Reviews

Tuesday, January 01, 2002



Originally cloaked in a colorful troubadour's costume, a life-sized 19th-century automaton bares his inner works for museum goers.
Photograph courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
We are surrounded these days by optical devices that produce magic on demand: DVD players linked to high-definition TV screens, laptops with full-color liquid-crystal displays and wireless Internet connectivity, point-and-shoot digital cameras that create e-mailable images in an instant. Indeed, these high-tech gadgets work so well, we tend to take them for granted. Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen, a new exhibit at the

J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, chronicles efforts from the not-so-distant past to create optical illusions and, in the process, evokes a renewed sense of awe at the transformative power of visual wizardry.

The exhibit, which runs through February 3, 2002, features more than 400 devices of wonder from the 17th to the 20th centuries. The collection includes toys, prints, trompe l'oeil paintings, enormous panoramas, miniature peep shows, optical games, and other objects designed to spark the imagination. An 18th-century magic lantern illuminates hand-painted slides by candlelight. A life-sized robot created in 1838 by Cornelis Jacobus van

Oeckelen plays four different classical compositions on a 32-note clarinet. Lucas Samaras's 1966 Mirrored Room, a chamber measuring 8 x 8 x 10 feet, is completely clad with mirrors inside and out.

Numerous scientific tools are on display, including several precursors of the modern microscope. One instrument devised in 1685 by the Dutch biologist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek utilizes a small lens the size of a pinhead clamped between two thin brass plates. Leeuwenhoek would impale his specimen on the point of a tiny metal spike and raise it into focus by turning a screw. The apparatus measures approximately 1 x 3 inches and is held between thumb and forefinger and steadied against the cheek. There's no barrel or eyepiece, no focusing dial or platform. Absent these familiar elements, what remains is the basic power of magnification—and the delight in seeing as Leeuwenhoek saw more than three centuries ago. During the Victorian era, microscopy became something of a fad in Europe's salons, and so the instrument began to sprout plumage. In 1751 optician Alexis Magny produced an elaborate gilded-bronze model with a rococo-style base, fully functional as scientific instrument and conversation piece.


Prismatic spectacles from 1650 allow a viewer to see multiples of a single image.
Photograph courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
The centerpiece of the Getty exhibit is the Cabinet of Wonder—what cocurator Barbara Maria Stafford calls "furniture to think with." Fashioned of ebony, chestnut, semiprecious stones, marble, and tortoiseshell, the rare 17th-century German display cabinet was built to house hundreds of specimens, with a special drawer or tray for each marvel. During an era of expanding exploration and trade, European travelers returned from trips to distant shores with trunkloads of exotica, natural and man-made. Enshrined like relics in rich cabinetry, these treasured finds—an Indonesian spiked helmet, perhaps, or a piece of brain coral—became emblems of family wealth, power, and knowledge. Sorting through these mementos was an evening's entertainment, a way to contemplate natural history in the comfort of the drawing room.

Web- and channel-surfing, our mental tours through new worlds of weird and random information, could easily claim the curiosity cabinet as a forerunner.


 


Books

How Green Is Our Valley?
A Dutch statistician insists that environmentalists mislead us—but who's misleading whom?

By Joe Thornton

In the Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the Planet, Bjorn Lomborg depicts a world as illusory as the Land of Oz. Lomborg's Oz is a place with no serious environmental afflictions. Global warming? Lomborg, who teaches statistics at Aarhus University in Denmark, argues that by the time elevated temperatures lead to flooding and declining agricultural yields, developing countries will be rich enough to cope just fine. Ozone depletion? Most of the skin cancer it causes won't be fatal. Toxic chemicals in the food supply and in groundwater? Less likely to cause cancer than a cup of coffee.

But utopias are boring, so the author offers up some villains: environmental organizations and scientists whom he claims are engaged in a vast conspiracy to convince the public that the world's ecosystems are breaking down. Lomborg sets out to debunk a long litany of claims that he attributes—though not always accurately—to self-interested environmentalists. That he takes an antienvironmentalist stance on virtually every issue should raise serious questions about his objectivity. Moreover, his own analysis often doesn't hold up under scientific scrutiny.

Lomborg contends, for example, that the world's forests are not really in trouble, because estimates of global forest cover have increased slightly over the last several decades. But Lomborg counts tree farms and second-growth forests together with old-growth ones, although only the latter provide the complex habitats necessary to sustain biodiversity. Lomborg also claims that chemical pollutants are present in the ocean at biologically insignificant levels. But he omits the fact that many substances accumulate in the food chain, reaching levels in predator species that are millions of times greater than their concentration in the water—levels high enough to pose health risks to whales, seals, and people.

The wizard in L. Frank Baum's book forces his subjects to wear green spectacles that make Oz appear perfectly beautiful. Likewise, Lomborg promises a nearly perfect world of easy environmental progress if we put our faith in economic growth unhindered by government regulation. But this view ignores a crucial reality: The real success stories of the last three decades—including big reductions in environmental levels of ozone-depleting chemicals, DDT, PCBs, lead, and other pollutants—were accomplished not through the free market but through strict government restrictions on the production of these substances. Today's environmental challenge is to expand on these lessons and to base development on ecologically sound technologies, a goal we can reach only through ambitious action, both public and private.


 




For more on the exhibition, see www.getty.edu/ art/exhibitions/devices/choice.html. Learn about 17th-century microscope pioneer Antoni van Leeuwenhoek at www.ucmp. berkeley.edu/history/leeuwenhoek.html.

For a visual history of microscopes, see www.arsmachina.com/micro_1.htm.

More about Lomborg's book can be found at the Cambridge University Press Web site: uk.cambridge.org/economics/lomborg.

To enter the debate, compare Bjorn Lomborg's homepage (www.lomborg.com) with www.anti-lomborg.com, a collection of articles and links.

Joe Thornton's homepage can be found at www.columbia.edu/~jt121.
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