Monday, May 26, 2008


Nearly 1,000 years ago, Lambert of St. Omer summarized all of human knowledge in a book called the Liber Floridus (Book of Flowers). Lambert spent 30 years filling his book with fabulous illustrations of beasts, plants and subjects "biblical, chronological, astronomical, geographical, theological, philosophical and natural."

The Liber Floridus even explains how the world will end: when a descendant of the Emperor Charlemagne climbs Mt. Zion, the antichrist will appear and do battle, triggering the Second Coming.

This is where I first learned that the antichrist owns a pet, the antidog.

Today, a modern equivalent of the Liber Floridus is being compiled. The scientist E. O. Wilson is working with the Smithsonian Institution to compile the Encyclopedia of Life, a database of all knowledge about the world's 1.8 million known species of plants and animals (including several hundred species of ants).

You may note that the illustrations in the EOL look different from those in the Liber Floridus. Rather than painting illuminations with gold leaf and pigments from crushed precious stones, the EOL has decided to go with digital photography. (Another damn market that illustrators have lost to photography!) The EOL also uses new mashup software to combine multiple sources of information, including genetic code and the latest scientific data bases.

A comparison of these two magnificent accomplishments shows how our perception of the world has changed. The mechanical clock and the magnetic compass eliminated much of the mystery in the world by making time and space concrete. Other instruments of precision have similarly brought the world into sharper focus. We have rolled back the domains of folklore, magic and astrology that were so central to the explanations of the world in the Liber Floridus.

Today it's safe to conclude that the EOL is more "true" than the Liber Floridus. But we should keep in mind the warning of the great H.L. Mencken:
Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.
As we distract ourselves by inventing increasingly accurate ways to measure time, time inexorably continues to chew up our brief lives, undeterred and unimpressed.

Which brings me back to the abiding message of the Liber Floridus. Lambert had 30 long years while he was working on his encyclopedia to think up an appropriate title. He chose to call it the Book of Flowers rather than the Book of Truth or the Book of Facts. It seems that Lambert was less concerned with what the clock indicates than with what eternity indicates. As a result, even after the Liber Floridus ceases to be factually true, its beauty continues undiminished.

PS-- for those who enjoy illuminated manuscripts as I do, I cannot recommend highly enough the great BibliOdyssey blog.


ces said...

Those illustrations are indeed beautiful! I'm with you - I miss the illustrations that were once so plentiful in books. About the only "book" I can count on being able to purchase nowadays with illustrations is The Holy Bible.

And with regards to time - people think I'm strange in that I still wear an analog watch, one with hourly numbers and seconds marks and both hour and seconds hands. Although I did buy a Swatch watch in Frisco that has a clear front allowing me to watch its gears inside work.

Thanks for the blog url too!

David Apatoff said...

ces, there's an argument to be made that if you want to focus on the truly important things in life, you shouldn't need anything more precise than a sun dial. I'd say an analog watch is pretty darn good.

dfernetti said...

I read somewhere that the advantage of analog watches against digital watches is that you can perceive both the exact time, as how much it remains of the hours to pass. Not a bad property, in my point of view. BTW, another fascinating post David, you are... hateable!

ZD said...

This post is pretty mean.

David Apatoff said...

dfernetti, ummm... thanks?

zd, I must be missing something. I have certainly written some mean posts, but I like to think that I do it deliberately, and only when I target people and causes who I think really deserve it. If this post is mean, it is purely unintentional. Can you give me a little more detail?

dfernetti said...

Perhaps my post was the one pretty mean? Well, I meant it! ;-)

OMWO said...

>EOL has decided to go with >digital photography. (Another >damn market that illustrators >have lost to photography!)

it's not like the market was just has become shared.

It would be pretty silly to discard all the objective data that comes from photography - not that a photograph isn't itself an interpretation of reality, but it's a mechanical, dispassionate interpretation of reality (again, if you do it deliberately in a controlled, predictable fashion as would be adequate to scientific work)

But it would be equally silly to discard all the added value that a drawn/painted illustration can bring to scientific work. Much of anatomy is wholly incomprehensible if you just look at photographs. The body - human or otherwise - is one hell of a bloody mess, filled with confusing irrelevant details - an illustrator, dutifuly guided by a specialist, reduces it to understandable masses, that can be named and understood - to an ideal body, a summary of the common properties of various specific specimens, that can be taken in by the mind. The only reason to go fully photographic in scientific illustration is, basically, cost. But without diagrams and drawings any such work will be incomplete. much important information will not be recoverable from mere 2D photographs of individual specimens, without the presence of someone who actually handled each one and can translate his experience in a digestible way. As usual, in drawing, it's not just what you put in, it's what you choose to leave out, that clarifies and enlightens.

David Apatoff said...

Omwo, I think the difference between photography and artwork is an extremely important sub-theme here.

I joked about how today's version of Liber Floridus uses photographs rather than paintings, but in reality I think artwork is largely obsolete for these applications. (This is consistent with my point about how the clock and the compass and similar tools have transformed our perception of truth. If you agree that instruments of precision have rolled back the domain of magic, I think we need to consider whether some of that same magic is found in art, and whether art as it is traditionally defined has also been rolled back a little.)

Even if you hired every artist on the planet, it would still be economically and functionally impossible to get 1.8 million paintings or drawings of all these species. Moreover, they would not be as accurate or as useful for science as these digital images are. I generally concur with your point about how human artistic involvement clarifies and enlightens, but I am guessing that the selective higlighting and prioritizing and color changes you describe can best be achieved by transforming photographs digitally now, rather than starting out with brush or pen.

Don't get me wrong, I think that both EOL and Liber Floridus are profoundly beautiful achievements, but the beauty of science seems very different from the beauty of art. I would say that the aesthetic beauty of science is in its truth and discipline, the rigor of its process and the application of its results. It seems to me that photography is the tool best suited for this (as opposed to art, whose beauty is not dependent on accuracy).

OMWO said...

David, I think I must clarify:

Of course the *main* body of image records should be photographic. Precisely because you can make those images very much objective, and, as far of possible, keep all the raw data available.

>Even if you hired every artist on >the planet,

Now, wouldn't that be a nice source of income for generations of starving illustrators? :) And a noble pursuit, too.

> it would still be >economically and functionally >impossible to get 1.8 million >paintings or drawings of all >these species.

That is what I meant when I said the issue was one of cost. The fact is that the project would have to be considered much more important than it is to require such expenditure.

>Moreover, they would not be as >accurate or as useful for science >as these digital images are. I >generally concur with your point >about how human artistic >involvement clarifies and >enlightens, but I am guessing >that the selective higlighting >and prioritizing and color >changes you describe can best be >achieved by transforming >photographs digitally now

on that I must disagree. Take a human anatomy book, filled with good clean illustrations, and take one filled with just raw photographs, and compare how useful each one is, say, for the medical student. I doubt the raw phtographic record would be as useful as say, old Gray's anatomy. As I said, reality is a very messy thing. Look at raw photographs of surgery or dissection and you will see nothing concrete unless you were first schooled in the visual models, drawn and painted visual models, that tell you where to look among the mess, and what to abstract from it. Each of those drawn models is an exercise of abstract thought translated into a clean abstract picture. The immense level of detail on gray's anatomy masks the fact that those engravings are still extremely far from, and extremely abstracted from the raw image of the real body. That abstraction, for each organ of the body, was reached at not just by looking into the live raw pictures but by touching, by dissecting, by handling the organs in the real world. It is that real life experience that is put into an anatomical representation in a 2D illustration of each anatomical landmark. If you give a student just a set of raw, objective pictures, the student will not receive all that data of the real experience. The drawn picture communicates not just the view, but what the expert knows or thinks he knows about the real object. That is its power and it flaw, by the way, as the expert can be wrong about subjects not as well understood as human antatomy, and that is why the raw data must always be also available.

By the way, I am no doctor, but I get the impression that even today students love those new lavish phtographic books on anatomy...but only *after* they have been exposed to the same old abstract, drawn models of the body. The photographic books are an intermediate stage between the useful models and the direct experience with a real body on a dissecting table, which, of course, very few students have access to as often as they would wish - but they would be quite useless without the drawn models or the real life experience. Take this argument: Up to very recently doctors did very well on just Gray's anatomy and real dissecting experience. I doubt very much that you could have just as good a result with just a photographic anatomy book and the dissecting experience. The only way would be for you to clean up the organs so weel that you would be in fact doing a sculpture - another kind of illustration - directly on the body. That is not at all the same as merely photoshopping a bit some raw photos.

Make no mistake, the old saying "let the data speak for itself" is only for the *bad* experimentalist. The good one, like the theoretician, knows that the data has no voice. It must always be filtered through a model, and that is what theory does, say, in the physical sciences, and that is what illustration does at the visual level, say, in anatomy, botany, or zoology. You give the data a voice by coming up with a theory, and you keep coming up with new theories until one give the data some voice that sound loud and clear. In the same way, you abstract from your anatomical observations until you come up with a visual model that is such a good caricature of the thing that it resembles the organ, or the insect, or the plant, even more than it resembles itself. :) (this is quite objective - it is a known scientific fact that "caricatures are more recognizable than veridical images")

As a professional scientist, that is actually one of the things that really makes me rate drawing as one of the great and noble human activities, unquestionable in it s worth - among other, more artistic pursuits, drawing is a way of thinking about the world. Another tool of abstract thought, that allows us to try and tame the raw, savage influx of data the world throws at us - just like mathematics, except its territory is that of visual understanding.

Mick said...

Great post David. I concur with OMWO with regards to drawing and science. The act of drawing requires an editing process that can clarify in ways difficult for photography.

The great botanical and biological illustrations so often shown gloriously in BibliOdyssey can, even today, serve as references to lives long past.

Happily the tradition is far from dead. Peter Shouten in Tim Flannery's book A Gap in Nature
is a case in point.

Many thanks, and enlightening as always.

ahmad wiyono said...

i love this blog! keep up good works. I’d love it if you checked

mine out, just started it a few months ago. See you again..

Jack Ruttan said...

Nice post. I was going to blather on about photoshop making photography into a form of art again, but OMWO has said enough interesting things. As usual, it all swirls around. Takes a writer to freeze-frame the ideas, and present a take on them.

David Apatoff said...

Omwo, thanks for a very thoughtful follow up, which I read a couple of times. One of the best things about this blogging business is getting a good cross section of disciplines to provide different perspectives on an issue, and I could tell you were speaking with the authority of a scientist. I would be pleased if your assessment of the imporatmce of drawing turns out to be true. I am always pleasantly surprised when scientists value drawing the same way that liberal arts majors do.

Jack and Mick, I agree with you about Omwo's contribution. Mick, thanks for the link.

Ahmad, good luck with your blog.

OMWO said...

Hi David,

>which I read a couple of times.

hehe, I suppose you *had* to read it a couple of times just because of all the damned typos! :D Sorry about that. I was writing in a hurry on a laptop keyboard that has been subjected to a recent coca cola spill, and was a bit horrified when I saw the result :)

>speaking with the authority of a scientist

My hope is that one day I may speak with the authority of an artist :). It will take me a lot more doodling before I get there. :)

spud said...

The "antidog" looks more like the "anticat" if you ask me (with an antirat on his antiback).

Thanks for a great page.

Term papers said...

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