How was Noah's Ark built? And while we're on the subject, exactly how much food and space did its animals require? And another thing: how much salt did the Earth contain at its origin?
William Poole's elegant and stimulating new survey of Restoration science, The World Makers, sets out numerous obsessive puzzles of this sort to illuminate the distinctive intellectual sensibilities of pious and learned Englishmen in the era after the Civil Wars.
For the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar, Noah's three-storey ark was "more of a bitumen-sealed garden shed than a boat". John Wilkins, a founder of the Royal Society, puzzled over provisioning for its animals, and compiled a neat table documenting calculations of how much stall space was required for beasts feeding on hay, fruit and insects, and meat, respectively. Civet cats and badgers apparently required 6ft; bulls and bison, 40ft.
For the astronomer Edmond Halley, meanwhile, there was a simple way to calculate the age of the Earth: measure the salinity of the seas every year for the rate of increase, then extrapolate backwards. Halley decided, conveniently, that there must have been no salt at the Creation: thus, finding the saltless year meant finding the Earth's birthday.
Such examples reek of the pious obsessions of an era that nonetheless found its preoccupations increasingly in thrall to a quantitative empiricism, one that ultimately raised threatening questions about the biblical authority it sought to buttress.
As Poole remarks, for many of the "scientists" of the Restoration, it is not clear whether they are best described as theologically engaged naturalists and philosophers, or naturalistically inclined divines. Unquestionably, however, quantification did not present as the path to atheism; it enacted instead a form of learned devotion to God's creation.
The World Makers explores the physics of the Creation, but to its credit, its narrative of Restoration science presents an important alternative to focusing exclusively on physical science, experimentation and the rise of Newtonian natural philosophy. Instead, Poole expertly guides readers through the orders of things that naturalists and antiquarians aimed to construct to make scientific sense out of the Bible's accounts of the Creation, the Flood and the Millennium.
A powerful conjunction emerged between literally microscopic attention to material objects and devout cosmological reckoning. While getting lofty questions of cosmology, genealogy and chronology both scientifically and piously right was the objective, this project increasingly proceeded through minute examination of singular things: fossils, shells, stones, coins, bones, urns, rocks, minerals, plants and animals.
Just as coins could be read as civil history, so the Earth and its productions should be read as natural history.
Reading the Earth historically was bound up with methodological innovation, too. It was not just that theorists such as Isaac La Peyrere speculated about the existence of pre-Adamite human beings, or that Thomas Burnet insisted that the Earth had been wrought by natural cataclysms rather than by God alone. While both suggestions were seen as challenges to what the Bible said, it was the shift to non-biblical sources of evidence that was more momentous. Justifying scriptural text through nature measured quantitatively produced a tense relationship between forms of knowledge increasingly in competition. The experimenter Robert Hooke was perhaps most heterodox of all, effectively rejecting the omnipotence of God the Creator by proposing that species were not the permanent fixtures of a divinely designed order, but perishably subject to unpredictable environmental forces.
For all the world-theorisation so brilliantly treated in this book, one learns frustratingly little of the world-makers' own world, however. How did their social and political situation shape what information these English thinkers could access, and the practical purposes to which it might also be put? Their world-making coincided with an era of empire-building in America, Africa and Asia. So how were intellectual and commercial globalisations related?
This criticism aside, Poole's intelligent and crisply written history will make valuable reading for anyone interested in how early English scientists obsessed about their world.
The World Makers: Scientists of the Restoration and the Search for the Origins of the Earth.
By William Poole Peter Lang, 256pp, £30.00. ISBN 9781906165086. Published 29 April 2010