Visions of Science

“Visions of Science” by James A. Secord

Published in the Wall Street Journal, Apr. 10, 2015

Science Books That Made Modernity

Darwin’s radical ideas were accepted surprisingly quickly by an English public already steeped in science.

Thomas De Quincey claimed that certain books existed only to teach their readers, while others changed the world by transforming and motivating them. The first he called a “literature of knowledge,” the second, a “literature of power.” In “Visions of Science” James A. Secord, a professor at Cambridge, highlights seven powerful books from the 1830s that altered their age.

At the time, English society was undergoing radical change. New discoveries were altering the conception of the natural world. New technologies—steamships, railways and telegraphs—were transforming the pace of life. All this was exhilarating, but also frightening.

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Daily Beast

“Engaging . . . . Marvelous . . . . Poetic” — The Daily Beast

By Wendy Smith. Published in the Daily Beast, Oct. 20, 2017

I am honored to have received such a gorgeously written review by Wendy Smith in The Daily Beast, one that captures exactly what I wanted to accomplish with the book.  She starts by praising Eye of the Beholder for being “one of those engaging books that make you smarter without making you suffer,” and ends with “This poetic, inclusive approach to popular science writing makes Eye of the Beholder an unfailing pleasure to read.”

How Two Dutch Geniuses Taught Us to See

Vermeer the painter and Leeuwenhoek the scientist were contemporaries in 17th century Delft, where each man pioneered breakthroughs that upended conventional wisdom about reality.

Vermeer the painter and Leeuwenhoek the scientist were contemporaries in 17th century Delft, where each man pioneered breakthroughs that upended conventional wisdom about reality.
Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing is one of those engaging books that makes you smarter without making you suffer. Laura J. Snyder’s scholarly yet accessible narrative offers refresher courses on the Scientific Revolution and the golden age of Dutch art, contextualized in a lively portrait of 17th-century Dutch society and personalized in the stories of two brilliant innovators who happened to live in the same bustling town.

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Daily Mail

“Portrait of an age of insatiable intellectual curiosity” — Daily Mail

By Laura Freeman. Published in the Daily Mail, Apr. 23, 2015

Eye of the Beholder has received this delightful review from the Daily Mail in the UK.  I love how the author captured the experimental exuberance of the age!

A quick autopsy my love, then off to the ball: The eccentric behaviour of Dutch natural scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and painter Johannes Vermeer

  • At 41 van Leeuwenhoek used his body as a guinea pig in an experiment
  • Vermeer spent hours peering into the box-like interior of a camera obscura 
  • Could Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek have inspired each other’s work?

The behaviour of Dutch natural scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was nothing if not eccentric. In 1677, at the age of 41, he embarked on an extraordinarily gruesome experiment, using his body as a guinea pig.

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Nature

“Revelatory” — Philip Ball, Nature

By Philip Ball. Published in Nature, Apr. 9, 2015

Science writer Philip Ball wrote a lovely essay for Nature connecting Eye of the Beholder with Galileo’s Telescope, another new book having to do with the use of optical instruments in the 17th century.  Ball writes “Snyder beautifully evokes the ambience of late-seventeenth-century Delft. . . . She is revelatory about Vermeer’s aims and methods, helping to explain what is so mesmeric about his work.”

I’m a big fan of Philip Ball’s writings, so his praise of my book is a real thrill.

Philip Ball examines two studies on how optical instruments taught science to see.

In the seventeenth century, scientists learnt how to see, discovering the astronomically large and the invisibly small. Both the telescope and the microscope had been invented, independently, by the first decades of the century, and Europe’s intelligentsia were astonished, amused and unnerved by what was revealed.

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Wall Street Journal

“Engaging and Richly Detailed” — Wall Street Journal

By Jonathan Lopez. Published in the Wall Street Journal, Mar. 27, 2015.

I was delighted to see this terrific (and lengthy) review of Eye of the Beholder in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal. I’m particularly pleased that the author, Jonathan Lopez, mentioned our colleague Walter Liedtke, whose recent tragic death was a blow to us all. And my son loved the reference to Leeuwenhoek as “the shambling, sighing, self-deprecating Columbo of 17th century science!”

Through a Glass, Brightly

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and Johannes Vermeer were neighbors in Delft. Still, no one knows if they ever met.

In the 17th century, two men of genius resided within a stone’s throw of each other in the picturesque Dutch town of Delft. Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), a microscopist, initiated the discipline we now call microbiology when he discovered hitherto unseen organisms—protozoa and paramecia—in a sample of ordinary drinking water. His neighbor, the painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) created some of the most highly praised works in the history of art, including the “Girl With a Pearl Earring” (ca. 1665). As Laura J. Snyder recounts in “Eye of the Beholder,” an engaging and richly detailed work of interdisciplinary history, each of these visionaries honed his powers of observation by tinkering with optical lenses, a pastime then at the forefront of scientific progress. But what Van Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer seem never to have perceived, remarkably, was each other. Van Leeuwenhoek, a minor public official in Delft, was appointed executor of Vermeer’s estate after the painter’s death in 1675, a task he performed for a fixed fee as a perquisite of office. But there’s no indication he knew the artist in life.

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American Scholar

“Rich and Rewarding” — Graeme Wood, The American Scholar

By Graeme Wood. Published in The American Scholar, Mar. 4, 2015.

Two Dutch Visionaries

How the optical revolution revealed worlds large and small

On September 17, 1683, the Dutch biologist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek wrote one of the most scientifically important, and completely revolting, letters that London’s Royal Society ever received. He informed his colleagues that he had scraped from between his teeth “a little white matter, which is as thick as if ’twere batter,” and had observed it with a microscope. “In the said matter there were many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving.” These tiny creatures were the first observed bacteria, and their discovery revealed a world-within-a-world every bit as marvelous as revelations about the heavens.

The twin subjects of Laura J. Snyder’s new book are Leeuwenhoek and his equally astonishing contemporary, the painter Johannes Vermeer. Born on almost the same day in 1632, they worked most of their lives on the same acre of Delft, then a prosperous city at the height of the Dutch Golden Age. Leeuwenhoek even became the executor of Vermeer’s estate soon after the artist’s death in 1675. The two men’s proximity has long tantalized historians of art and science who have sought to link them as friends, collaborators, and co-conspirators. Snyder, too, suggests a connection, but in the end, the evidence linking them is circumstantial, and as she admits, the theory of their acquaintance ultimately speculative.

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“Ingenious, Lucid and Revealing” — Kirkus

Published in Kirkus Reviews, Dec. 7, 2014

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing

A fine addition to the burgeoning genre of dual biography of great figures whose lives were related, if often distantly.

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Newton Papers

Review of Dry’s The Newton Papers

Published in the Wall Street Journal, May 23, 2014.


A Reputation in Constant Motion


It was claimed that Newton’s writings on alchemy and theology were products of mental derangement.

In the 1940s, a visitor to the Sir Isaac Newton Library on the campus of the Babson Institute (now Babson College) in Wellesley, Mass., could find herself transported to the front parlor of the house on St. Martin’s Street in London where Newton had lived between 1710 and 1725. Grace Knight Babson, wife of the shrewd investor and millionaire Roger Babson, had purchased the room—including its original pine-paneled walls and carved mantelpiece—and brought the pieces to Massachusetts, where it was reassembled as a tribute to the man who had lived and worked within it.

Roger Babson had made his fortune, he said, by espying Newton’s “law of action and reaction” in business cycles. To Babson and his wife, Newton was a seer who had divined the laws of markets as well as of nature. This was a quirky view of Newton, to be sure. But from the moment Newton died in 1727, different visions of the man arose. In “The Newton Papers,” Sarah Dry tells the story of these competing images of Newton by following the trail of the manuscripts Newton left behind.

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Science for the People

Interview with Science for the People

Last month I chatted with Desiree Schell of the Science for the People syndicated radio show and podcast operating out of Edmonton, Alberta, and broadcasting throughout North America. It was fun to be immersed again in the nineteenth century for a while after working for the past couple of years on the seventeenth century. Talking about the four members of the philosophical breakfast club, I felt like I was catching up with old friends I hadn’t been in touch with for quite some time. It felt good. Sometimes I do miss the four men, especially Whewell and Jones—the two I would most like to have as dinner companions!

My chat with Desiree is now available for listening and/or downloading on the Science for the People website here. Thanks, Desiree, for having me on the program, and for allowing me to visit with these four remarkable men for a while!

Happy New Year!


Nantucket bizzard of New Year’s Day, 2014
Nantucket bizzard of New Year’s Day, 2014

Happy New Year, from the midst of a Nantucket blizzard, where I am working on revisions to my new book! With luck it will appear in late 2014 or early 2015. Stay tuned!

What a great way to start the new year: seeing that I landed on the 20 Most Popular Books of 2013 from Science Book a Day!

I was honored to be the first author interviewed by Science Book a Day’s George Aranda in May.

In April, the TED Talk I gave at TED Global in Edinburgh in June 2012 was put online at TED.com; it’s now been viewed over 650,000 times there, and 1.3 million over all venues!

It’s been an exciting year! And I’m looking forward to 2014! Hope it’s a great year for everyone.