[Image above] Credit: the pale side of insomnia; Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
It’s hard to imagine the pure astonishment and wonder that Robert Hooke felt when he examined everyday objects, in unexpected new detail, under one of the earliest microscopes.
Or perhaps we can—you can imagine that it’s just the kind of wonder and excitement that would compel you to write, illustrate, and publish an entire book of your detailed discoveries.
Many people might understandably assume that the microscope—heavily used in most disciplines of scientific inquiry today—could be considered an “eye” of science. It does allow us to see unprecedented detail, illuminating new worlds beneath the lens.
But what does it really mean to be the eye of science?
Is the eye of science merely something that allows us to see the wonder of science? Or does it extend deeper—something that has enabled science to even exist, to flourish, to develop the theories of the world around us?
According to Marv Bolt, the eye of science is all those things. But it’s not the microscope that takes the title.
Instead, Bolt says that only one material can be the apple of science’s eye: glass.
And Bolt is quite familiar with the material—as curator of science and technology at the Corning Museum of Glass, he has immersed himself in the use of glass in early scientific instruments.
Bolt first appeared on Ceramic Tech Today in early 2015, when we shared a video featuring the glass expert. But that was just a prelude to a longer article in the May 2015 ACerS Bulletin, which featured an article about Bolt’s work on ancient glasses in early telescopes.
And if you happened to be at the 5th Ceramic Business Leadership Summit in 2016, you heard Bolt deliver an entertaining and informative dinnertime presentation about his quest to identify some of the earliest scientific instruments. Bolt has traveled the globe examining and learning from ancient telescopes and the glass lenses they contain.
Now, in the March 2017 issue of the International Journal of Applied Glass Science, the second part of a two-part special issue series, Bolt wrote a fascinating opening article all about glass’s role as the eye of science.
The special issue, The Glass Age, Part II, follows up the December 2016 IJAGS special issue dedicated to The Glass Age. Eileen De Guire reported on that first issue, which provided substantial proof that the era we’re living in today really is the Glass Age. That’s because today, glass is doing all sorts of incredible things that many people would never have predicted for this amorphous material.
But that doesn’t mean past ages eschewed glass. In fact, as Bolt shows in his IJAGS article, glass played a really critical role in the entire birth of science.
The article discusses at length early vitreocentric devices and how they have revolutionized the world by ushering in scientific innovation.
As Bolt notes, the article isn’t a comprehensive dive into the history of glass’s use in early scientific instruments, although it does provide plenty of interesting facts. “Instead, it restricts its scope to selected ideas relating to their evolution, to their makers and users, and to their impact, particularly those associated with the glass so central to their operation,” Bolt writes. “It constitutes an outline, a motivational history to inspire increased exploration of the materiality of glass in the history of scientific instruments.”
And inspire it does.
Bolt expertly delves into the role of glass in developing modern science, because early instruments that were made possible by glass finally allowed individuals to replace qualitative philosophy with quantitative measurement—a really important demarcation in the timeline to modern science.
As Bolt notes, scientific discoveries in the 17th century represented a turning point for science and technology, thanks to invention of six major scientific instruments during that time—five of which involved glass: the telescope, microscope, thermometer, barometer, and airpump. The pendulum clock is the sole scientific instrument of that time that did not incorporate glass.
As a material, glass was really critical in some of these instruments mostly because it allowed the experimenter to see what was happening inside, which is a critical component of observation and discovery.
In the case of microscopes and telescopes, however, glass lenses increased the resolution of the world around early scientists, allowing them to gather and spread observational knowledge—similarly to how glass lenses themselves gather and spread light in those instruments.
The article goes on to detail some of the specific lines of inquiry, discoveries, and branches of science that telescopes and microscopes in particular have helped write through their discoveries over the centuries, ultimately shaping the trajectory to modern science.
Plus, beyond the important role of early scientific instruments themselves on history, early experimentation with vitreocentric devices introduced something else incredibly important into the world—engineered glass.
Early microscope pioneers experimented with ways to improve the instrument’s eyepiece lens, initially experimenting with how lens shape affected the instrument’s capabilities. Eventually, however, they reached theoretical limits of resolution and had to look elsewhere to improve their lines of sight.
So scientists began to experiment with tailored glass compositions, investigating the addition of elements like boron, barium, and fluorine into glass to improve its optical abilities—and beginning a long history of engineering glass that still continues today.
And beyond the direct roles that glass has played in the evolution of science, glass has also played a background supporting role in science, Bolt notes.
Perhaps most notably, glass has served as a substrate for reflective mirrors to gather light in telescopes. Since 19th century technology has enabled silver to be applied to glass to create reflective surfaces, the size of telescope reflectors has grown exponentially over the centuries, to the point where we have incredibly extremely large instruments today. This graphic demonstrates that impressive timeline and growth.
Comparison of sizes of optical telescope primary mirrors. Credit: Cmglee; Wikimedia Commons
So is it really any wonder that glass would be dubbed the eye of science?
In the article, Bolt concludes, “Over the past four centuries, our glass eyes of science have evolved in spectacular fashion, giving us a vision of unimaginably ancient forms, of stunning and complex processes, and of a universe that continues to fill us with awe at every scale.”
And our glass eyes of science are still evolving today—who knows what kind of future they will bring into focus.
The open-access article, published in the March 2017 issue of IJAGS, is “Glass: The eye of science” (DOI: 10.1111/ijag.12260).