The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne

Sir-Thomas-Browne-008Claire Preston at Literary Review:

When Thomas Browne, physician and natural philosopher, went hunting in the 1650s in books, on beaches, and in hedgerows for quincunxes in nature and culture, he discovered them in the structure of pine cones, the battle formations of the Greeks, the angles of incidence of light upon the retina, and the planting patterns of orchards. It turns out the quincunx (imagine the corners of a diamond with a dot in the middle) is everywhere. Three and a half centuries later, on a psychogeographic Brownean pilgrimage between Bury and Norwich, Hugh Aldersey-Williams found in those same hedgerows quincuncial hubcaps, which in turn prompted a meditation on that most modern of molecules, the pentagonal buckminsterfullerene. Browne's apparently eccentric observational exercise amounts to a rule in nature, one he was able to identify with an indifferent set of magnifying lenses, the naked eye, and shanks's pony. The instruments were primitive, but his slender quincuncial essay The Garden of Cyrus (1658) (its first known reader called it 'no ordinary book') epitomises the imagination of this most intellectually open and adventurous of Renaissance polymaths.

Browne's much more influential book was a massive encyclopaedia of human misunderstanding, a register of vulgar errors that catalogues epidemical false thinking, as well as the extent of his remarkable curiosity. The chiefest of pseudodoxies is a belief in whatever is generally believed: for us, that's quack diets, alien abduction, demonic possession, conspiracy theories of all kinds; for him, it's nonsense from folk wisdom, Aristotle, and the Fathers of the Church. Is it true that 'Crystal is nothing else but Ice strongly congealed'? Obviously not, he answers – the meanest understanding shows that it doesn't melt in hot weather and doesn't float in water, despite the assertions of Pliny, Ezekiel, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Do chameleons really live on air alone?

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