The great New Horizons Pluto fly-by has occurred. We have our mottling, our iron colors, and large patches of light and dark which will keep astrogeologists like Jonathan active and excited for months and years to come. I wanted to make sure you all had a chance to see the NASA reports on the Pluto surface, and Pluto’s moon Charon, whose surface shows every sign of a very active interior.
I am also happy to announce that I have just launched a new Kickstarter campaign, to support the production of two new CDs of my music. “Stories and Stone” is a companion album to “Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok” containing variant arrangements of my Viking music, plus new recordings of my anthem for Space exploration and human progress “Somebody Will”. “Trickster and King” will be the first album recorded by myself and my singing partner Lauren Schiller as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King”. The whole first album and half of the second are finished and streaming online, so please listen and enjoy. And if you enjoy, please consider supporting the Kickstarter, and spread the word about it (NOW OVER – it was a great success, THANK YOU! Hear the music here). Much of the goal of this campaign is to raise money so I can afford to hire help, including my assistant Mack who works with me here on Ex Urbe and with other projects. I am having more and more demands on my time as teaching and research at Chicago become more intense, and especially as the release of my novels approaches, and the more help I can hire the more time I can devote to Ex Urbe posts and other creative projects. So if you’ve been wondering if there’s a “tip jar” or some other way you can support Ex Urbe, this is a great way, as is spreading the word about the campaign.
The finished album, to be released in August:
And the second album still in progress:
Somebody Will with guitar:
It’s hard to pick a single favorite track, but if I had to it is probably Hearthfire in five parts, with guitar performed by my (wonderful and Space exploration-championing!) editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden:
The first CD should ship in September, with an instant digital download when the Kickstarter finishes in August.
Meanwhile, to split the difference between Viking music and Pluto, I recently had the good luck of a daytime flight over Greenland in beautiful weather, so please enjoy this photo essay on the wild and icy geology of our own little planet, and the frosty habitat of our native Jotuns and trolls:
A week from today, the NASA New Horizons Spacecraft will perform its close flyby of Pluto, beaming back the first color images of our solar system’s last uncharted world (and finally telling the makers of the Celestial Buddies line what color they should make their long-awaited cuddly Pluto). In celebration of the occasion, I have solicited a guest post from my good friend Jonathan Sneed, an astrogeologist/ paleobiologist, currently working as a research technician with the Solar System and Exoplanet Habitability Group here at the University of Chicago. Jonathan studies rocks, and what rocks tell us about how planets and other astronomical bodies form and develop, especially when life gets in the mix. These are the skills we need to predict which planets and other space rocks might have life, or the chemicals necessary to support us as we launch out into the vast and black frontier. Jonathan’s essay offers predictions about what New Horizons might find when it makes its flyby next week, gives a taste of how much photos alone can teach us about the history and potential of Pluto, and offers a glimpse of how astrogeology lets us learn about the celestial stepping stones scattered around us.
When she’s talking about the history of skepticism, our host likes to talk about Pluto, and in particular about the argument that scientists had about it. Shall it be a planet? A dwarf planet? A planetoid? Megarock? Especially large ice cube? In her classroom, Pluto is the enemy of eudaimonia, a didactic example of the stress we experience when our perceptions shift and the maps are all rewritten. She discusses the ways that we use doubt to insulate ourselves against collisions between truth and belief, how the ancient Pyrrhonists found a refuge in uncertainty. It’s all rather grim.
Obviously, I can’t let her be the one to talk about the imminent New Horizons flyby.
It is, after all, a unique moment in human history! For most of us, most of the time, discovery is a kind of communication. You turn to page 57 and look at a full-page spread of the Krebs Cycle, or stop by a street performer on your way to the grocery store and hear real jazz for the first time, or open your RSS feed and read a quote by Sartre, and your world shifts under your feet just a bit. But moments like this are a reminder: there are things that nobody knows, and you have the ability to know them. If you’re willing to admit a little uncertainty, that is.
Over the next few weeks, a great many things will become known about a whole new world. I thought this might be a good opportunity to sketch out some of what you might look for, so that you can participate a little bit more actively in that moment, if you have a mind to do so. The New Horizons craft is outfitted almost entirely with cameras, imagers, and spectrometers of one sort or another, so we’ll have basically one thing to go on: what color is it?
Granted, some of those photons will be well outside the range of the human eye, so I’m using ‘color’ with a certain amount of poetic license. But at the end of the day, it’s a remarkably straightforward little device. We were curious about Pluto, so we looked at it. The atmosphere should be quite visible, and it’s more than thin enough for us to peer through that atmosphere to the solid surface beneath. From there, we’ll see not just the elements that make up pluto, but also the chemical arrangements that they’ve made for themselves and the large shapes and geological formations that have emerged. Are there mountains and valleys? Volcanoes? Some kind of erosional process that cycles and recycles the surface?
And these things, in turn, will tell us more than you might expect. Because we don’t just know what Pluto looks like now; we have a pretty good guess about where it started, and two points make a line.
One of my favorite facts (up there with ‘birds are dinosaurs’) is that the number of mineral types in the universe is increasing at an exponential rate. For a geologist, every day is the most exciting day the universe has ever had! A while back, the first stars and the preposterous forces at work inside them, gave us the first heavy elements and the few mineral grains they can form drifting in interstellar space. Eventually, those first primitive grains clumped together to form rocks and then whole planets, with solid bits and fluid bits and change, and new minerals emerged from that dynamism. The kind of minerals that are only formed when water evaporates into an atmosphere and leaves a residue behind. The kind that are only formed when some kind of fancy-pants self-sustaining carbon-based chemical process decides to secrete a shell for itself. The kind that first come in to being when a state legislature settles on new safety standards for concrete. And so on, accelerating ever onwards.
(Actually, human-created objects don’t technically count as minerals, but this is an arbitrary semantic line. ‘Anthropocite’ is far too wonderful a word to not get used in a scientific journal eventually.)
What this means for Pluto is that, despite the huge variety of things that a (dwarf) planet(oid) might do, the starting ingredients have to be drawn from a set of things that can be cooked by a star and are willing to clump together in space. As to what it did with those things in the four and a half billion years since… well, that’s harder to guess. But here are some of the most important ingredients that might go into your Pluto recipe, drawn straight from the primordial dust itself:
Water ice. Ammonia. Silicates, with a variety of elements thrown in for flavor- potassium, phosphorous, a great many metals. Iron and sulfur compounds, usually bonded with oxygen or mixed in with the silicates. Carbon, doing its crazed carbon dance, probably already forming a few amino acids and alcohols as it falls into the gravity well. Carbon, being less creative, oxidized or in the form of methane. Hydrogen and helium, as much as you like, although those will run away from the world almost as soon as they arrive.
I’ve been careful to emphasize some of the ones that I think are going to be important, so this is isn’t comprehensive. But it’s a lot closer to comprehensive than you’d think. All in all, there are a little more than a hundred different molecules floating around between the stars, a shockingly finite list.
Even more conveniently, we have a category we can use. No, not ‘planet’, alas. The category I am thinking of is ‘Kuiper Object’. On Ex Urbe, categories are a deep and compelling subject in their own right, but for the time being I shall take a narrow and cowardly view. All I mean is that Pluto is quite similar to a lot of other things in the ways we have already measured, and so I wouldn’t be too surprised if it was also similar to those things when we measure new aspects of it.
Kuiper Objects are a fascinating bunch, named by the region just outside Neptune’s orbit. They’re quite icy (some would even float), and they come in a range of exciting colors for the discriminating consumer (gray is common, and red and black are, as always, favorites). There are many things we don’t know about Kuiper objects, but we’ve also had one tantalizing opportunity:
This is a picture of Triton, one of the moons of Neptune, given to us by interstellar traveler and Blind Willie Johnson fan Voyager II. Triton is quite icy, although it would not quite float in water. It comes in a range of exciting colors, primarily gray and red. And it’s going around Neptune in basically the wrong direction, which implies that it fell into Neptune’s gravity well a good deal after planetary formation. It also, for the record, has an atmosphere, surface composition, and density shockingly similar to that which we infer for Pluto. So, there’s that.
A while back, I shared an office with a guy who wrote a thesis about how confusing Kuiper Objects are. He had written an efficient and cutting-edge program that would transform reasonable assumptions into arcane squiggles and crying graduate students. I learned a lot from that guy, especially about the perils of trying to predict the behavior of (dwarf) planet(oid)s given even very simple starting conditions. What happens when you make a very, very large pile of ice and silicates, and then wait for four and a half billion years? What do we expect to see when we take our picture of Pluto? Potentially, a lot of things.
But for any big pile of rocks, there are basically four ways to get the thing to move: sunlight, radiation, gravity, and chemistry. Actually, gravity and radiation make a nice twofer.
The idea is this: shuffle silicate rocks and water ice into a big ball. A lot of the heavier metals mixed in with your silicates are a bit radioactive, so they warm the ice around them into a kind of slush (same reason the Earth is a fluid once you go a few miles down). That’s just enough lubrication to let the heavy stuff fall to the bottom, and the lighter stuff rise to the top- and now we have some density gradients to work with, and maybe even some liquid(ish) water. Even more excitingly, everything in that ball that isn’t easily trapped in mineral form (the nitrogen compounds, the methane, and all those wonderful mad organic molecules) will tend to get squeezed out to the exterior surface, or near it. We call those ‘volatiles’, which is one of those charmingly literal phrases that scientists sometimes use. They explode, is what I’m saying.
Almost certainly, this is the process that first set Pluto in motion. But what happens then, especially on the surface? Once you squirt out all the gasses and form an atmosphere, and expose your wiggly mad carbon to sunlight, what does it do next? Well, here’s where the graduate students start crying, but let’s give it a shot. We’ll start with the most sensible and least speculative feature, giant ice volcanoes.
Ice volcanoes are a good sign of an active world, for the same reason that molten rock volcanoes are on Earth- they have to be refreshed by ongoing tectonic activity. As far as we know, they’re exactly the same kind of structure. At temperatures this low, ice is just another kind of rock, and it takes geological forces to warm that rock up to its melting point and expel it as magma. Except, the magma is water (plus a complicated mix of other volatiles like nitrogen)- so we call it ‘cryomagma’, a truly fabulous word if ever I saw one.
If we’re exceptionally lucky, we’ll see an active volcano during the flyby- on Triton, our closest analogue to Pluto, these eruptions can last for (Earth-) years, so it’s not an unreasonable hope. But even if we don’t, we should be able to find strong evidence that they did happen; look for dark smears in the calderas as frozen nitrogen ‘ash’ falls back to the surface.
Another really important thing to watch out for is the craters. Specifically, there not being any.
Here’s a puzzle for you: how do we date rocks on Mars? If you’re lucky enough to have a rover right there, you can run any number of exciting tests, but it’s a big planet and there aren’t that many rovers. Yet, we have guesses about the age of Olympus Mons and Hellas Planitia. How?
The answer is that Mars is fairly inert- enough so that the craters are more or less permanent fixtures. So if you know how often a meteorite is going to blow a hole in a given area, all you have to do is count the craters and then you have a pretty good measure of how long that surface has been exposed. ‘Pretty good’ means plus or minus 600,000,000 years, granted. But I think it’s a pretty cool trick anyway.
So if we make it to Pluto and it’s covered in craters like Earth’s moon or Mars, then that means Pluto has slowed down a lot in the last few billion years. If, on the other hand, it’s fairly crater-free, then something is busy removing those craters. That smells quite a bit like active tectonics. So: ice volcanoes, or craters, but not both- those tools could give us a pretty good idea of whether there is an active mantle in the subsurface, pushing the outer (nitrogen, methane, ice) crust around and otherwise being interesting.
Only, that mantle would be a fluid made of, among other things, water.
As a species, we’ve gotten very good at looking, so even before New Horizons we knew a few things about the surface of Pluto. Broadly, it has the coloring we expect for a Kuiper Object: grey, black, and red, and is sharply mottled. But what, actually, do these colors mean?
I mentioned sunlight as one of the forces that must move Pluto. Granted, the sun lacks a certain degree of strength at that distance, but in combination with the rotation of the (dwarf) planet(oid), the sun is going to be the primary cause of temperature variations at the surface, far away from all that radioactive rock at the center. As the ice volcanoes have shown us, it’s not so much the absolute temperature that matters, as whether or not that temperature cycles around any interesting phase transitions. And as it happens, there are three (and only three, that I know of) materials in our original Pluto recipe that have an interesting phase transition at Pluto’s surface temperatures: carbon monoxide, methane, and nitrogen.
These can have seasonal rhythms, they can precipitate or frost, and are generally going to provide a lot of the bulk material for all the really interesting chemical reactions at the surface. If the ice of Pluto is as rock on Earth, then these are its water and air.
Nitrogen doesn’t help us with that coloration problem too much, but the other two? Those are interesting. Because the beating heart of both is a bit of carbon, and carbon is flexible enough to explain a great many things and a great many colors. This is the element that gives us black graphite and transparent diamonds, after all. When our carbon molecules are left outside for a few billion years of exposure, through years of those interesting phase transitions, something will change- the carbon will fry in the ultraviolet light. Very, very slowly, and it has to be peeled away from the hydrogen and oxygen first, but it will fry all the same. And as it happens, this can explain both the red and the black against a grey ice background.
These are not, of course, the only explanations for the colors that we see on the surface of Pluto. Red has a classic association with iron oxides (you and Mars are red for the same reason, as it happens), and there is a potential universe out there where the surface of Pluto is rusted. But the world is not very dense, and so this would require a great many odd things- not only that there be no mantle fluidity to pull dense minerals inward, but that some inverse process pulled it away, concentrating that metal on the outer circumference. I can’t think of what that might be. But nonetheless, it could be what reality gives us. The disadvantage of this theory is not that it is impossible, just that it requires a great many things to be true. And so I lean towards an explanation that doesn’t demand further concessions from reality, using only the processes that we already acknowledge on the parts that we started with.
Carbon and Water:
I have done a mean thing. I used cryovolcanics and an analogy to Triton as a way of suggesting that there might still be liquid (or at least slushy) water on Pluto. And then, I invoked a reasonably elegant explanation of Pluto’s mottled coloration to suggest that surface processes are driving chemistry of complex carbon molecules.
You are now thinking about aliens.
Or at least, I assume so. I would be. Not flying saucers or anything out of our drive-through horror shows. No, you’re considering the possibility of some simple microbe, maybe a Plutonian lichen of some sort, with subtle but radical implications for our role in the universe as living things. Then again, maybe not; I spend a lot of time thinking about aliens, so my calibration may be off. But if you were thinking about aliens, I apologize. There are not aliens on Pluto. Definitely not, certainly not. I am at least 95% sure, and even that is rounding down. Probably.
There’s a funny inverse to the eudaimonia of skepticism. If we remember that anything we believe might be false, then we can indeed let go of our beliefs with a certain grace. But if anything might be false, then just think of all the things that might be true! And there’s the danger. Before long, we look up and see the canals on Mars that we hope for, rather than the Vallis Marineris as it actually is.
Every planet and moon that we’ve investigated in this solar system has been utterly unique. These worlds are awesome, and frightening, and alien. Crystal cities on Venus would have been amazing, but they would have been amazing in a very human way- they would have been our fantasy, not an encounter with a genuinely new reality. And in the same way, whatever is really on Pluto, it’s going to be an experience that wasn’t bent to fit our expectations, a thing that nobody knows. It will be wonderful, even though it won’t be life.
It is easy for us to forget how the Scientific Method, at work behind all this research, is a uniquely flexible and dynamic belief system, one which enables our uniquely flexible and dyamic world. Some will feel uncomfortable with me calling science a “belief system” but in this context I use the phrase “belief system” as a reminder of what the Scientific Method and its associated aparatus have displaced. Science has not replaced religion–they coexist happily, productively, even symbiotically within many arenas, places and individuals, even as they chafe and vie in others. But in the modern West, the Scientific Method has largely displaced older systems for guiding daily micro-decision-making which were more closely tied to religion. We now use science-based reasoning a hundred times a day when we are called upon to make decisions. Whether making a sandwich, buying a new teapot or evaluating an argument, we think about data from past experiences, bring in what facts and hypotheses we have accumulated from educated and informed living, consider the credibility of sources, ask ourselves questions about plausability, probability, evidence and counterargument, speculate about the range of possible errors and outcomes. We go through many steps, often fleeting but still present, before we assemble our sandwich (which recent nutrition advice seems plausible in the ever-changing range?) or buy our teapot (plastic so housemates won’t break it, or ceramic for environmental/health/aesthetic/flavor reasons?) or decide whether to grant a politician’s argument our provisional belief or disbelief. Even for those members of modern Western society whose lives are powerfully informed by faith or institutional religion, who do seriously factor “What would Jesus/Apollo/Whatever do?” into the calculation, evaluatory criteria based on science and its method remain a substantial, if not exclusive, part of our aparatus for daily decision-making.
For my purposes today, the most important part of what I just described is that the belief or disbelief we extend to the politician (or to our teapot) is provisional. We decide that a thing is plausible or implausible, and extend to it a kind of belief which is prepared for the possibility that we will be proven wrong. That thing the politician said might turn out later to be false (or true) when new information arises. A teapot, let’s say I pick one which claims to be safe and eco-sound because of XYZ carbon something something, it may seem that I have given its claims my complete belief if I buy the teapot, but that too is provisional since my long-term purchasing decisions for other objects will be informed by further information, changes in industry, and, of course, my empirical experience of whether or not this teapot serves me (and survives my housemates) well.
What we knew about teapots, coral reefs, moths and treesloths, Arthuriana, protons, and the Greek concept daimon, can all be overturned and yet we remain comfortable with the Scientific Method which produced our old false information, and we are still prepared to let it provide us with new information, then overturn and replace the new information in its turn. We do this without thinking, but it is in no way a universal or natural part of the human psyche. When chatting with my father about the proton research he summed it up nicely, that two possible responses to hearing that how we measure something seems to change its nature, throwing the reliability of empirical testing into question, are: “Science has been disproved!” or “Great! Another thing to figure out using the Scientific Method!” The latter reaction is everyday to those who are versed in and comfortable with the fact that science is not a set of doctrines but a process of discovery, hypothesis, disproof and replacement. Yet the former reaction, “X is wrong therefore the system which yielded X is wrong!” is, in fact, the historical norm. Whether it’s an Aristotelian crying “Plato has been disproved!” or Bernard of Clairveaux crying “Abelard has been disproved!” or a Scotist crying “Aquinas has been disproved!” the clear overthrow of a single sub-principle within a system was, for many centuries, sufficient to shake the foundations of the system as a whole, and drive people to part with it and seek a new one.
All this is a way of previewing the endpoint of the present series, in order to show how important the often-invisible role of doubt is in current human thought. Without skepticism, and important developments in the history of skepticism, we could not have the Scientific Method occupy the position it does in modern daily lives. So I want to sketch out here some of my favorite moments in the history of skepticism, not a complete history (for that see Popkin’s History of Skepticism or Allen’s Doubt’s Boundless Sea), but the spicy highlights that I’ve most enjoyed.
Dogma and Doubt
There are many ways to subdivide philosophy, but one of the most useful is, in my view, the subdivision into dogmatic and skeptical. I’m using these terms in their technical philosophical senses, so I do not intend to invoke any of the contemporary, negative cultural associations of “dogma” or “skeptic.” (Philosophy and history are constantly plagued with the disconnect between formal uses and modern casual uses of terms like these, Epicurean, Hedonist, Realist, Idealist… and it’s worse when I learn the technical term before I meet the popular one. I can’t tell you how confusing it was the first time I was in a conversation where someone used “libertarian” in its contemporary political sense, which I had never met, having learned it from Spinoza class. Them: “FDR is a big foe of Libertarianism.” Me: “Really? I didn’t know FDR denied the existence of freewill. Was he a materialist? A stoic?” And when I tell my students that, for the purposes of Plato class, “Realist” and “Idealist” are synonyms they sometimes look like they’re about to cry…) For today’s purposes by “dogmatic” I mean any philosophical moment or system which argues that something can be known, or that there can be certainty. By “skeptical” I mean a philospohical moment or system arguing that something cannot be known, or that there cannot be certainty. In this sense, Aristotle’s argument that the existence of a Prime Mover can be logically proved from the principle that any chain of events must have a First Cause is dogmatic, as is the conviction that we know with certainty that the square of the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the remaining sides. Pierre Bayle’s argument that God’s existence can be known through faith alone is skeptical, as is the argument that quantum uncertainties like Heisenberg’s mean that material reality can never be fully understood because the act of perceiving it alters it. Thus neither skepticism nor dogmatism is more or less tied to theism than the other – both are broad and diverse categories, and most great intellectual traditions have both in there somewhere.
Dogmatic philosophy is what most people usually think of when we think about philosophy: systems that propose particular things. The Platonic Good, Aristotle’s Categories, Descartes’ vortices and and Heidegger’s Being are all founded in claims that we know or can know some thing or set of things with certainty. Yet skeptical arguments, about what cannot be known, have coexisted with dogmatic claims throughout philosophy’s existence, and the two act as foils to one another, arguing, cross-polinating, hybridizing, and spurring each other on, and their interactions have been among the most exciting and fruitful in philosophy’s long history.
I will begin as close to the beginning as I can:
Happiness in Ancient Greece:
While post-17th-century philosophy often puts its primary focus on the quest to explain and describe things and create a system of knowledge, one key unifying attribute common to just about all classical Greek philosophical schools, though different in each, is the goal of attaining eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), from “eu” = good, happy, fortunate, and “daimon” = spirit, soul. It’s usually translated as happiness, but it’s both more specific and stronger. Other renderings that help get the idea across include wellbeing, self-contentment, self-fulfillment, spiritual joy, and personal wellfare. It is the kind of happiness which is deep, lasting, tranquil, reliable, complete, and, in the Greek sense, godlike or divine. By “divine” I mean a list of attributes that most Greek philosophers associated with the gods, who were supposed to be immortal, unchanging, indestructable, eternally happy and satisfied, living in a bliss surrounded by beauties and free from pain. These are not Homeric Greek gods who feud and lust and rage, but more abstract philosophical gods personifying unchanging eternal principles, the sort of gods Plato believed in and for which reason he wanted to censor Homer’s depictions of the more fallible and anthropomorphic ones. The word daimon thus occupies a complex space, much debated, but can be rendered as a spirit, soul or thinking thing, referring to a category vaguely encompassing human souls, gods and intermediary spirits. Thus, eudaimonia is the state of having a happy or fortunate spirit, so my favorite way of rendering eudaimonia is “the kind of happiness Platonic gods experience” i.e. long-term, untroubled, indestructable happiness.
Become a philosopher, lead a philosophical life as I do, and you will achieve, or at least approach, happiness–this is the promise made by every sect, from Epicurus and Seneca to Diogenes and Plato. In the classical world, being a philosopher was much more about life, living well and demonstrating one’s philosophical prowess through one’s personal excellence and successes than it was about writing comprehensive masterworks expounding systems (See Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy? and Philosophy as a Way of Life). Each classical philosophical school had its own path to happiness, and each entwined it with different parallel goals, such as the pursuit of personal excellence, or understanding of nature, or civic virtue, or piety, or worldly pleasure, or friendship, any number of things, but we find no classical school for which approaching eudaimonia through leading a philosophical life was not a core promise.
I should note in passing that, in later classical writings, it becomes clear that they take the divine aspect of eudaimonia very seriously, and Neoplatonists especially refer to past philosophical sages as “divine,” arguing that Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Diogenes of Athens, Seneca and so on, had achieved states of philosophical happiness that made their souls identical with those of gods, even while they were contained within mortal flesh. The daimon or soul which is happy in eudaimonia is, after all, categorically the same type of thing as a god, and one of the leading differences between a human soul and a divine one is that the divine one experiences indestructable happy serenity. If a philosopher’s soul achieves the same state, is it not a god? Particularly in a culture which already practiced deification and ancestor worshop? Platonic claims about a philosophical soul growing wings, leaving the body and dwelling among the gods helped further cultivate this impulse. The practice of Theurgy, philosophical magic, developed from the idea that such a divine soul, even while resident in human flesh, could work miraculous effects, such as levitation or generating light.
Now, eudaimonia is a high bar to achieve. Indestructable, god-like happiness must be able to stand unchanged in the face of all changes, a great challenge in a human existence beset by a thousand evils including wolves, tyrants, malaria, civil war, famine, injustice, accidental dismemberment, urequited love, and human mortality. All our surviving ancients agreed that real eudaimonia could not be dependent upon external sources, like fame, wealth, property, physical fitness, romantic love, even liberty of person, because such things could be taken away from you by fickle fate, making them unreliable, and your happiness destructable. I say surviving ancients because we do not have the writings of the Hedonist school, which we know focused on positive, experiential pleasures including, probably, food, drink and sex, and who may have been an exception, but their exceptionality doomed them to be silenced by the dissenting majority. Those who did agree agreed that eudaimonia had to be a state of the thinking thing, the mind or soul, independent of experience, body or social position. It was most frequently connected with things like tranquility, self-mastery, acceptance, and taking enjoyment from things that cannot be destroyed, like Truth. It was also connected with freeing the soul from cares, such as fear, anxiety, envy, ambition, possessiveness, and general attachment to Earthly, perishable things.
These classical philosophical schools developed guides for living and decision-making intended to facilitate a happy life, and those with systems of physics and ontology often tied those closely to their paths to happiness. For example, the atomic explanations for the natural non-divine mechanisms behind thunder and lightning were promoted by Epicureanism as something which could make people happy by freeing them from fear of being zapped by a wrathful Zeus. Thus philosophical disciplines like physics, biology and even basic ontology were in their way tools of eudaimonia as much as they were attempts to explain things. Modern scholars even debate whether, in such cases, the physics was the source of the moral philosophy, or a tool developed afterward to support it when eudaimonia seemed to need it as an ally.
One of the sources of pain and unhappiness from which such systems set out to free people was curiosity, i.e. the unhappiness that derives from hungering for answers. This too needed to be satisfied to achieve the stability of eternal, godlike happiness. The quest to end the pain caused by curiosity meant supplying answers, to questions big and small, but especially big. And they needed to be certain answers, which would be reliable and eternal, and stand up to the assails of fortune, or else eternal, reliable eudaimonia could not rest upon them. This added extra energy to the quest for certainty. One wanted to be really, really sure an answer was right, so one could rest comfortably with it, and be happy, and know it would never change. And one wanted the facts which served as foundations for philosophers’ broader advice on how to achieve happiness to also be certain and unchanging. If Plato says the key to happiness is Truth, Excellence and the Good, or Aristotle proposes his Golden Mean, you want their claims to be based in certainty.
Two tools were employed in pursuit of certainty: Logic and Evidence. All dogmatic claims (i.e. claims of certainty) made by any of our classical thinkers were based on one, the other, or both.
Evidence includes any claims based on observation, sensation, lived experience, or, more technically, empiricism. If Aristotle says bony fish and cartelagenous fish are different because he has dissected a hundred of them and can describe how their insides are different, that is empiricism. If Thales or Heraclitus draw conclusions based on seeing how fire emerges from wood, that is empiricism. If Plato asks us to think about when we’ve seen someone beat a dog and say whether it makes the dog better or worse, that too is a kind of empiricism.
Logic includes any argument based on reasoning instead of sense experience. If Aristotle says that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time, that is an argument based on logic. If Plato asks us if beating a dog makes it worse with respect to the properties of horses or worse with respect to the properties of dogs, that is also an argument asking us to apply logic.
Meanwhile, in a nearby lake…
…a stick fell in a pond, and skepticism was born, like Venus, from the waters. Or rather, from someone who saw the water, and saw a stick sticking half-way out of it, and noticed that the stick looks bent or broken at the point where it goes into the water. And yet, the stick is not bent. The person bends over and touches it, just to be sure, and the fingers confirm the wood is whole and strong. My eyes are lying to me! My eyes can’t be trusted! If this stick isn’t bent, what else that my eyes have told me may be false that I haven’t yet realized? What if the sky isn’t blue? Or milk isn’t white? What if trees have faces, chalk is actually as beautiful as gold, and the sky is swarming with exquisite creatures I have no way to detect? And if I can’t trust my eyes, what about my ears? My hands? Sense perception is unreliable! But in that case, how do I know anything I’ve experienced is as I thought it was? Or even that anything is real?! Panic! Panic more! (Quietly in the background Descartes and Sartre are still carrying out the “Panic more!” instruction nearly two millennia later).
The stick in water is a genuine, ancient example, much discused by pre-Socratic philosophers. We don’t know if it’s actually the first example, since the earliest conversations are lost to time, but it may be, and certainly if it isn’t it was something similar, one of the other optical distortions discussed by ancients, like how a square tower can be mistaken for a round tower when seen from a great distance. What does survive is what later philosophers made of these early discussions of the mystery of the stick in water: epistemology, the study of knowledge, how we know things, and when we can or can’t have certainty. The stick in water challenges any claim that the senses can be relied upon as a source of certainty. Forever after, therefore, any philosopher who wanted to make any claim based on sense perception first had to have a way to explain how we could trust the senses despite this, and other, failings.
And the stick in water has a brother: Zeno’s paradoxes. If the stick in water undermines the credibility of sense-perception, its partner, Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, are what undermine the credibility of the other traditional source of information: logic. You have all heard Zeno’s paradoxes before, but rarely in companionship with the stick in water, which is what gives them their oomph, so it’s worth revisiting one here:
An archer looses an arrow at a target. Before the arrow reaches the target, it must go half way. Next it must go half the remaining distance. Then half that distance. Then half that distance. Half, half, half, half but we can do this forever, so the arrow can never actually reach the target, because it must cross an infinite number of micro-distances first, and nothing can travel infinite distance. Therefore, logically, motion is impossible. Cue polite applause for the logical trick, as at the successful completion of an elegant and challenging ice skating routine. (Cue also Descartes and Sartre glaring at anyone who’s still smiling.)
Why is this more than a cute trick?
Youth: “But we know motion is possible, Socrates.”
Socrates: “How?” (All philosophical dialogs are with Socrates, even when they aren’t.)
Youth: “Because I can hit you. See?” Hits Socrates.
Socrates: “Yes, very good. So you know it is possible because you did it?”
Youth: “Exactly, Socrates. I can do it again if you aren’t convinced.”
Socrates: “If you want to exercise your will in that way (if there’s such a thing as will) then that’s your choice (if there’s such a thing as choice), but first, perhaps you could explain to me, using logic, how you are able to hit me, if your arm has to cross infinite distance first?”
Youth: “I… um… I don’t think I can, Socrates. I just know that I hit you, and could do it again.”
Socrates: “But you can’t explain logically why.”
Socrates: “So wouldn’t you say, then, that logic is incapable of explaining motion?”
Youth: “I guess so, Socrates.”
Socrates: “Doesn’t that bother you? That logic fails to be able to explain something so seemingly simple? Doesn’t that make you distrust logic itself as a tool? It would seem that logic itself is unreliable and can’t lead to certainty.”
Descartes (quietly in the background): “Panic more!”
Youth: “I guess that’s so, Socrates, but it just doesn’t bother me the way it bothers those weirdly dressed men over there.”
Socrates: “And why doesn’t it bother you?”
Youth: “Well, because I know that motion is possible because I can do it and see it. I don’t need logic to explain it.”
Socrates: “So even without logic, you’re sure there is motion… because?”
Youth: “Well, because when I move my arm to hit you, I can see it. When I touch you with my hand, I can feel the impact, the texture of your skin. I can still feel it a little on my own skin, the spot where it struck yours.”
Socrates: “So you know there is motion because your senses tell you so?”
Socrates: “So, since logic is unreliable, you choose to rely on the senses instead?”
Youth: “Yes. I trust things I can see and touch.”
Socrates: “Then tell me, my young friend, have you ever happened to notice what happens when a stick falls so it’s sticking half-way into a pool of water?”
Our youth, whom we shall now leave panicking on the riverbank along with Socrates, Descartes, Sartre and, hopefully, a comfortable picnic, has now received the full impact of why Zeno’s paradoxes of motion matter. They aren’t supposed to convince you there’s no motion, they’re supposed to convince you that logic says there is no motion, therefore we cannot trust logic. Their intended target is any philosopher *cough*Plato*cough*Aristotle*cough* who wants to make the claim that we one can achieve certainty by weaving logic chains together. Anyone whose tool is Logic. Meanwhile, the stick in water attacks any philosopher who wants to rely on sense perception *cough*Aristotle*cough*Epicurus*cough* and say that we know things with certainty through Evidence. When you put both side-by-side, and demand that Zeno shoot an arrow at the stick in water that looks bent, then it seems that both Logic and Evidence are unreliable, and therefore that… there can be no certainty!
Don’t panic, be happy…
The double challenge of the stick in water and Zeno’s paradoxes had many effects.
One was to make all classical thinkers who wanted to maintain dogmatic principles work a lot harder to nuance their claims of certainty, to justify why and in what specific circumstances logic and evidence could be trusted, to explain why they sometimes failed or seemed to fail, and how one could reason or observe more carefully in order to achieve greater levels of certainty. Thus these challenges to reason and evidence let dogmatic philosophers adopt skeptical tools and create systems which had space for both dogma and skepticism in the same system, hybridizing the two to achieve greater levels of clarity, complexity, dynamism and subtlety and jumpstarting countless great philospohcial leaps. To give two quick examples, Aristotle attempted to create a system for achieving infallible logical information by saying that logic is 100% reliable if it is based on a combination of (A) unequivocal carefully defined terms, (B) self-evident first-principles, and (C) geometrically-strict syllogistic reasoning by baby-steps. Stick to these and exclude logical leaps and unclear vocabulary and you can carve out an arena for reliable logic, even if that arena is necessarily finite and cannot touch everything. Similarly Epicurus and Aristotle both proposed a kind of empiricism of repeated observation, where we do not trust just one glance at the stick in water but examine it carefully with all our senses, look at many sticks, and eventually draw conclusions we consider more reliable. And at the same time, these same thinkers gave ground and mixed their dogmatism with skepticism by saying that logic or empiricism worked in some arenas but not others. Epicurus, for example, says we can learn a lot from sense data but we can never learn true details of atomic level since we can’t see anything that small. Aristotle similarly says we can learn about the level of the universe that we can experience and think about, the level of the objects we see and contemplate, but not about the chaotic base substructure which underlies the visible and comprehensible world.
(Sartre, who has just been handed a sandwich by Socrates and is now unconsciously applying the Scientific Method as he considers whether or not to accept Descartes’ offer of mayonaise, looks up here to say that he agrees with Aristotle that there are vast and terrifying unknown depths of being which lie beneath perceived reality. He thinks we should address our long-term attentions to that mystery, and that Aristotle is foolish to cling to pursuing the finite certainties offered by his logic chains and fish observations when no finite knowledge is helpful in the face of the raw unknown infinity beneath. But Sartre is not interested in pursuing eudaimonia, even if he is interested in the short-term, destructable pleasure offered by Descartes’ excellent fresh mayonaise.)
But our ancient Greeks are interested in eudaimonia, and another product of these challenges to reason and evidence, apart from letting dogmatic philosophers hybridize with it, was the birth of Skepticism (big S) as a philosophical school, in addition to skepticism (small S) as an approach. As an approach, skepticism is used by all sorts of thinkers, including Plato and Aristotle in their way, but it was also a school, a rival of Platonists and Stoics. And, like all other ancient schools, Skeptics pursued eudaimonia.
How does doubt lead to happiness? By allowing one to relax and resign one’s self to ignorance, says Pyrrho, the greatest name in pure classical skepticism. We cannot know things with certainty, he says, and this is a release (much as Epicurus thought it was a release to believe there is no afterlife). If we cannot know things with certainty, we don’t have to try. We don’t need to go with Aristotle to the docks and dissect infinite fish. We don’t need to sit with Plato and let him pretend to be Socrates through interminable dialogs. We don’t need to follow Pythagoras and fast ourselves into a trance while contemplating the number ten. We can stop. We can say I don’t know, I can’t know, I’ll never know, no one else knows either, no one is right, no one is wrong (not even people on the internet!), so we can just return to our work and rest. This too, say the skeptics, frees us from pain, from several pains that no dogmatic system can ever free us from. It frees us from the exhaustion of the quest to know. It also frees us from the stress we experience when we turn out to be wrong. If you think you know something, and it’s overturned, that’s stressful and unpleasant. It makes you feel angry, foolish, violated, shaken, abandoned. If you never think you know anything about things, you will never experience the pain of being proved wrong.
You know what the skeptics mean here. You know because you are alive in 2014, and that means you remember when there were nine planets. Weren’t you upset? Wasn’t it distressing and upleasant, shaking your worldview? We learned there were nine planets in kindergarden! Of course Pluto is a planet! Mike Brown, the scientist responsible for getting Pluto’s status stripped away receives hate mail, for precisely this reason: it hurts to be told you’re wrong. And this is far from the only time you, reader, have experienced this. There used to be such a thing as a Brontosaurus. And a Triceratops. (Youth: What! We lost the Triceratops too!”) There used to be four food groups, remember that? And coral reefs used to exist only in the tropics, and moths used to have nothing to do with tree sloths, and you used to have a volume of the complete works of Sappho. And the destruction of all these “truths” have unsettled us to different degrees, because we learned them at different times and they were integral to our worldviews to different degrees. And some we are okay with and with others we smile at the angry t-shirts that say: I remember when there were Nine Planets!
Now, Aristotle would tell us the strife has been caused by the fact that we had not defined “Planet” carefully enough before, so it wasn’t an unequivocal term, and thus led us to confusion and misunderstandings. “But!” says Pyrrho, “if you had never studied these things, if you had not been taught as a child to memorize dinosaurs, or rest your worldview on the label attached to a hunk of rock far off in the darkness where you never have cause to perceive it, then you would not experience this unhappiness! Your belief that you knew something has made you unhappy, destroying eudaimonia. Just admit that you do not know anything with certainty and then you need never experience such pain again!” And in the case of things we were prepared for–the treesloth and the Sappho and Arthur having a knight of African descent–the Scientific Method told us to do just that, to be prepared for truth to be replaced when it was time, because it was never Truth, it was always provisional truth.
Ten Modes of Skepticism
Many exciting things will happen to skepticism as it leaves Greek hands before reaches ours. It will be transformed by Bacon and Montaigne, by Averroes and Ockham, Descartes will finish his potato salad and have his day, and it has more refinement yet to undergo among the Greeks as well, and from their sunny riverbank Socrates and company will watch skepticism surge over the marble walls of Plato’s Academy like ants into their picnic basket. But for today I want to leave you with a taste of raw classical skepticism, so you can taste it for a little while and have a taste of this oddest of philosophies which proposes un-knowledge, rather than knowledge, as its happy goal. To that end, here, to finish, are examples of the Ten Modes of Pyrrhonism (i.e. the kind of raw skepticism practiced by Pyrrho) based on the handbook of Sextus Empiricus (one of our few surviving ancient skeptical authors). It is a list of categories of sources of error, things that can make you be wrong. Many are ones that we are very well prepared for in the modern world and remain on constant or at least near-constant guard against (though rather than guarding against the errors, what Pyrrho and Sextus want us to do is be on guard against imagining we aren’t making errros, i.e. to be on guard against thinking we know something. I see Socrates is nodding in approval, and that the others are too polite to point out the crumbs on his chin).
The Ten Pyrrhonist Proofs that Nothing can be Known with Certainty:
We cannot have certainty because different animals have different senses. When do we encounter this? When walking a dog, sometimes the dog stops to sniff in rapt fascination at a spot on the sidewalk where we see nothing interesting. But evidently there is something very interesting there if a creature as intelligent as a dog is fascinated, and willing to disobey its friend and choke itself by pulling on its collar in order to study this fascinating thing. What an error we commit being unable to see this fascination! Or is the dog in error?
We cannot have certainty because different human beings experience things differently. When do we encounter this? I encounter it when friends drink alcohol. I do not enjoy alcohol. Not only am I not supposed to have it (because of a specific medical condition), but it tastes like nasty poisonous motor oil to me, and yet I see my friends go into paroxysms of delight over the subtleties and complexities of drinks, and my civilization build entire buildings, institutions, customs and industries around this thing which my senses tell me is terrible. My senses and those of my friends differ. Clearly someone must be wrong, unless there is no right here? I also have a color blind housemate who cannot tell that Hello Kitty Hot Chocolate is bright pink, and struggles to play the game Set in mediocre lighting.
We cannot have certainty because our senses disagree with each other. If I want to know if something is good, I ask my senses. Yet sometimes they disagree with each other. My eyes tell me this artichoke is just made of smooth leaves, yet my touch tells me it is prickly. My eyes tell me a lobster is scary and dangerous, and yet my tongue says is delicious. My eyes tell me the molten glass in this glassblowing demo looks goopy and exciting and like a fascinating texture like putty which would be awesome to touch, and yet my touch tells me owwwwwwwwwww hot hot hot hot hot! My touch tells me this cat is delightful and fuzzy and yet my nose tells me I should not be near it because achooo!
We cannot have certainty because sometimes the same things seem different and lead us to different judgments in different circumstances. I might enjoy a food for a long time but then get food poisoning from it and, after that, always be revolted when I smell it. I might feel warm at 70 degrees but then be sick and feel cold at 70 degrees. I might think Gatorade is nasty but then be dehydrated and think it tastes great because my body craves elecrolytes.
We cannot have certainty because the same objects seem different from different perspectives. A mountain that looks like a face from one angle looks like a random jumble from another. A square tower seen from a distance seems round. A stick in water looks bent. The moon above a skyline looks much bigger than the buildings but we have no real sense from that of how enormously big it really is, and can only realize the latter using a lot of math, or a space shuttle.
We cannot have certainty because we never see objects alone. Have you ever had one of those articles of clothing that looks purple in some light and blue in other light, so people argue over which it is? Because it looks one way next to one thing and another way next to another. Well, what does it look like really? We can never see anything alone, we always see it surrouneded by other objects including air. If the stick is distorted by water, is it not also distorted by air? By vacuum? By light? We do not see objects, only groups of objects.
We cannot have certainty because things take multiple forms. Bronze is red, except when it turns green. Water is clear, unless it’s blue, or fluffy snow white. Squid ink is black, unless it’s diluted to form purple, or sepia. That molten glass is enticingly orange and squidgy. What do any of these things really look like?
We cannot have certainty because we experience everything relative to other things. We cannot see a thing without making some judgment about things that are relative: this clementine is small, this stick is long, this lake is large. Small, long and large compared to what? Other objects of comparison intrude themselves into our analysis. The clementine is small compared to oranges, the stick long compared to other sticks, the lake large compared to my back yard. But we cannot judge things without judging them relative to others. To feed his fish for a while my father was growing Giant Amoebas. Giant Amoebas! Amoebas so big you could almost see them with the naked eye! They were huge! They were smaller than grains of sand and yet I thought they were huge!
We cannot have certainty because we are biased by scarcity. I love this one, and I love its classic example. This is about how we judge things to be… well, frankly, how we judge them to be awesome or not. For example, comets are awesome. A little bright speck appears in the night that wasn’t there before, and flies across the heavens, really fast, so fast you can almost see it move! When there is a comet we get very excited. We discuss it, announce it, get out telescopes to look at it. In past ages people might pray to it, or read omens from it; now we photograph it and shoot probes at it. It’s super exciting: little bright speck in sky. Okay. So, every morning an enormous blinding ball of fire rises from the horizon, blotting out the night and transforming the entire sky to a wall of brilliant blue brightness streaked with rippling swaths of other beautiful colors, and it radiates down heat enough to transform our weather, burn our skin and feed countless life forms. It is, from any sense-perception objective sense, ten skillion times more exciting than a comet. But it’s just the sun, so, shrug. We are biased by scarcity. Two poems by Sappho and we all hear, but we find thousands of pages of unknown Renaissance poetry every year.
We cannot have certainty because different peoples have different customs, habits, laws, beliefs and ethics, and are biased by them. I think you all know this one. Though it will take over a millennium for it to get to be so common, since cultural relitivism isn’t a broadly-discussed or accepted thing until the enlightenment when Montesquieu and Voltaire made themselves its champions. Skepticism has a long road ahead of it, from Pyrrho to the present. But for now, let’s sit back with Socrates and picnic on this raw form of classical, eudaimonist skepticism, challenging our science-loving, learning-loving, exploration-loving, post-enlightenment selves to test ourselves with the quesiton of whether it might be a safe and happy thing sometimes, in its own strange way, to not know. And we should also comfort Sartre a bit–he hadn’t heard, before today, about poor Pluto. (Descartes: “What’s Pluto?” Socrates: “Are you sure you want to know?”)
Two quick announcements, then something fun to share.
First, comments were disabled for a little while. Now they are enabled again. Apologies to everyone who wanted to discuss Beccaria – I hope you still want to discuss him, and now you can.
Second, people have been reporting trouble subscribing by RSS. I have investigated, and it seems that, while Firefox, Explorer etc. are fine, Chrome won’t do RSS (for this site or any site) unless you install a Chrome extension for RSS. Googling “Chrome extension RSS” will supply a variety of equally viable methods. However, for those who are struggling with RSS and can’t get it working, I have created a mailing list which you can register for in the right-hand sidebar. Whenever I make a new post I will e-mail the list to alert people. I recommend, however, that you use RSS instead of the mailing list if you can, because RSS will definitely alert you without, whereas the mailing list is hampered by my ability to remember to do it.
Meanwhile, I will take this opportunity to present another of my favorite objects in the Florentine Museum of the History of Science (aka. Museo Galileo): the Noon Cannon. This is a strange variant on a sundial. A tiny cannon, well under a foot long, is mounted outside, ideally in the gardens of a grand estate. It is fixed in place on a stone slab, with a lens positioned above it. At precisely noon each day, the lens focuses sunlight onto the canon, heating up the powder charge and making it go off. If every morning you load the cannon with a little bit of gunpowder, then you will be reliably alerted to noon by the sound of a small explosion from your garden. The effect is sort-of like a water clock except, instead of tranquil trickling and the tap of wood on stone, there is a ka-boom.
I think the specimen in the museum is probably from the Eighteenth Century, possibly the Seventeenth, but I can’t remember off the top of my head. Of course, no one in our era can see a Noon Cannon and not instantly think of its potential uses in an old-fashioned murder mystery. Simply put shot in the Noon Cannon along with its daily charge, lure the victim to the garden at the specified time, and you can be miles away having an alibi while the Noon Cannon does the rest. “The Colonel put real shot in the Noon Cannon? How dastardly!” The killer could even mess with the lens to make it fire at an unexpected time, then play around with other sources of a substitute noise, a hunting rifle or a champagne cork to simulate the 12 PM shot… it writes itself…
Kicking off my new Travel Reviews section, a quick review of some centerpieces among the many, many, many attractions Florence offers her visitors. Please keep in mind that times and prices change constantly, so always check before you plan:
The city’s great painting collection, housed in the offices built by Vasari for the Medici dukes. Arranged in mainly chronological order, the collection chronicles the progression of art out of the middle ages through the Renaissance. This is where you find the big names: Giotto, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo, all in halls decorated with Romanesque grotesque ceilings, covered with portraits of everyone who was anyone in the Renaissance, and crammed with classical sculpture, including the Medici copy of the Laocoon. Highlights include the three big Madonnas, the Botticelli room featuring the Madonna della Magnificat and the Birth of Venus, Raphael’s portraits of popes Leo X and Julius II, and Michelangelo’s Holy Family With Gratuitous Naked Men. Endless gift shop including a huge room of academic books. Fantastic venue for Spot the Saint.
Cost: 11 euros plus 3 or so extra for making a reservation.
Time required: 6+ hours if you can stand up that long.
Hours: 8:15 am to 6:50 pm Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. Sometimes open late Tuesdays.
Notes: The Uffizi has an infinite (3+ hour) line during peak season, so it’s a very good idea to make a reservation. It also has very few places to sit, no water fountains (they scan your bag as you go in so you can’t bring water), and a very inconveniently-located bathroom. So enormous and exhausting is it that it’s very difficult to go through in one day. If you’re in Florence for a week, I highly recommend getting a Friends of the Uffizi pass, which costs 60 euros at present (40 for student-age) and gives you unlimited access plus line skipping at the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. The card, which can be purchased at an office at the Uffizi, gives you the leisure to go to the Uffizi for half a day, then go do something else, then return. In my experience a typical visitor does not quite get 60 euros out of the pass in a single week, but it comes close, and the convenience makes up the difference.
The other most famous and frequently-visited museum in the city. The Accademia hosts the original Michelangelo David and Michelangelo Prisoners, plus a great collection of Renaissance paintings, and, in the upper floor, a great Saint Spotting area including a huge collection of icons of Saint Zenobius. Michelangelo’s fame means the Accademia is always extremely crowded, and there are always mobs around the David.
Cost: also 11-ish, 14-ish with an appointment.
Time required: 5+ hours
Hours: 8:15 am to 6:50 pm, Tuesday through Sunday.
Notes: The Accademia is great, but it’s also a lot of hassle and chaos, especially during peak season, and it’s not actually that much better than most of Florence’s other, less popular great museums. As with the Uffizi, make an appointment, but honestly, if you are only in Florence briefly and need to choose carefully, there are other things you can see that are just as fabulous and a lot less difficult.
Formerly the prison and seat of the city’s chief of police, the Bargello is a fabulous fortress, with battlements and hundreds of coats of arms of knights who served in it. Now it houses the city’s Renaissance sculpture collection, including Donatello’s David and Cellini’s Ganymede. Easy to reach and inexpensive, this little museum takes a comfortable half-day to see thoroughly, but is crammed with world-class pieces. Also contains collections of ceramics, a chapel whose fresco includes the oldest surviving portrait of Dante, and assorted “stuff” ranging from Roman cameos to an ivory and ebony medieval portable backgammon set.
Cost: 8 euros
Time required: 3-4 hours.
Hours: (sigh) 8:15 AM to 1:50 PM, closed the 2nd & 4th Monday and 1st, 3rd & 5th Sunday of each month and randomly selected holidays.
This enormous palace in the across-the-river (Altrarno) area is where the Medici dukes moved once the Palazzo Vecchio proved too cramped for their royal style. It contains seven museums in one, which are confusingly grouped into two separate tickets. They are constantly rearranging what is on what ticket, so this info may be out of date:
Ticket 1 is for the Palatine Gallery, which includes yet another collection of extraordinary paintings, including a lovely Raphael holy family, a great Filippino Lippi madonna, Titian’s extremely sensual Mary Magdalene, and elaborate baroque frescoed walls and ceilings. It also contains some of the finest examples of Pietra Dura, the Florentine art of making elaborate images out of inlaid semi-precious stone. It also includes the Royal Apartments, with all the fancy furniture.
Ticket 2 is for the Argenti Museum, or silver museum, which houses the ridiculous treasures which belonged to the Medici family. When I say ridiculous I mean it, and the endless cases of ivory vases, gilded cups, huge amber reliquaries and elaborate hand-carved rock crystal dishes leaves one completely overwhelmed by the opulence of wealth. Prepare to be stupefied by the sheer genius of human opulence. This collection is very different from anything you meet at a typical museum, and I recommend it highly as a break from too much art. The first few rooms also feature truly astounding fake-perspective frescoes, and one of my favorite fresco cycles of all time, depicting Lorenzo de Medici inventing the Renaissance. There are also frequently interesting temporary exhibits in the initial rooms.
Also on Ticket 2 are the Boboli Gardens, the large, meandering Italian gardens behind the palace. These are great for a quick stroll, or for getting really winded on the endless slopes and stairs. At the river end of the gardens is the grotto, an elaborate Renaissance fantasy of a fake excavated ancient Roman villa, covered with fake mud and fake ruins and rustic mosaics made of seashells. It is only open for brief intervals at unpredictable times of day, so if you go, ask an employee when it will be open that day, to make sure you don’t miss it.
Minor museums included in one ticket or another are the Modern Art gallery, the Costume Museum (disappointingly small and modern), the Porcelain Museum, and the Carriage Museum.
Cost: 8.5 euros for the Palatine, 7 for the Argenti. Or free with the Friends of the Uffizi xard.
Time required: 3-4 hours for the Argenti, another 3-4 for the Palatine, 1-2 each for the others.
A phenomenal collection of scientific instruments from the Renaissance through 19th century, though mostly 17th and 18th. Astrolabes, sextants, orreries, clocks, barometers, telescopes, electrostatic generators… These are pieces from the period when scientific demonstration models were designed to impress aristocratic patrons, so gold and engraving are the norm. Highlights include Galileo’s telescopes (and finger and thumb in a reliquary), apothecary’s work table, the Military Compass (dagger with built-in compass and other mathematical tools), and a gruesome collection of 18th century full color obstetric models showing dissected female torsos and the various ways babies can be laid wrong in them.
Cost: 8 euros.
Time required: 3-4 hours.
Hours: 9:30 AM – 6:00 PM, except on Tuesdays, when it closes at 1:00 PM.
Museo del Opera del Duomo (Museum of the Cathedral Corporation):
The construction of Florence’s massive cathedral, which was, at the time, the most spectacular church in Christendom, was an incredibly expensive undertaking, and the Renaissance corporation created to oversee it survives to this day. This museum showcases the art and artifacts which belong to that corporation, including numerous sculptures from the old early Renaissance facade which was later torn down in favor of a more modern one, the wooden models of different designs for the church, and many of the tools used for it. Highlights include Donatello’s stunning wooden sculpture if Mary Magdalene, the reliquary from the Baptistery containing the right index finger of John the Baptist, and the original Baptistery sculptures and (once they’re done cleaning them) the real Gates of Paradise.
Cost: 6 euros
Time required: 2-3 hours.
Hours: 9:00 AM – 7:00 PM, except on Sundays, when it closes at 1:45 PM.
An enormous city palace built by one of Florence’s leading merchant families, the Palazzo Strozzi hosts a circuit of temporary exhibits, usually pretty good, but each is unique, so check it each time you consider coming. The Strozzi family were never the most powerful, but generally the biggest wealthy merchant family, with the most individual households, so widely feared (and often exiled) by the Medici and other rivals. This palace was built after a return from exile, and celebrates their presence in the city.
Cost: Variable by exhibition and greed.
Time required: 2-4 hours depending on exhibit.
Hours: 9:00 AM – 8:00 PM, Thursdays 9:00 AM – 11:00 PM.
All major cities have natural history museums, but not ones founded by the Medici. La Specola hosts eighteenth-century specimen collections, including skeletons and dissection models, many many more elaborate wax surgical models than the science museum, and the Medici’s pet hippo (stuffed). Not for those with weak stomachs.
Cost: 6 euros, 10 euros for museum and exhibition.