the profession were often consummate Renaissance Men (indeed, they were mostly men in those benighted times, though there are several notable exceptions of amazing women who prevailed against all odds to become pioneers in science, including one of my personal favorites – Rachel Carson, who would have turned 104 this Friday – stay tuned). These were fully formed, larger-than-life persons that were both experts on the workings of Nature and fine artists. Unlocking the secrets of the universe and reproducing them in florid prose and exquisite illustrations for the edification of the general populace, who turned out in rapt wonderment to see the likes of Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz who routinely delivered public lectures on Boston Common (or some such place).

There is perhaps no better illustration of how poetic science once was (not that it no longer is) than to look at some of the awe-inspiring drawings produced back in the day, such as the one above by the great 19th century comparative anatomist and artist Ernst Haeckel. The image above shows a type of jellyfish. But look at the symmetry, and the artful placement of the subsidiary images around the central ones. As a scientist he didn’t have to do that! But he did. Because he had soul (though he was also a racist, alas). And there are many others to savor, by various artists, at Scientific Illustration.

And it’s not just the visual arts. Science had its bards as well. Think Rachel Carson again. One of my personal favorites is the ripping adventure yarn Voyage of the Beagle by the young Charles Darwin, now available as a free ebook (albeit without the charming woodcuts of the original).

Those were the days . . .

Hat tip to Jarrett for the link to Scientific Illustration.


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