The Imperfect Telescope

Frontispiece for William Blake's The Song of Los, 1795; from Roberta J. M. Olson and Jay M. Pasachoff’s Cosmos: The Art and Science of the Universe
Huntington Library, San Marino, California
William Blake: frontispiece from The Song of Los, 1795; from Roberta J. M. Olson and Jay M. Pasachoff’s Cosmos: The Art and Science of the Universe. It is published by Reaktion and distributed by the University of Chicago Press.

The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the main character of Adam Sachs’s debut novel, The Organs of Sense, had a minor obsession with telescopes. His hero was Johannes Kepler, the mathematician who had invented the refracting astronomical telescope in 1611. “Kepler, thanks to the force of his genius, has discovered a telescope whose glasses are convex,” Leibniz announced in a letter to a friend in 1679. Kepler’s glasses were “far more excellent than others”—more durable than the silver mirror in Isaac Newton’s reflecting telescope, more powerful than the concave eyepiece Galileo Galilei gazed through, in which the evening star appeared only thirty times bigger than it did to the naked eye. Elsewhere, Leibniz rebuffed René Descartes as a geometer with a “rather limited mind” whose only redeeming ambitions were astronomical: “The only useful thing he thought he had given were his telescopes,” he sniped, “with which he promised to show us animals, or parts as small as animals, on the moon.” But the telescope that Descartes designed, the telescope Leibniz longed for, proved impossible for Descartes’s workmen to manufacture. The animals on the moon remained, regrettably, invisible.

At eighteen, Leibniz had decided that the highest effort of philosophy would be to construct a language of metaphysics that could perfect the extension of human thought with no less precision or glory than the telescope had perfected the extension of the human eye. The language he imagined would serve as the “greatest instrument of reason”: a universally comprehensible system of signs that would “supply not only the words but also the things” to which the words referred—the ideas that were a “reflection and refraction and multiplication” of the infinite wisdom of God, “supreme Author” of the cosmos. Perfectly mimetic, scrupulously logical, Leibniz’s language would transform every mind into “a perpetually living mirror of the universe,” allowing strangers to calculate their way to shared judgments about art, ethics, and politics, clearing the way for worldly happiness and harmony. It would even bring order to blind emotional impulses like love. “We should not have to break our heads as much as is necessary today,” Leibniz wrote. Surely there was a way to reflect God’s ideas, and the thoughts of others, too, in our language.

Leibniz’s fondness for the language of optics ignored the fact that, in the seventeenth century, mirrors were terrible reflectors. Made from silver, they were prone to tarnishing, enveloping whoever stood before them in an obscuring mist. Flattened by hand,…

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