17 April 2008

Alchemy: pride and wonder

The website of NOVA, a PBS science program, has a neat article which decodes a page from Isaac Newton's alchemy notebooks, and discusses Newton's interest in alchemy in its historical context. Alchemy is a fascinating subject because it shows the tight links between science, philosophy, and religion at the very beginning of what we consider "modern" science, and also because it illustrates the tension between rationalization (wanting to understand or control the universe by discovering or imposing universal laws that govern it) and wonder (non-rational awe of nature). Newton himself shows both tendencies. The article mentions how he secretly called himself "Jehovah the Holy One," and William Blake depicts both Newton and God bearing the compass to measure and bound Creation. Yet, Newton saw his discoveries as if he were just a child picking up a pretty shell on the beach and barely intuiting the existence of countless more in the ocean before him.

Alchemy's all-encompassing vision arguably failed to persist into its successor sciences. By 1800 or so, Friedrich von Hardenberg (a.k.a. Novalis, a geologist and poet) was already condemning the "Scheidekunst" of the sciences: how they were dissected cadaver-like into subfields, without regard for the living interactions between fields. In some sense, modern physics with quantum mechanics inherited the idea of reaching for a universal theory: "grand unified theory" and "quantum gravity" reveal this desire to explain all interactions at both tiny and grand scales. They also attract their share of superstition and quackery (e.g., the use of "quantum tangling between doctor and patient" to explain how homeopathic medicine supposedly works), just as alchemy did in its time. Yet Novalis' and Newton's pursuit of universal natural philosophy as a spiritual activity shows the importance of non-rational awe, wonder, and curiosity in the sciences. Even such an avowed atheist as Carl Sagan could wax eloquent at the "billions and billions" of stars and speak tenderly of our planet as a "pale blue dot." (I've never heard an atheist write more reverently than he!)

(Originally posted 31March 2008.)

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