11 November, 2008

Wine and Water

When one cup in fell confusion
Wine with water blends, the fusion,
Call it by what name you will,
Is no blessing, nor deserveth
Any praise, but rather serveth
For the emblem of all ill.

Wine perceives the water present,
And with pain exclaims, "What peasant
Dared to mingle thee with me?
Rise, go forth, get out, and leave me!
In the same place, here to grieve me,
Thou hast no just claim to be.

— 'Denudata veritate', from the Carmina Burana, tr. Symonds.
The American next to me is in transcribing formulae for posset and gooseberry wine from a Middle English receiptboke. I go to the enquiries counter for some pointless request. As I wait, a young gentleman receives his book from Special Collections. It comes in a little packet, and when he pulls it out, I can see that it is smaller than his thumbnail. The look on his face, somewhere between surprise and annoyance, is priceless. He tries, momentarily, to read it, but is briskly defeated, and returns it to the counter. Curious, I order it myself. It turns out to be an 1896 Salmin edition of Galileo's Letter to Cristina (1615), 15 x 9 mm.

(The nice man on the desk says he has personally researched the book. Galileo wrote it so small, he informs me, to avoid the watchful eyes of the Inquisition; I hesitate to point out that this edition was printed almost three centuries after its words were penned, when the Inquisition had become a story with which to scare young Protestant boys into good behaviour.)

Galileo's letter is a plea for religious toleration of experimental science:
I think that in discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages but from sense­ experiences and necessary demonstrations. . . It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men.
If you stop and think about this, it is a little odd. The Bible, so as to make itself better understood, says things which are not literally true. But how can false things be well understood? Galileo's idea, which had in certain circles become a commonplace by 1700, was that the Bible fudged its physics (and metaphysics) so as not distract the foolish ancient rabble from their worship of God. But Nature acts without condescension, and so never lies.


Galileo, no doubt, would have pursed his lips at Cana—the classic miracle. Nature cannot transgress her laws: water cannot become wine. Perhaps, if he had been feeling scholastic, he might have suggested that the water merely took on the accidents of the wine, without changing its substance; a hundred years later he might have found some scientific approximation for the miracle, and trumpeted it up as a rational explanation. But here, for now, he would say that it mattered little about water and wine: the Bible simply wants us to know that Christ is the Lord our Saviour.

At any rate, Galileo could work apparent miracles with water and wine himself. In his 1638 Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche he describes an experiment, which runs, in Thomas Weston's elegant 1730 translation:
If I fill a round Crystal Bottle [palla di cristallo, ie. a crystal globe] with Water, whose Mouth is no bigger than that of a Straw, and after this turn its Mouth downwards, yet will not the Water, altho' very heavy and prone to descend in Air, nor the Air, as much disposed on the other Hand, as being very light, to ascend thro' the Water; yet will they not, I say, agree, that that should descend, issuing out of the Mouth, and this ascend, entering in at the same; but both keep their Places, and yield not to each other. But on the contrary, if I apply to the Mouth of this Bottle a little Vessel of Red Wine, which is insensibly less heavy than Water, we shall see it in an Instant gently to ascend by red Streams thro' the Water; and on the contrary, the Water, with the same Slowness, to descend thro' the Wine, without ever mixing with each other, till at length the Bottle will be full of Wine, and all the Water will sink to the Bottom of the Vessel that's underneath.
This is what Salviati, standing in for Galileo, claims to be happening in his thought-experiment:

The wine, instead of mixing with the water as we should expect, changes places with it, each liquid remaining pure. This passage has caused a certain stir in the scholarly literature. Alexander Koyré, the great historian of science, best known for his work on cosmology, considered the story as a reliance on untested thought-experiments gone too far: 'Galileo. . . had never made the experiment; but, having heard of it, reconstructed it in his imagination, accepting the complete and essential incompatibility of water with wine as an indubitable fact'. So much for casting off authority and beginning afresh from sense experience! Koyré, however, does not name a source.

As Koyré one-upped the empiricist Galileo, so James MacLachlan one-upped the rationalist Koyré in turn, and actually performed the experiment in time for a cheeky 1973 note in Isis.
In the late summer of 1971 I filled an after-shave bottle with water and inverted it over a goblet of red wine. A piece of drinking straw sealed in the mouth of the bottle dipped beneath the surface of the wine. For more than an hour I watched in fascination as a perfectly clear layer of water formed at the bottom of the goblet and became deeper and deeper! As Galileo had described, a thin red streamer wafted up through the water in the bottle and occupied a progressively redder and larger region at the top of the bottle. A light shining through the goblet made possible the detection of a streamer of water descending through the wine to form the layer at the bottom. After about two hours the bottle above had become a quite uniform red, and the layer of red left at the top of the goblet began to descend, ultimately making the liquid in the goblet a uniform pink.
So for MacLachlan, the wine and water do ultimately mix, but not before acting roughly as Galileo had said they would. Galileo, he is sure, actually witnessed the experiment, and so was able to describe its results with some precision. But, as it took Antonio Beltrán 25 years to point out, again in Isis (1998), the fact that the experiment can be done does not mean that Galileo actually performed it, and it is just as possible that, as Koyré had suggested, Galileo merely used a well-known example. Beltrán's evidence? The only similar experiment he can find is in Ambroise Paré's Des monstres et prodiges (1573):
The experience of two glass vessels called a wine-raiser, in which device, by placing the vessel filled with water on top of another filled with wine, it can be clearly seen how the wine rises through the water and the water descends through the wine, without their mixing, although they move through the same narrow pipe.
And just so Beltrán didn't go thinking he'd one-upped MacLachlan in turn, the editors of Isis allowed MacLachlan to blow Beltrán an amused raspberry in a note following the latter's article. MacLachlan thinks it pretty unlikely that 'a medical student in Pisa (being indoctrinated from Galenic treatises) would have read a French surgical work', although he does not at all deny the probability that Galileo's experiment was unoriginal. Both Beltrán and MacLachlan, in fact, miss a much more likely source for Galileo: Francis Bacon's 1627 compendium of experiments, Sylva Sylvarum, which contains, very near the start, an even stranger proposition:
Take a Glasse with a Belly and a long Nebb [spout]; fill the Belly (in part) with Water: Take also another Glasse, whereinto put Claret Wine and Water mingled; Reverse the first Glasse, with the Belly upwards, Stopping the Nebb with your fingar; Then dipp the Mouth of it within the Second Glasse, and remove your Fingar: Continue it in that posture for a time; And it will unmingle the Wine from the Water: The Wine ascending and setling in the topp of the upper Glasse; And the Water descending and setling in the bottome of the lower Glasse. The passage is apparent to the Eye; For you shall see the Wine, as it were, in a small veine, rising through the Water.
Here the wine not only slides up past the water without mixing, but actually further unmixes itself! Bacon states clearly that the experiment doesn't work the other way around, or with coloured water, and concludes from this that 'this Separation of Water and Wine appeareth to be made by Weight; for it must be of Bodies of unequall Weight, or ells it worketh not; And the Heavier Body must ever be in the upper Glasse.' And then he moves swiftly on.


Bacon, the better mage, really could turn water into wine, his own sort of miracle. Both he and Galileo described a Nature that seemed so marvelous, even as they insisted it was not. And so as to accommodate the occult secrets of hydromechanics to the understanding of every man, both wrote in the common tongue, and spoke in vivid parables, which they called 'experiments'.


The Social Reformer said...

very very thought provoking

Crown, A.J.P. said...

Funny that neither felt the need to try it except with red wine or coloured water. Milk should have worked, I'd have thought, or if it really is a question of density, what about oil? I don't think they really got into the spirit of making experiments, although I like Bacon's bottle shape

Paul M. Rodriguez said...

That book of Paré's is the same in which he tells his version of Montaigne's story of Bearded Marie. He attempts to explain it as proof that the lower can change into the higher, but never the higher into the lower—a principle that this experiment, vertically speaking, seems to confirm.

A triviality, I admit; but I had to applaud this somehow.

Conrad H. Roth said...


Anonymous said...

Just found your fascinating blog.

The wine-water trick is also found in medieval "experimental" books or "books of secrets." I've translated one, called the "Secrets of the Philosophers" -- the translation appears in a Warburg Institute volume "Magic and the Classical Tradition." The book is devoted to ways of deceiving each of the 5 senses; the garbled version of the experiment that it reproduces is intended to fool the sense of taste. Here it is, in my translation:

Now, taste is deceived with respect to its proper object. For we sometimes see doctors giving a patient water to drink that he thinks is wine in colour and flavour,
because sometimes patients greatly desire that which provokes their illness. And
so when the doctor sees that a patient desires wine (which, perhaps, would impair
his health) then he employs this experiment, so that his patient’s desire may be
satisfied without his constitution being damaged. The method of the experiment
is that you take two glass flasks with narrow openings and you make one flask full
of red wine and the other half-full of water. Then you put the flask of wine in the
sun and turn the flask of water upside down, placing the openings of the two flasks
against each other; and it is clear that the water will not run out because then a
vacuum would be left (as is quite obvious). Next, let those flasks stand in the sun
for an hour. Next, you will see that the water in the upper flask will have the
color and flavor of wine.

- Robert Goulding

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks very much for this contribution, Robert; always good to meet a fellow Warburgian, especially a recent one. Although here it sounds like the two are in fact mixing, as MacLachlan found.

Anonymous said...

I agree -- the elaborate experimental setup to do nothing more than mix some of the wine with the water suggests that the author had misunderstood the original intent of the secret (to see them, initially, change places without mixing).

When were you at the Warburg? I got my PhD there in '99.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I'm doing mine there now.

Anonymous said...

Say hello to Jill from me! (she was my supervisor). - Robert.