Jupiter, Vermeer and the Taoiseach

Oct 19th, 2010 | By | Category: Ireland

The Moon and Jupiter shine brilliantly in a clear Kilkenny sky.  Despite it being only mid-October, the temperature is already falling sharply.  Looking at the moons of Jupiter, words from a lecture at Trinity College, Dublin last year come to mind, “Galileo did not invent the telescope”.

It seemed odd to learn that the telescope was not invented for the lofty aspiration of exploring the heavens, but for altogether more mundane reasons. Galileo refined the telescope in such a way that he was able to observe the moons of Jupiter, but its invention was due to business, and not science.

Dutch merchants wanted to know as early as possible details of cargo ships approaching ports. Prices of commodities could fluctuate greatly with the arrival of ships and no merchant wanted to be caught with unsold goods or wanted to miss an opportunity to corner a market. If one could spot a ship while it was distant from shore, it gave one an edge over one’s business rivals. Spectacle makers in the Netherlands of the early Seventeenth Century were the first to apply the use of their knowledge of lenses to the observation of distant objects.

The present recession in Ireland seems to mean there is little demand for some books and we bought a large book of prints of the work of Seventeenth Century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer for €25.  It lies on the big hall table, a page turned each day.  Look at the work of painters such as Vermeer and there is a connection with the entrepreneurial spirit that led to the development of telescopes.  The work of Vermeer and his contemporaries became possible because of the wealth of the Dutch merchants who could pay for such paintings. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam tells of the importance of the emerging merchant class as patrons of the arts. In Pimagerotestant Holland, the Church, the body that had traditionally paid for art, no longer had the same influence. Art depended on business, but was also freed from the confines of the traditional religious themes. The brilliance of Vermeer could be used in exploring secular themes, but only because an entrepreneurial class had cash in their pockets.

Progress in both science and the arts came through enterprise and, whether the motive was profit or vanity, depended on at least a degree of self-interest.

Caught in a downward economic spiral, the Irish government has forgotten the role of self-interest as a spur to activity.  Everyone likes to be rewarded, (even Christians like to be rewarded!); enterprise and work have to seem worthwhile.  There will come a point where people think that perhaps something is not worth the effort, that point comes when most of additional earnings are taken away by the Government. When marginal rates of tax and levies pass 50%, when the Government starts to take the majority of the reward for one’s efforts, then questions arise as to whether effort is worthwhile.

Had the Dutch authorities operated a confiscatory tax regime, one wonders whether the telescope or the Vermeers would ever have emerged in that country.

Brian Cowen should look at the moons of Jupiter and ponder how the technology to see them became possible

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