Tag Archives: Alchemy

Needles, motes and beams

Zeitgeist is tricksy stuff. The problem is that it is impossible to tell how much of what one thinks is just the brainwashing of the times one lives in, and how much is actually what one thinks.

Something someone said the other day reminded me of Sir Isaac Newton, the gravity guy. A difficult, reclusive and distinctly odd man Sir Isaac, who was capable of challenging the simplest of assumptions:

Why do things fall?

Because they are heavy. Obviously.

Yes, but what is it about being heavy that makes them fall?

It is almost impossible to imagine the clarity of thought that’s needed to challenge presuppositions and assumptions to that degree. As well as identifying gravity and developing calculus, Sir Isaac invented the cat-flap which is rather endearing. One starts to realise something of his oddness when one discovers just how far he was willing to go in his ruthless search for the truth: he stuck blades and needles into the socket of his eye, between the ball and the bone, in order to distort the retina and thereby understand more clearly the difference between what there is to see and the act of seeing.

So here we have a man who is capable of turning all sorts of assumptions and follies on their heads and of discerning intellectual and practical truths, who then lets himself be swept along with the follies of his times. You see, Sir Isaac was an alchemist, and they were a pretty rum lot. They were good at chemistry on a mechanical level, but based their theories on, well, on theory; and because their theories that lead could be transformed into gold were wrong, a lot of them stooped to deception and trickery in order to present their ‘truth’ to the world. (I can’t be bothered to make cheap comparisons with the Bush & Blair Governments, although the attempted legerdemain of Rumsfelt’s comments about the Guantanamo suicides being “an act of war” springs to mind).

Alchemy became chemistry in the decades after Sir Isaac’s death, when practitioners started questioning assumptions, challenging axioms, and generally being scientists and iconoclasts rather than propogandists and hypocrites. But the thing that I come back to again and again, when considering Sir Isaac, is that if someone as capable of thinking for himself as he was could be swept along by the zeitgeist, then what hope is there for the rest of us?


PS – I’ll be far away from the Internet this Wednesday, but I’ll be back on Friday, so just two posts this week.