Lorraine Daston’s Super-Vision

Lorraine Daston’s stimulating talk at the ‘Curiously Drawn’ conference held last week at the Royal Society was entitled ‘Super-Vision: Weather Watching and Table Reading in the early modern Royal Society and Académie Royale des Sciences’. Throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, weather registers for specific years where published in the Philosophical Transactions and in the Mémoires de l’Académie Royale des Sciences. These were published as prose and with the help of sometimes impressive tables. The aim was to understand the weather by observing it and consigning the observations in systematic ways. Pieter van Musschenbroek (1692-1761), for example, conscientiously recorded data three times a day throughout his career. Tables were the medium of choice for recording such data, allowing the reader to encompass the results recorded on one single page and recording such basic information as temperature, pressure, wind direction, and other natural phenomena, but also more unusual material such as the phases of the moon, infectious diseases or magnetic declination. The idea was to be able to visualize all the data at one glance through the means of a table, and derive from it correlations between phenomena.

However, it was a project doomed to failure. Due to a lack of standardization of both the instruments (thermometers, barometers, etc.) and the tables themselves, no concrete results ever came from these numerous records. Indeed, some were never even published. As Daston put it, ‘supervision of note-taking techniques would have enabled super-vision’. Instead, what took place was a plethora of variations and experimentation with visual display, so that no perfect theory of meteorology was ever achieved. Interestingly, a number of individuals innovated and used what looked very much like graphs – which to us are so much easier to read than an array of columns and numbers. Yet it seems that these were not seen as innovative, and that early modern eyes did not find these proto-graphic presentations more intelligible. The question of why these tables were not transformed into clearer visual displays remains as yet tantalizingly unanswered.

These remarkable weather tables which meant to be surveyed, much like a landscape or a map, and which are both seen and read, ‘hover between image and text.’ Lorraine Daston’s talk was a welcome and necessary addition to a fascinating conference which covered mainly the use of pictures and images in early modern science. Indeed, lists, diagrams, maps, and tables have as much epistemic importance as images, supplementing the early modern scientific text, replacing it completely or supporting it by giving it a visual form.

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