Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1292:
ALCHEMY AND MODERN SCIENCE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1292.

Today, old magic finds a place in modern science. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Another e-mail just arrived from a person with a new cosmology -- a new quasi-magical explanation of the space-time continuum. My father was a newspaperman, so I've seen letters like that all my life. You grow jaded, even though you know that, in the end, a part of physics remains out of the reach of reason.

That's why Thomas Levenson strikes a nerve with his book, Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science. Levenson writes of Newton's refusal to explain his inverse square law for the force of gravity. People asked why it worked the way it did, and he answered, "I don't make hypotheses."

Then Levenson goes on to suggest that Newton was actually saving modern science by keeping it connected with the old alchemy. Down through the 15th and 16th centuries, we'd left alchemy and created new observational sciences -- biology, geography, anatomy. We'd developed a fine confidence in our ability to look at nature and know what we were seeing. We began to believe that observation alone provided explanations.

Leibnitz scathed Newton for his arrogance in writing an equation and calling it a law of nature. That, said Leibnitz, appealed to magic just the way the old alchemists had done. Leibnitz believed we have nothing until we know the underlying causes.

"Newton's recognition of secret, occult forces," writes Levenson, "freed him from the trap" of the new experimental sciences. That trap was being unable to move forward until we could explain everything. Newton wrote this remarkable passage in his Optiks:

Have not the small particles of Bodies certain Powers, Virtues and Forces by which they act at a distance, not only upon the rays of light ... but also upon one another ...

Much of that was prophetic, for Einstein later showed us that gravity actually does act upon even light itself.

By now physics has articulated many of the mechanisms of Newton's forces. Yet physics always comes to rest, at last, upon magic. And by magic I mean the ultimately inexplicable underlying facts of nature. Mary Shelley caught the dilemma in the introduction to her book Frankenstein. She set out to explain how she came upon her idea. "Everything," she began,

must have a beginning. That beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos give the world an elephant to support it, but the elephant stands on a tortoise. Invention [is not created] out of the void, but out of chaos. The materials must first be there.

The materials of physics are a minimal set of unexplained facts, and all our explanations come to rest upon those facts. Newton freed physics by being perfectly clear on that point. It is not by eliminating magic from physics that we move ahead, but by reducing magic to the barest possible minimum.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Levenson, T., Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. (See especially Chapters 4 and 5.)



A typical forgotten monograph on the new physics.
Fifty-four pages, hard cover, glossy paper and fine
printing. It is completely forgotten today and it
was the locus of no noticeable interest or productive
controversy in its own the time (1923).


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.

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