Wednesday, January 09, 2002

Jokes of Nature and Jokes of Knowledge: The Playfulness of Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Europe-Paula Findlen

When I first began to read this article, I wondered how, if ever, jokes of nature and jokes of knowlege would ever be found in scientific discourse. It is hard to imagine such an eventuality because the science of today has drummed much of the unknown out of unexplainable phenomenon. For example, we may marvel over the fact that cats always land on their feet, even when positioned upside down, but science explains this by an organ in the brain which helps felines to right themselves. We may wonder how birds can migrate thousands of kilometers over the winter to warmer climates without getting lost. Science explains this as well with a set of ordered and logical facts. During the Renaissance period, however, the science and technology of the twenty-first century was unavailable to people so explanations were invented. Scientists of this period were at a loss to explain much of the fantastic phenomenon witnessed in nature and thus turned to equally fantastic explanations to understand them. According to Findlen, jokes of nature can be found everywhere from the tree branch to the flower: one only has to look close enough to see the brushstrokes seh leaves behind. Pygmies, giants and hermaphrodites became the stuff of legends and were seen as the work of the nature trickster. Nothing was too fantastic or impossible whether it was metamorphosis or transmutation. Anything was possible to explain the unexplainable. These jokes were known to occur regularly but without any reason, which was part of the problem confounding scientists of that time. My particular favorite was the Scythian lamb rooted to the ground feeding itself with the surrounding grass. This colorful period in scientific history lasted until the Enlightenment when Newtonian and Galilean rationalities overcame the sensationalism that had characterized this period. In fact, the scientific joke became the Renaissance period itself. I would argue however, that the Renaissance period was an important period in scientific history. Not only did the science of this time blurr the boundaries between art and nature, but it literally pushed thinking beyond the constraints of the past. Suddenly, science was free to consider the fantastic, to borrow from art, to learn from philosphy and accept the impossible. This type of thinking brought creativity to science that was not present before. Creative thinking, as is well know, is and was responsible for many scientific discoveries. It frees scientists to think outside the box and expand in new directions. This kind of science also provided us with the roots of modern magic. So though the science that came out of this period might have been questionable, it did leave us with a legacy that we can appreciate today. A question that might arise from this, then, is whether jokes still exist in nature. If and where might be jokes present in nature? Is nature smiling at us, waiting for us to discover some long hidden joke burried beneath the soil, hardened into mineral?