The Sharp-Eyed Lynx, Outfoxed by Nature

By Gould, Stephan Jay | Natural History, May 1998 | Go to article overview

The Sharp-Eyed Lynx, Outfoxed by Nature

Gould, Stephan Jay, Natural History

Galileo and friends taught us that there is more to observing than meets the eye.

In 1603, Federico Cesi, the duke of Aquasparta, founded an organization that grew from uncertain beginnings to become the first scientific society in modern European history. Cesi (1585-1630), then a teenage nobleman, invited three slightly older friends (all in their midtwenties) to establish l'Accademia dei Lincei (the Academy of the Lynxes), dedicated to scientific investigation ("reading this great, true, and universal book of the world," to cite Cesi's own words) and named for a sleek and wily carnivore, then still living in the forests of Italy and renowned in song and story for unparalleled sight among mammals.

The legend of the sharp-eyed lynx had arisen in ancient times and persisted to Cesi's day. Pliny's canonical compendium of natural history had called the lynx "the most clear sighted of all quadrupeds." Plutarch had embellished the legend by speaking of "the lynx, who can penetrate through trees and rocks with its sharp sight." And Galen, ever the comparative anatomist, had written: "We would seem absurdly weak in our powers of vision if we compared our sight to the acuity of the lynx or the eagle." (I have translated these aphorisms directly from Konrad Gesner's 1551 compendium on mammals, the standard source for information on natural history in Cesi's day.)

Still, despite Cesi's ambitious name and aims, the academy of four young men faltered at first. Cesi's own father made a vigorous attempt to stop his son's foolishness, and the four Lynxes all dispersed to their native cities, keeping their organization alive only by the uncertain media of post and messages. But Cesi persevered and triumphed (for a time), thanks to several skills and circumstances. He acquired more power and prestige, both by growing up and by inheriting substantial wealth. Most importantly, he became a consummate diplomat and facilitator within the maximally suspicious and labyrinthine world of civil and ecclesiastical politics in Rome during the CounterReformation. The Lynxes flourished largely because Cesi managed to keep the suspicions of popes and cardinals at bay while science prepared to fracture old views of the cosmos and develop radically new theories about the nature of matter and causation.

As a brilliant administrator, Cesi knew that he needed more clout among the membership of the Lynxes. He therefore recruited, as the fifth and sixth members of an organization that would eventually reach a roster of about thirty, two of the most prestigious thinkers and doers of early-seventeenth-century life. In 1610 he journeyed to Naples, where he persuaded the senior spokesman of the fading Neoplatonic school-the seventy-five-yearold Giambattista della Porta-to join a group of men young enough to be his grandsons. Then in 1611, Cesi made his preeminent catch when he recruited the hottest intellectual property in the Western world, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), to become the sixth member of the Lynxes.

The year before, Galileo had provided an ultimate proof for the cliche that good things come in small packages by publishing Sidereus nunicius (Starry messenger)little more than a pamphlet really, but containing more oomph per paragraph than anything else ever achieved in the history of science or printing. Galileo shook the earth by turning his newly invented telescope upon the cosmos and reporting that the moon is a planet with mountains and valleys, not the perfect sphere required by older science and theology; that thousands of previously invisible stars build the Milky Way, thus extending the cosmos beyond any previously conceivable limit; and that four moons orbit Jupiter, forming a miniature world analogous to the motion of planets around a central body. Moreover, Galileo pointed out, the crystalline sphere supposedly encompassing Jupiter (and each of the other planets) could not exist, for the revolution of moons would shatter this mystical structure of a geometrically perfect, unsullied, and unchanging cosmos-God's empyrean realm.

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