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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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