“An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright, 1768

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768 - Copy


This painting captures the drama of the Enlightenment. During the late 17thth century, discoveries in the realm of natural sciences gave mankind unprecedented power, as well as unavoidable moral dilemmas. In this painting, Wright forged new territory, focusing on the prominent issue of his day. It’s not inconceivable that the artist himself witnessed this experiment first hand. In this magnificent work, Wright delivers subtle criticism of the moral ramifications of European society’s love affair with science during the Age of Reason. In order to prove the existence of oxygen, the traveling scientist places the pet cockatoo under the glass bell. He attaches the tubing to the top of the glass. There is no visible change at first. Everyone in the room is silent. They listen to the sucking sound of the vacuum pump…whoosh…whoosh…whoosh…The elegant white bird begins to jerk…spasm…and then lie still.

It is no accident that this scene is cast mostly in shadow. With only a single hidden candle providing light to the room, Wright suggests the absence of moral knowledge. We are able to survey the varying reactions of those standing around the table, but the scientist looks to the viewer to decide the bird’s fate. Incredibly, Wright puts you, and every other person who views this work in room 34 of the National Gallery in London, on the spot. What will it be? Life or death?


“What sort of an experiment is this? No time to deliberate, no time to discuss the matter? How can you say to me, “Choose quickly!”? It is you who is being paid to provide entertainment this evening, not to force this unpleasantness upon us. You have proven the existence of an invisible gas, to be sure, and there can be no doubting it now; but time is running out for this poor creature, anyone can see that. Release this bird, sir, you are distressing the children! You said nothing about harming the animal in your proposal. Come now, you’ve taken this far enough! Our family values the triumphant success of the  sciences as much as any family, but we will not entertain cruelty in the name of scientific curiosity. Release the bird!”[1]


Is the moral dilemma in this painting so different from dilemmas we face today? We want the thrill and advantage of scientific discovery, but at what cost? The accomplished physicist, John Polkinghorne, reminds us to consider that, “Science gives us knowledge, a gift that is surely always welcome as providing a better basis for decisions than ignorance. But then science’s lusty offspring, technology, uses that knowledge to give us power, the ability to do things not previously thought to be possible. This is a more ambiguous gift, since not everything that can be done, should be done.”[2]

Should the scientist continue with the experiment? Joseph Wright invites you to decide.


[1] This is a fictional quote I composed. I imagined what a good father would say if the bird began to die. 

[2] John Polkinghorne, Exploring Reality, Yale University Press, 2005, p. 147.

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