As we can notice from the images you’ve shared, investigation of nature is intimately connected to instruments and laboratories. We have seen in the previous discussion that experiments are defined as controlled experience. However, in order to control nature, some more sophisticated instruments are needed, and sometimes more specific settings. The use of instruments can be traced back to the early modern period. In this video, you will encounter a few examples of the use of instruments in the 17th century. In general, instruments are distinguished into two types. Mathematical, used for drawings and calculations. And scientific, used to analyse and generalise the phenomena. Mathematical instruments have been used since antiquity, and there have been much improved in the early modern period.
Some examples are the compass and the ruler. But also astronomical ones, such as astro labs and sundials. Scientific instruments, on the other hand, are used for various purposes. And their creation flourished in the 17th and the 18th centuries. Some of them correct and improve the senses. Such are the microscope and the telescope, which either make bigger what is too small to be seen by the naked eye, or bring closer what is too far to be observed, such as the stars. Others provide information when our senses are not reliable, as in the case of temperature and pressure.
Here, the information provided by the thermoscope and the barometer, but also by their older brother, the weather glass, is far more exact than our bodily sensations. Other instruments are used as models or analogies of natural phenomena, when the experimenter doesn’t have access to the exact settings, or it studies a single event which does not reiterate, as we have already seen in Bacon’s example of using a bladder hanged in snow to reproduce the conditions we can naturally find in a cave. However, not only that phenomena are reproduced artificially. Sometimes, scientific endeavour can go farther, and it can create conditions which do not occur naturally, but which can bring significant information about nature and its activity.
Such an example is the air pump, which can create void in it, and does it can study how different phenomena occur in these conditions. The same is the case when we isolate a phenomenon to discover its regularities by creating the ideal conditions for that phenomenon to occur. Think of Newton’s cradle, used to demonstrate the conservation of momentum and energy.
Nowadays, scientists keep their instruments in laboratories specifically designed for one activity. Very different from one another, according to the domain of research. In the early modern period, several places were receiving the function of today’s laboratories. Namely, all those places where it
was possible to manipulate the instruments just mentioned: gardens, astronomical laboratories, medical institutes, but also personal cabinets and university colleges. There are two important features of the use of early modern instruments I would like to emphasise. First, as we have already seen in the example of the bladder used to recreate the conditions we can naturally find in a cave, common objects were used as scientific instruments, and not only those specifically designed for one precise activity. Common objects and artefacts were used in such a way during the investigation that from a methodological perspective, they were acquiring the status of a scientific instrument.
Think of mirrors and lenses used in everyday life, and in the creation of wondrous effects, which became instruments for optical enquiry in the 16th century, and led to the discovery of the Law of Refraction. Second, it is relevant that the experimenter needs to be trained before using the instruments or, metaphorically speaking, she needs to know how to read the information provided by the instrument. Not even simple instruments, such as the telescope or the microscope, can be used without previous instruction. One would simply not understand what is seen through their lenses. For example, the discoveries made by Galileo with the help of the telescope were not easily accepted, because not all of his contemporaries were seeing the same.
And because it was considered that the lenses interposed between the object under study and our senses were distorting the image of the object. In the next step, you will analyse in some detail the arguments pro and contra the use of microscopes.