Atoms and Alchemy

Peter Dear. The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Mark S. Morrison. Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory. Oxford University Press, 2007.

The history of science is not always as portrayed in the popular media, and it is becoming increasing clear that magical and occultist thinking has played a much larger role than is sometimes estimated.

Peter Dear’s book is perhaps a fairly official account, it explores the extent to which scientific theories are held to actually really describe a true underlying reality, or to be models or analogies which help us to visualise and calculate. The examples in the main part of this book give a clear account of the early mechanical theories which underlay the post Newtonian physics of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Looking at the Victorian physics in particular, we can see that it was both more different from and perhaps, paradoxically, more similar to modern science than we imagine. It was dominated by increasingly baroque theories of the luminferous ether, which appeared to be simultaneously wraith-like and diaphanous but also denser than the densest metals. These bizarre paradoxical properties remind one of 18th century phlogiston, the 'substance' of fire, which towards the end of its theoretical life was being awarded negative mass, or the increasingly complex world of Ptolemaic epicycles. These paradoxes were harbingers of major scientific revolutions, and one wonders to what extent the increasingly bizarre world of quantum mechanics may herald yet another revolution, and the pitying condescension of posterity, before their new physics is swept away by yet another revolution.

Of course to some extents these revolutions are verbal, in the Victorian period there were physicists who interpreted matter as knots in the ether, substitute something like “the basic structure of space time” for ether and it all looks at lot more modern.

Just as today's occultists and paranormalists latch onto quantum theory to back their belief that the world is a damned spooky place, 19th century occultists and paranormalists promoted the ether theory to show how their insights were being supported by the most up to date physics. If spiritualists and theosophists latched on to ether theory, then the discovery of radium and radioactivity could be presented as heralding a new alchemical age. Mark Morrison demonstrates just how intimate the relationship between the new nuclear transformism and the age-old dreams of alchemy could be. Mainstream chemists and occultists could alike be members of The Alchemical Society, theosophists could use the language of experimental science to present their clairvoyant visions of atoms, serious scientists hinted at lost civilisations the faint memory of whose knowledge lingered on in alchemy, writers and economists worried over the effects of the mass production of gold would have on the world economy.

There was the newspaper hype and the pathological science; for example Sir William Ramsay claimed to have produced nuclear fusion by passing an electric current through hydrogen in a sealed light bulb before the World War I. Remember those stories of nuclear fusion using palladium back in the late 1980s, well someone tried that (and failed) back in 1927!

Chemists like Ramsay and Frederick Soddy thought of transmuting elements as a task for chemists and resented the invasion of their field by physicists such as Thomson and Rutherford. It was Soddy who first presented the idea of a lost super-civilization destroyed by a some scientific catastrophe or which had escaped to outer space, a theme taken up by science fiction writers and by occultists ever since. In the interwar period Soddy became interested in topics such as Social Credit and Technocracy, and is now being championed in some quarters as a pioneer of environmentalism. |PR|

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