“Universe in a glass of wine”: who really said that? The answer…

galileo wine glass

Above: Portrait of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) by Justus Sustermans (1597-1681; image via the Wiki).

Reading the excellent Italian-language food and wine blog Porthos this morning, I was reminded by the authors of the famous and brilliantly topical lecture by U.S. physicist Richard Feynman, “The Universe in a Glass of Wine.”

“A poet once said,” it begins, “‘the whole universe is in a glass of wine.’ We will probably never know in what sense he said that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look in glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe.”

Click here for the entire text (it’s very short) and the audio. If you’ve never heard it, it’s worth listening (in part because Feynman’s immense ability as orator).

(Today’s post on Porthos takes the form of a Socratic dialog on biodynamics and Natural wine and the interlocutors cite Feynman as an example of the powerful mythology of Nature as expressed through wine.)

Feynman doesn’t seem to know who the poet was. (And he notes — for comic effect but erroneously in my view — that poets “don’t write to be understood.”)

I believe that the imagery comes from a “scientific letter” by Italian philosopher Lorenzo Magalotti (1637-1712) who cites Galileo’s [attributed] maxim, wine is a compound [mixture] of moisture [humor] and light (il vino è un composto di umore e di luce).

Note that humor denoted moisture in seventeenth-century Europe (cfr. “1697 Dryden tr. Virgil Georgics i, ‘Redundant Humours thro’ the Pores expire,'” Oxford English Dictionary).

This celebrated observation of the physical world was transmitted anecdotally by Galileo’s student Raffaello Magiotti (1597-1656), who is quoted by Magalotti in the letter.

magalotti letters

In the text (the fifth letter in the collection), he uses the maxim as a thesis in his dissertation on the nature of light. The grape and its transformation, he writes, are a perfect example of light’s ability to “penetrate a body.”

In Dante’s Commedia (Purg. 25, 76-78), the Latin poet Statius compares G-d’s creation of life to Nature’s transformation of moisture into wine by means of light:

    E perché meno ammiri la parola
    guarda il calor del sol che si fa vino,
    giunto a l’omor che de la vite cola.

    [And, that you may be less bewildered by my words,
    consider the sun’s heat, which, blended with the moisture
    pressed from the vine, turns into wine.]

(Some have translated Dante’s omor [umore] with the English sap but moisture is a more accurate translation, especially given the context.)

In the light of Dante’s popularity during Galileo’s time, it’s likely (guaranteed, really) that Galileo was familiar with these lines. Magalotti cites the Dantean verses as well in his letter.

So did a poet once say that you could see the whole universe in a glass of wine?

It’s possible but unlikely.

Did the poets, as far back as Statius, consider wine to be a substance that could reveal the nature of the universe? Yes, most definitely.

Like me (however small I am compared to those giants), they were negotiating the epistemological implications of oenophilia.

Thanks for reading…

3 thoughts on ““Universe in a glass of wine”: who really said that? The answer…

  1. thanks for the kind words… This post was the result of one of those rabbit holes I went down… I can’t prove it for certain, but my philological gut tells me that Galileo was the “poet” in question… If I were still in grad school, I’d write a paper on those verses from Dante and how they’ve been mistranslated (and misinterpreted) for a few generations of Dantean studies! O no, another rabbit hole appears! thanks for reading… :)

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