Overweening Generalist

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Some Colorful Chemists

Often, when we go to study the earliest history of philosophy, we find that they were concerned with what everything was made of. Thales of Miletus said everything could be reduced to water, for example.

Very quickly the metaphysics of air became a heated topic. Plato (probably influenced by the Pythagoreans), thought air was made up of octahedrons, and it was "elementally" between fire and water. Plato also guessed (divine intuition?) that water, when it was "divided by fire or by air, on re-forming, may become one part fire and two parts air." We now know water is one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen. Not a bad guess, Plato! Score one for the right wing rich kid whose favorite teacher was Socrates...

When Anaximenes said, contra Thales, that all was ultimately air, which via motion, caused transformations in everything in the universe (these Greeks thought Big!), Nietzsche later said Anaximenes's statement that "Everything is created by the condensation and rarefication of air, but motion is eternally arising...," that this was the first scientific worldview. "As our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air surround the universe." - Anaximenes

During the French Enlightenment, Antoine Lavoisier, building on his predecessors' findings about air, really nailed it, getting rid of extraneous jargon, and conducting ingeniously creative experiments to demonstrate the chemical composition of air. He said that there was about one-fifth of air that was "oxygen." Then he figured out that most of the rest was nitrogen, and that fire seemed inherent in oxygen and its play with nitrogen. Then, during the Terror, because he seemed too highly placed, he was guillotined, which seems something less than Enlightened.
But what about alchemy and Paracelsus and those guys? Alchemy was definitely the forerunner of chemistry, and quite ancient. It is also rarely discussed in university chemistry classes, I understand. 'Tis a pity, because the overall flavor of desire to find the Primordial Stuff, turn cheap metals into gold, live forever and abolish evil: these still are worthy goals. And the chemists might not want to hear about alchemy, they might be embarrassed about it, as if it was a story about a crazy great-greatfather, but the long hard road to where the chemists are now can be appreciated, to my eyes, by how diligently knowledge was accumulated by alchemists all over the world, for perhaps 1500 years. One book I read recently said there were Vedic texts on alchemical ideas from 10,000 years ago...For many alchemists toiling throughout its long history, it was necessary to avoid Authority; whatever they were doing was mysterious and therefore threatening to the Ruling Class. (A select few alchemists worked as Wizards for the Ruling Class: reading auspices, as court astrologers, etc) The 3rd CE Roman Emperor Diocletian decreed that all alchemical manuscripts were "against nature," and must be destroyed. He would have fit right in with the George W. Bush administration.

I hear one of you asking, plaintively, "what about drugs?" Indeed. What about them! Were the earliest beer makers (6th BCE, according to Wikipedia) "doing" chemistry? Alchemy? I don't know, but surely, there were a few fermenters who tinkered (this business of tinkering turns out to be maybe the most underrated aspect of chemists' work), and gradually beer became more interesting.
There is a long history of amateur herbalists that seems to intersect with alchemy/chemistry. The Inquisition thought that the mere gathering of plants was an indication of witchcraft. Please ponder the deep sickness in the human race that wants to persecute some people for investigating the magick of certain plants. Thou shalt not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil! OR: As Oscar Wilde said, and I agree, obedience to authority is the original sin...
The "al" in alchemy comes from Arabic, so right away we see some reason why it's threatening to Westerners. But the "chemy" comes from Khemia, the Greek name for Egypt, the "black land." So much in the philology seems fraught with peril! (To the ordinary, fearful homo sap.) On the other hand, the tall pointy cone hats? I'm waiting for those to come back into style.

(Which reminds me: many years ago I had a friend whose father was a math wizard. Some corporation would call him with a problem and he'd work on it for six months, often, as I remember him telling me, inventing a computer language in order to devise the right circuit/part/whatever for the company. He worked out of his house, so he was home a lot and was a nudist, too. When he solved the problem he celebrated by wearing a wizard hat around the house. Then the company sent him a check for $75,000. Why did I bring this up? Oh yea...)
Well, physics and chemistry and then biology and now, over the last 120 years or so, "modern medicine" have flowered from all the toiling. Methodologies seem crucial in the turn toward the relatively sudden and rapid logarithmic gains made there. And sufficient wealth scattered amongst the population to allow a significant number of tinkerers armed with basic knowledge and methodologies. And then there is the downside: chemical warfare, depleted topsoil, disease-causing air, obesity. But all in all, I'll take it, given the upsides.
Back to alchemy and its long, rich, odd history: to many physical scientists in universities, the social sciences are in something like the alchemy state. (I personally do not think this, but it's an interesting way to look at it. Economics has certainly seemed topheavy with absolute bovine excreta for much of its history, for example.)

But maybe sociology, psychology, economics, linguistics...are poised on the brink of "real" science: of the human mind-in-society? Why the worship of flags? Why the racism? Why the chimp-like status hierarchies that must be defended to the death? Why the the knee-jerk search for Authorities to tell us what to do and think? Why the inhumane grasping for the symbols of wealth, above all other values? Why does anyone starve, not have access to clean drinking water, and a safe place to sleep? Anyone who tells us we've got most of it All Figured Out, must have workable answers to these Questions.
A workable Theory of Everything might look like this:


Where T is the hypothetical ultimate theory, A is what we understand now, and B is what we don't understand yet. Robert Anton Wilson gives us this equation, in Right Where You Are Sitting Now, and he calls it a "theophany." It could function in the neo-alchemical desiderata as well.


ARW23 said...

You seem to share the alchemical interest with many, including Jung. Your post reminded me of Jung's "Alchemy of Eros" and the "Alchemy of Sophia". I think, Jung's formula might look like this:

UM = P(1) + P(2)

Where UM stands for 'unus mundus'. P(1) is physical and P(2) is psychological.

michael said...

This reminds me of an amusing equation, from Professor Piers Steel. It's called the Procrastination Equation and I think I can write it like this:


U = the desire to complete a task, or Utility
E = Expectation of success
V = Value of completing the task
I = Immediacy of the task, or how quickly it needs to be done
D = Delay: your personal sensitivity to continuing to put off the task

An attempt to translate into English:

"Procrastination is about the desire or utility to complete a task, but can be thought of as the value of completing the task and your expectation of success at that task, divided by how quickly the task needs to be done and how much you can tolerate putting it off."

OR: Why put off for tomorrow something that you can put off today?

Let Robert Anton Wilson and Carl Jung figure out Everything; I've got some old movies to watch!