2013 February: The Scientific Revolution and Maps of the World

I’ve been working more on my large ink drawing.

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I’m following a series of lectures by Dr Yuval Noah Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem available on www.coursera.com. It is called “A Brief History of Human Kind” and teaches pretty much what the title says, but offering remarkable stories and perspectives on our whole history along the way. The lectures have affected me in such away that I cannot ignore our past and I will not be able to forget some of these stories. For the first time listening to history lectures I felt I was listening to an actual tale, as if I were an alien hearing out the story of homo sapiens from beginning to end, and just as in a tale, large parts of it seem incredulous. Some of the insights have greatly affected the way I think about the present world, and it will therefore be probable that i will refer in this journal to many of the stories I’ve heard throughout the course.

Dr Harari was talking about the scientific revolution; how it was in essence a shift in mentality and how it led to great progress to those that adopted this new mentality, which he refers to as the “discovery of ignorance”. Before the scientific revolution, it was generally assumed that all things were known. If you did not know something, it was known by something, somewhere. You could refer to a priest or holy/ancient scriptures to find the answer to any question, and if the answer was not to be found, then your question was simply not of relevance, because all things of relevance were mentioned in holy scriptures and the universal truth was known by the universal power. The scientific revolution was the discovery of ignorance, and as this idea spread, more and more thinkers began to approach problems by first admitting “I don’t know”. Then they deduced conclusions only from empirical observation and began to break away from trusting tradition. As this manner of approach is fundamental to all scientific endeavours today, it is taken for granted, but looking at history, it is an extremely novel way of thinking.

Dr Harari often gives consequential or superficial examples of movements/revolutions to offer a more visual representation of such a transition. He says that the change in attitude from “everything is known” to “we just don’t know this” is well represented by the change in the way maps were drawn before and after the scientific revolution. Before, cartographers made maps like this one by Fra Maoro (ca. 1459). The map following it is from 1525.

The sailor Amerigo Vespucci wrote not long after Columbus accidentally discovered America, that contrary to the belief that they were only islands (the West Indies), a whole new continent had been discovered of which we knew nothing. The bible mentioned nothing of America, and it was bold to make such a statement. Dr Harari refers to him as “the first modern man” because he was the first to admit ignorance. Then the cartographer Martin Waldseemuller, who agreed with Vespucci’s hypothesis, drew the first map that portrayed America as a continent and named the continent after Amerigo Vespucci whom he mistakenly took for the discoverer of the continent. The map below was drawn ca 30 years after Columbus stumbled upon America and is characterised by how empty it is. The difference between the maps illustrates that change in attitude towards the acquisition of knowledge, and the emptiness is tantalising to our curiosity. After the scientific revolution there was great excitement about the idea of discovering what was now an earth full of uncharted territory.

I came to realise that there is some intimate relation between all of this and my more recent drawings. I’ve been moving away from identifying figurative shapes in my patterns, and letting the patterns grow loosely at their will. My approach is that of a discoverer rather than inventor, as I immediately admit ignorance and assume no ownership over what is about to happen on the paper. The uncharted territories emerge out of a necessity driven by the ‘rules’ of my patterns (all patterns are governed by rules, as are arguably all approaches to creativity). I am consistently surprised by the outcomes, especially as I increase the scale and length of time over which I work.

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