Sunday, June 02, 2013

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

The are two reasons why I love the above painting by Joseph Wright of Derby from 1768.

First, the painting depicts a scientific experiment. These air pump devices were common in the 18th century. Scientists would use them to demonstrate that a candle's fire goes off after the air is removed, or that it is impossible to hear a ringing bell in vacuum. Joseph Wright chooses here a much more powerful experiment: a bird is placed in the chamber, and as the air is removed the bird starts suffocating, flapping around. The operator is looking at us, as if he needs our opinion: "Should I go ahead and remove all the air and see the air dying, or should I put the air back?"

The attendees' expressions are very interesting. The two girls can barely keep their eyes on the suffering bird, while the rest watch very carefully. With the exception of the two lovers on the left who completely ignore the situation.

Second, it is very interesting to know why the painting depicts the scientific experiment.

This is the middle of the 18th century. Newton, the founder of modern science, had lived the century before. Galileo, too. This is the era that marks the beginnings of science, which will lead to the industrial revolution and then onto the modern world.

This is the first time in history that people start becoming aware of science. It is an era where the physicists are still called natural philosophers, because physics is just starting to form as a science. It is the first time that science starts affecting people's lives, pulling them out of the middle ages.

How to communicate science though? Most people are still illiterate, they can barely read. Communication media are extremely limited. Thus, Joseph Wright chooses to prepare a painting about science.

This painting is one of the earliest depictions of modern science in art.

This painting is an effective method to communicate a scientific idea to society.

For all intents and purposes, this painting is the 18th century version of a PowerPoint presentation.

You can admire the painting in London's National Gallery.