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Tuesday, October 21, 2003


I love history of science journals. Or, the higher antiquitarianism. So one of my favorite reads is Osiris. The winter issue of the journal is out, and it is all about the polis as the site of scientific research. We�d like to call the attention of readers of Limited Inc to two articles.

The first is by Theresa Levitt, �Organizing sight, seeing organization: the diverging optical possibilities of city and country.� It is the very Balzacian story of two men who engaged in a fierce debate over light in the 1820s in Paris. Here�s Levitt�s establishing graf:

�Francois Arago created the polarimeter in 1811, after discovering that polarized light, when passed through a doubly refracting prism and a piece of mica, divided into two, complementary-colored beams. This new instrument, whose colorful images indicated the presence of polarized light, was at the heart of what is often called the early-nineteenth-century revolution in optics. (1) Most histories characterize this event as a duel between the wave and particle theories of light. These accounts almost always end in 1821, when a very public and nasty debate between Arago and Jean-Baptiste Biot concluded with a decided victory for the wave theory. In the aftermath, as the story goes, Arago and his band of undulationists reigned over Paris, while Biot, the last of the corpuscularians, slunk away in defeat to his country estate in Nointel.�

Even the names could have come out of la Comedie Humaine. We also love the giggle-worthy undulationists � Levitt is being naughty. Arago, it turns out, was a scientist showman. A breed that was thick on the ground in the nineteenth century. Faraday would give Christmas lectures to children on the physics of the candle � not a hobby one can imagine today�s physicists engaging in. Arago, of course, knew that his instrument needed a little theater in order to interest the salons. So this is what he did:
�Into the Parisian salons, Arago took a version of his original polarimeter modified for public viewing. He had instructed his instrument maker, Jean Baptiste Francois Soleil, to replace the thin sheets of mica with pieces of gypsum engraved with decorative images. The carving had been done in such a way that under ordinary light, nothing could be seen. But under polarized light, brightly colored images emerged, showing flowers, butterflies, and even Arago's name surrounded by laurel wreathes. The effect proved sensationally popular among the audiences--people collectively witnessing the visual display.�
Arago�s friend, the father of Prosper Merimee, popularized a system of complementary colors based on the science of the polarimeter. This system penetrated, by way of the salons, to Delacroix and Baudelaire.

According to this site, Arago's life story was taken as a model by Jules Verne for one of his tales. Oddly, Levitt doesn't mention this.

What about M. Biot, our corpuscularian? Alas, he went the way of Bouvard and Pechucet. Here�s what Levitt has to say about him:
�In 1822, when Biot purchased an estate near the small town of Nointel in Beauvais, he joined a widespread rush of French nobility back to the countryside following an 1821 law restoring property claims to emigres. (31) Biot's own move was hardly a restitution of family privilege. He was born and raised in Paris, the son of a midlevel functionary. Yet he was not shy about acting the part of the local notability, and throughout the 1820s, he engaged in a virtuoso self-reinvention as country gentleman, even signing his name "Biot, proprietaire." Soon after moving to Nointel, he ran for mayor of the town; once elected, he began presiding magnanimously over the local population.
Biot also began cultivating his land and making pronouncements on the proper relationship between agriculture, industry, and the central state. Indeed, breaking off his string of several-hundred-page memoirs on the physical sciences, the only item he published in the twelve years from 1822 to 1834 was an open letter in 1829 to the director of the Revue Britannique, expressing dissatisfaction with the Paris-centric agricultural system.�
To crown Biot�s retreat from enlightenment to reaction, he started hanging around with suspect Jesuits who were heavy on the light rhetoric. As in the light of reason dimmed by the light of God, and the secrets of God being darkness to the rational mind. Etc. etc. And, in a truly inspired move, he started rotating his polarimeter. Not for him the Arago stasis, so characteristic of urban decay. No, Biot, was set on discovering hidden rotary powers within the �lan vital itself.

Levitt�s essay is, among other things, a nice counteweight to critics, like Bloom, who have no use for the New Historicist school � among other matters, she sheds some light on Stendhal�s use of color that wouldn�t be shed by intuiting psychoanalytic causes for composing titles out of colors.

After Levitt, we liked Jens Lachmund�s Exploring the city of rubble: botanical fieldwork in bombed cities in Germany after World War II. Again, the title is rich in allusions. One thinks of Koeppen. Or of Grass.

Here are two grafs that present the problem:

�After 1945, rubble was a feature of virtually all German cities. Dresden, Stuttgart, Darmstadt, Hamburg, and Kiel were among the most destroyed. The largest fields of rubble, however, existed in the center of the city of Berlin. According to a contemporary survey, about 28.5 square kilometers (the size of the city being 72) of the built-up area had been bombed. In all cities, steps toward reconstruction began soon after the war. Bombed areas were cleared and leveled, creating open spaces awaiting eventual construction projects. Sometimes kiosks or provisional storage places were erected in these spaces; sometimes they were fenced off with billboards. Following the example of Kiel and its Gayk Waldchen, the newly constructed park named after the city's mayor, Andreas Gayk, some cities decided to plant trees and bushes in the bombed areas and thereby turn ugly wastelands into parks. Often no larger than a single plot or an earlier block of houses, they, like the Gayk Waldchen, were supposed to be temporary places that would eventually be built over. As already mentioned, in Berlin the pace of this urban reconstruction was much slower than in other German cities. Not only was it less attractive to invest money in a politically isolated city whose economic future remained uncertain, but many areas of rubble were located on the borderline dividing the two Berlins. These were reserved as potential construction ground for rebuilding the center of Berlin should reunification ever occur.
Rubble mounds became another feature of postwar cities. When they cleared the bombed areas, the cities used a large amount of the rubble for construction work; but there remained a lot of material, which had to be disposed of within the urban area or its surroundings. (5) Due to the size of West Berlin and the extent of destruction, the amount of rubble was tremendously high and the problem of disposal became particularly pressing. Unlike elsewhere, carrying the rubble out of the city was rarely possible. The western part of Berlin not only lacked efficient transportation facilities but also was politically separated from its surroundings. After abandoning plans to pour a layer of rubble over the city's largest inner-urban forest, the Tiergarten, the government constructed several centralized dumping grounds, mostly on existing parklands and forests. Shaped as natural-looking hills and planted with dense vegetation, they were meant to enrich the landscape of the surrounding parks or forests.�
That they even considered paving, or rubbling, over the Tiergarten blows my mind.

Lachmund goes on to make up a word � ruderal � and talk, at systematic length, about the biologists who studied the flora that grew up in the rubble areas. Send this article to the Pentagon: they can include the study of ruderal flora as another sign of the happy, happy progress that is making life for Bremer�s Iraqis better and better.

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