[Humanist] 29.74 curiosity, intelligence, skill in surprising (?) places

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Jun 3 19:21:21 CEST 2015

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 74.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 03 Jun 2015 18:14:15 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: curiosity, intelligence, skill

Recently I had the good fortune to be taken by friends to the Eise
Eisinga Planetarium in Franeker, Friesland, in the Netherlands. This
planetarium was built by the Dutch wool-carder Eise Eisinga between 1774
and 1781 in the living-room of his house. It replaced his ceiling; its
intricate mechanism is in the loft. It works to this day. It is made of oak,
lead weights and, it is said, 10,000 nails. He made it to show his
fellow citizens of Franeker that an unusual conjunction of planets (a
syzygy, as it's called) on 8 May 1774 did not betoken the total
destruction of the earth. For more on this see
http://www.planetarium-friesland.nl/en/. If you've ever had work done to
your house or done it yourself, you can infer the admirable toleration
of Eisinga's family while the thing was being constructed.

All very interesting, but what I carried away from the Frisian 18C
planetarium for Humanist were some examples of ordinary working men,
Eisinga the wool-carder and several others, who learned sufficient
mathematics, physics and engineering skills, while making a humble
living (as we might consider it), to build scientific instruments and
explore as much of the universe as could be seen by them. Eise Eisinga's
teacher was Wytze Foppes, born 16 September 1707, a carpenter by trade,
who "was initiated into the secrets of mathematics and astronomy by a
surveyor.... Foppes trained himself in making astronomical instruments
and instructed Eise Eisinga. He also wrote various booklets and articles."

Another. "Arjen Roelofs was born in Hijum on 31 March 1754. Together
with two of his brothers, Pieter and Albert, he worked on his father's
farm. All three brothers were fascinated by subjects such as mathematics
and physics. Even during their work in the fields they recorded their
observations -- on the handles of their wooden tools or on wooden doors.
The brothers also made meteorological observations and built their own
thermometers and barometers. And they used a kite to investigate
lightning.... Arjen was the most gifted.... Despite the fact that he had
attended the village school for only a few years, he could solve all
kinds of problems in the fields of mathematics and physics. He also
calculated the timing of many astronomical phenomena such as solar and
lunar eclipses between 1778 and 1820."

Curiosity, intelligence, what the Germans call Fingerspitzengefühl and
much more. Perhaps our surprise to find these virtues so brilliantly
manifested in Frisian working men says more about us, or as much, as it
does about them?

Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

More information about the Humanist mailing list