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As Kepler demands, ‘or have they souls to be saved? or do they inhabit a better part of the world than we do? Are we or they lords of the world? ’ Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholyy (1621) we need the most powerful telescope, that of utopian consciousness … Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (1954–59)1 If science consisted simply in the expression of boundless curiosity, then Robert Burton, the scholarly recluse who wrote under the name ‘Democritus Junior’, would be one of the greatest scientists who ever lived.
3 A Sylph under the Microscope: Science and Romance Like all active microscopists, I gave my imagination full play. 3 The word ‘microscope’ was coined in Italy in 1624,4 and there is an early allusion to both telescopes and microscopes in Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis, published posthumously in 1627. 5 As this quotation suggests, the contrast between telescopy and microscopy is not simply one of scale. While ‘observations in urine and blood’ have an unmistakable medical value, the transition from the study of the heavens to that of micro-organisms also involves a descent from the sublime to the sordid and ridiculous, to a world of dirt, disease and bodily shame.
And having allowed his sylph, or Dæmon, to die, he apparently smashes the diamond as well: ‘When I awoke out of a trance of many hours, I found myself lying amid the wreck of my instrument, myself as shattered in mind and body as it’ (34). Many years afterwards, he makes his belated confession. We may ask why Linley himself does not die as a result of his experiments, as do so many of the demonic scientists of nineteenth-century scientific romance, from Victor Frankenstein to Stevenson’s Henry Jekyll and Wells’s Griffin and Dr Moreau.