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Posts Tagged ‘alchemy

“The real alchemy consists in being able to turn gold back again into something else; and that’s the secret that most of your friends have lost.”*…

16th century alchemical equipment, and 21st century reconception of Luria’s 16th century Sephirotic array by Naomi Teplow.

About a decade ago, the formidable Lawrence Weschler was a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where he conceived a concept for an exhibit that, sadly, never materialized. Happily, he has shared the design in his wonderful newsletter, Wondercabinet

Lead into Gold:

Proposal for a little jewel-box exhibit

surveying the Age-Old Quest

To Wrest Something from Nothing,

from the Philosopher’s Stone

through Subprime Loans

The boutique-sized (four-room) show would be called “Lead into Gold” and would track the alchemical passion—from its prehistory in the memory palaces of late antiquity through the Middle Ages

(those elaborate mnemonic techniques whereby monks and clerks stored astonishing amounts of details in their minds by placing them in ever-expanding imaginary structures, forebears, as it were, to the physical wondercabinets of the later medieval period—a sampling of manuscripts depicting the technique would grace a sort of foyer to the exhibition),

into its high classic phase (the show’s first long room) with alchemy as pre-chemistry (with maguses actually trying, that is, to turn physical lead into physical gold, all the beakers and flasks and retorts, etc.) to one side, and astrology as pre-astronomy (the whole deliriously marvelous sixteenth-into-seventeenth centuries) to the other, and Isaac Newton serving as a key leitmotif figure through the entire show (though starting out here), recast no longer in his role as the first of the moderns so much as “the Last of the Sumerians” (as an astonished John Maynard Keynes dubbed him, upon stumbling on a cache of thousands of pages of his Cambridge forebear’s detailed alchemical notes, not just from his early years before the Principia, but from throughout his entire life!).

The show would then branch off in two directions, in a sort of Y configuration. To one side:

1) The Golden Path, which is to say the growing conviction among maguses and their progeny during the later early-modern period that the point was allegorical, an inducement to soul-work, in which one was called upon to try to refine the leaden parts of oneself into ever more perfect golden forms, hence Faustus and Prospero through Jung, with those magi Leibniz and Newton riffing off Kabbalistic meditations on Infinity and stumbling instead onto the infinitesimal as they invent the Calculus, in turn eventually opening out (by way of Blake) onto all those Sixties versions, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, etc., which set the stage for the Whole Earth Catalog and all those kid-maguses working in their garages (developing both hardware and software: fashioning the Calculus into material reality) and presently the Web itself (latter day version of those original memory palaces from back in the show’s foyer, writ large);

while, branching off to the other side, we would have:

2) The Leaden Path, in which moneychangers and presently bankers decided to cut to the chase, for, after all, who needed lead and who needed gold and for god’s sake who needed a more perfect soul when you could simply turn any old crap into money (!)—thus, for example, the South Sea Bubble, in which Newton lost the equivalent of a million dollars (whereupon he declared that he could understand the transit of stars but not the madness of men), tulipomania, etc., and thence onward to Freud (rather than Jung) and his conception of “filthy lucre” and George Soros (with his book, The Alchemy of Finance), with the Calculus showing up again across ever more elaborate permutations, leading on through Ponzi and Gecko (by way of Ayn Rand and Alan “The Wizard” Greenspan) to the whole derivatives bubble/tumor, as adumbrated in part by my own main man, the money artist JSG Boggs, and then on past that to the purest mechanism ever conceived for generating fast money out of crap: meth labs (which deploy exactly but exactly the same equipment as the original alchemists, beakers and flasks and retorts, to accomplish the literal-leaden version of what they were after, the turning of filth into lucre).

And I appended a xerox of that napkin sketch:

Eminently worth reading– and enjoying–in full. “The age-old human quest to turn nothing into something.”

* Edith Wharton


As we appreciate the abiding attraction of alchemy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the act creating the Tennessee Valley Authority. A feature of the New Deal, the TVA was created to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, regional planning, and economic development to the Tennessee Valley, a region (all of Tennessee, portions of Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky, and small areas of Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia) which was particularly hard hit by the Great Depression relative to the rest of the nation. While owned by the federal government, TVA receives no taxpayer funding and operates similar to a private for-profit company.

The TVA has been criticized for its use of eminent domain, which resulted in the displacement of over 125,000 Tennessee Valley residents for the agency’s infrastructure projects. But on balance the TVA has been documented as a success in its efforts to modernize the Tennessee Valley and helping to recruit new employment opportunities to the region.

FDR signing the TVA Act [source]

“Alchemy. The link between the immemorial magic arts and modern science. Humankind’s first systematic effort to unlock the secrets of matter by reproducible experiment.”*…

Science has entered a new era of alchemy, suggests Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton– and, he argues, that’s a good thing…

Is artificial intelligence the new alchemy? That is, are the powerful algorithms that control so much of our lives — from internet searches to social media feeds — the modern equivalent of turning lead into gold? Moreover: Would that be such a bad thing?

According to the prominent AI researcher Ali Rahimi and others, today’s fashionable neural networks and deep learning techniques are based on a collection of tricks, topped with a good dash of optimism, rather than systematic analysis. Modern engineers, the thinking goes, assemble their codes with the same wishful thinking and misunderstanding that the ancient alchemists had when mixing their magic potions.

It’s true that we have little fundamental understanding of the inner workings of self-learning algorithms, or of the limits of their applications. These new forms of AI are very different from traditional computer codes that can be understood line by line. Instead, they operate within a black box, seemingly unknowable to humans and even to the machines themselves.

This discussion within the AI community has consequences for all the sciences. With deep learning impacting so many branches of current research — from drug discovery to the design of smart materials to the analysis of particle collisions — science itself may be at risk of being swallowed by a conceptual black box. It would be hard to have a computer program teach chemistry or physics classes. By deferring so much to machines, are we discarding the scientific method that has proved so successful, and reverting to the dark practices of alchemy?

Not so fast, says Yann LeCun, co-recipient of the 2018 Turing Award for his pioneering work on neural networks. He argues that the current state of AI research is nothing new in the history of science. It is just a necessary adolescent phase that many fields have experienced, characterized by trial and error, confusion, overconfidence and a lack of overall understanding. We have nothing to fear and much to gain from embracing this approach. It’s simply that we’re more familiar with its opposite.

After all, it’s easy to imagine knowledge flowing downstream, from the source of an abstract idea, through the twists and turns of experimentation, to a broad delta of practical applications. This is the famous “usefulness of useless knowledge,” advanced by Abraham Flexner in his seminal 1939 essay (itself a play on the very American concept of “useful knowledge” that emerged during the Enlightenment).

A canonical illustration of this flow is Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It all began with the fundamental idea that the laws of physics should hold for all observers, independent of their movements. He then translated this concept into the mathematical language of curved space-time and applied it to the force of gravity and the evolution of the cosmos. Without Einstein’s theory, the GPS in our smartphones would drift off course by about 7 miles a day.

But maybe this paradigm of the usefulness of useless knowledge is what the Danish physicist Niels Bohr liked to call a “great truth” — a truth whose opposite is also a great truth. Maybe, as AI is demonstrating, knowledge can also flow uphill.

In the broad history of science, as LeCun suggested, we can spot many examples of this effect, which can perhaps be dubbed “the uselessness of useful knowledge.” An overarching and fundamentally important idea can emerge from a long series of step-by-step improvements and playful experimentation — say, from Fröbel to Nobel.

Perhaps the best illustration is the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics, a cornerstone of all branches of science. These elegant equations, describing the conservation of energy and increase of entropy, are laws of nature, obeyed by all physical phenomena. But these universal concepts only became apparent after a long, confusing period of experimentation, starting with the construction of the first steam engines in the 18th century and the gradual improvement of their design. Out of the thick mist of practical considerations, mathematical laws slowly emerged…

One could even argue that science itself has followed this uphill path. Until the birth of the methods and practices of modern research in the 17th century, scientific research consisted mostly of nonsystematic experimentation and theorizing. Long considered academic dead ends, these ancient practices have been reappraised in recent years: Alchemy is now considered to have been a useful and perhaps even necessary precursor to modern chemistry — more proto-science than hocus-pocus.

The appreciation of tinkering as a fruitful path toward grand theories and insights is particularly relevant for current research that combines advanced engineering and basic science in novel ways. Driven by breakthrough technologies, nanophysicists are tinkering away, building the modern equivalents of steam engines on the molecular level, manipulating individual atoms, electrons and photons. Genetic editing tools such as CRISPR allow us to cut and paste the code of life itself. With structures of unimaginable complexity, we are pushing nature into new corners of reality. With so many opportunities to explore new configurations of matter and information, we could enter a golden age of modern-day alchemy, in the best sense of the word.

However, we should never forget the hard-won cautionary lessons of history. Alchemy was not only a proto-science, but also a “hyper-science” that overpromised and underdelivered. Astrological predictions were taken so seriously that life had to adapt to theory, instead of the other way around. Unfortunately, modern society is not free from such magical thinking, putting too much confidence in omnipotent algorithms, without critically questioning their logical or ethical basis.

Science has always followed a natural rhythm of alternating phases of expansion and concentration. Times of unstructured exploration were followed by periods of consolidation, grounding new knowledge in fundamental concepts. We can only hope that the current period of creative tinkering in artificial intelligence, quantum devices and genetic editing, with its cornucopia of useful applications, will eventually lead to a deeper understanding of the world…

Today’s powerful but little-understood artificial intelligence breakthroughs echo past examples of unexpected scientific progress: “The Uselessness of Useful Knowledge,” from @RHDijkgraaf at @the_IAS.

Pair with: “Neuroscience’s Existential Crisis- we’re mapping the brain in amazing detail—but our brain can’t understand the picture” for a less optimistic view.

*  John Ciardi


As we experiment, we might recall that it was on this date in 1993 that the Roman Catholic Church admitted that it had erred in condemning Galileo.  For over 359 years, the Church had excoriated Galileo’s contentions (e.g., that the Earth revolves around the Sun) as anti-scriptural heresy.  In 1633, at age 69, Galileo had been forced by the Roman Inquisition to repent, and spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest.  After 13 years of inquiry, Pope John Paul II’s commission of historic, scientific and theological scholars brought the pontiff a “not guilty” finding for Galileo; the Pope himself met with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help correct the record.

Galileo (standing; white collar, dark smock) showing the Doge of Venice (seated) how to use the telescope. From a fresco by Giuseppe Bertini


“In every grain of sand there is the story of the earth”*…

(Roughly) Daily has looked before (see here and here) at sand as a critical ingredient in the stuff of modern life. Today’s post features Steven Connor on the metaphorical power of sand…

Sand belongs to the great, diffuse class, undeclared, rarely described, but insistent and insinuating, of what may be called quasi-choate matters — among them mist, smoke, dust, snow, sugar, cinders, sleet, soap, syrup, mud, toffee, grit. Such pseudo-substances hover, drift, and ooze between consistency and dissolution, holding together even as they come apart from themselves. And, of all of these dishesive matters, sand is surely the most untrustworthy, the most shifting and shifty.

Nobody would seriously consider taking a stand on a cloud, but sand has betrayed many an architect and edifice. Sand is at once architectural and archiclastic. An eighteenth-century continuation of Baron Munchausen’s adventures describes how the Baron and his party survive a whirlwind of sand by scooping an igloo-style sand-chamber in which to shelter from the storm, and then digging a tunnel from their bunker back out into the light. Sand has the capacity to engulf and inundate, blearing contours, eroding and erasing every edge and eminence. As such it is the ultimate mockery of the permanence of stone, for it is no more than one of stone’s own moods, the manner in which stone, atomised, consumes itself. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” imagines the monumental statue of Rameses the Great dismembered on the Egyptian sands. The shattered chunks of head, legs, and pedestal portend a further, finer comminution, after the membra disjecta themselves will have been milled away into flatness: “Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Sand is reversible. Only utter desiccation can attain to this pouring, milk-smooth liquefaction. Sand-baths were used in the ancient world both to draw out the damp ague of rheumatism and as a kind of sauna, to promote perspiration. Sand is the product of abrasion, but is also itself abrasive, used in sand-blasting to etch and burnish. Pliny tells us of the use of sand under a saw edge to make a clean cut in marble, and to polish it after it has been carved.

Sand signifies neutrality, indifference, and uniformity; yet it also has hairtrigger sensitivity and responsiveness. A grain of sand (in actual fact often a tiny parasite) is the irritant that provokes in the oyster the nacreous secretions that build into a pearl. Sand has a favoured relation to sound, putting a hoarse rattle in the throat of the wind, and is itself all ears. In 1787, the German physicist Ernst Chladni showed how drawing a violin bow over a metal plate could induce in the fine sand sprinkled on it hierophantic figurings of the sound, in quivering mandalas and ripple-fingered arpeggios. Though sand can disfigure and obliterate, it can also disclose the ghost wrist of wind and the perturbations of the earth. It is a detection and reception mechanism, forming ridged isobars, shivering musculature, oscilloscape of the air’s sculpting shoves and gusts.

Sand participates in dream and vision. The Sandman brings sleep by throwing or blowing sand into the eyes of children. But the sand does more than merely seal the eyes, for in many versions of this nursery tale, it is the very stuff that dreams are made on, the numb matter of sleep, swirling, particulate, that the sandman carries in his sack. The somnolence of sand is redoubled when in Top Hat (1935) Fred Astaire soothes Ginger Rogers to sleep in the hotel room below him by spreading sand on the floor and hush-dancing a susurrous soft-shoe shuffle. The origins of moon-walking are to be found in the novelty slides and scrapes across a sanded stage by music-hall acts like Wilson, Keppel and Betty. Specious it may be, but sand is also the secret stuff of omen and auspice, in the practice of divination through tossing and scrying handfuls of sand, known in Arabic as ilm al-raml, the science of the sand, or what might have been its Greek equivalent, psammomancy.

Sand is not only temporary, it is also the most temporised form of matter. It is the image or allegory of time, shifting, yet unshiftable. It seems a compiling of the minced, mounded years that go into its making, and grains of sand imitate the elementary atoms of time, moment upon pattering moment. Sand is featureless, without joints or divisions, even though it is nothing but division all the way down. Yet it is this very feature that makes it useful in the measurement of time, for, unlike other materials, sand will flow easily and regularly, even as its volume diminishes. Sand-glasses came into use in part because of the need to measure time at sea, far from any landmark; speed would be measured by counting the number of knots in a rope paid out from the back of the ship in the time it took for the sand to run through a half-minute glass. A half-hour period of watch, known as a “glass”, was also measured in this way. Grains of sand, in the form of quartz crystals, with their precise oscillations, still micro-regulate our time. In fact, the sand of hourglasses was often not quartz sand at all, but powdered marble, or eggshell. But we find it hard to give up the idea of the affinity of sand and the glass through which it runs, since silicates of sand are still the most important source of glass. George Herbert imagines this interfusion when he writes that “flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust/That measures all our time; which also shall/Be crumbled into dust”, while for Gerard Manley Hopkins the soul itself is “soft sift/In an hourglass – at the wall/Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,/And it crowds and it combs to the fall”…

From the mythical Sandman, through the grains in an hourglass, to an irritating mote lodged in the beachgoer’s eye, sand harbors unappreciated power: “The Dust That Measures All Our Time.”

Rachel Carson


As we muse on metaphor, we might send ideal birthday greetings to Marsilio Ficino; he was born on this date in 1433.  An Italian scholar and Catholic priest, he was one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance.  The first translator of Plato’s complete extant works into Latin, he was important in the revival of Neoplatonism, and was in touch with every major academic thinker and writer of his day. His Florentine Academy was an attempt to revive Plato’s Academy, and influenced both the direction and the tenor of the Italian Renaissance and thus the development of European philosophy.

Ficino was also an astrologer, and is credited with having inspired the Tarot card deck– the Tarot of Marseilles– that was the pattern from which many subsequent tarot decks derive.

Marsilio Ficino, from a fresco painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence


“The ‘paradox’ is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ‘ought to be’”*…

One of the most bizarre aspects of quantum physics is that the fundamental entities that make up the Universe, what we know as the indivisible quanta of reality, behave as both a wave and a particle. We can do certain experiments, like firing photons at a sheet of metal, where they act like particles, interacting with the electrons and kicking them off only if they individually have enough energy. Other experiments, like firing photons at small thin objects — whether slits, hairs, holes, spheres, or even DVDs — give patterned results that show exclusively wave-like behavior. What we observe appears to depend on which observations we make, which is frustrating, to say the least. Is there some way to tell, fundamentally, what the nature of a quanta is, and whether it’s wave-like or particle-like at its core?

That’s what Sandra Marin wants to know, asking:

“I wonder if you could help me to understand John Wheeler – the delayed choice experiment and write an article about this.”

John Wheeler was one of the most brilliant minds in physics in the 20th century, responsible for enormous advances in quantum field theory, General Relativity, black holes, and even quantum computing. Yet the idea about the delayed choice experiment hearkens all the way back to perhaps our first experience with the wave-particle duality of quantum physics: the double-slit experiment…

Although Einstein definitively wanted us to have a completely comprehensible reality, where everything that occurred obeyed our notions of cause-and-effect without any retrocausality, it was his great rival Bohr who turned out to be correct on this point. In Bohr’s own words:

“…it…can make no difference, as regards observable effects obtainable by a definite experimental arrangement, whether our plans for constructing or handling the instruments are fixed beforehand or whether we prefer to postpone the completion of our planning until a later moment when the particle is already on its way from one instrument to another.”

As far as we can tell, there is no one true objective, deterministic reality that exists independently of observers or interactions. In this Universe, you really to have to observe in order to find out what you get.

The history and the results of John Wheeler‘s famous “delayed choice” experiments: “Is Light Fundamentally A Wave Or A Particle?

* Richard Feynman


As we reconsider categories, we might recall that it was on this date in 1404 that King Henry IV signed the “Act Against Multipliers,” stipulating that “None from hereafter shall use to multiply gold or silver, or use the craft of multiplication; and if any the same do, they incur the pain of felony.” Great alarm was felt at that time lest any alchemist should succeed in “transmutation” (the conversion of a base metal into gold or silver), thus undermining the sanctity of the Royal currency and/or possibly financing rebellious uprisings. Alchemy, which had flourished since the time of Bacon, effectively became illegal.

The Act was repealed in 1689, when Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, and other members of the vanguard of the scientific revolution lobbied for its repeal.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 13, 2021 at 1:01 am

“In Nature’s infinite book of secrecy I can read a little”*…


shakespeare science


Shakespeare explores the philosophical, psychological, and cultural impact of many more scientific fields besides human anatomy, reflecting poetically on theories about germs, atoms, matter, falling bodies, planetary motion, heliocentrism, alchemy, the humors, algebra, Arabic numerals, Pythagorean geometry, the number zero, and the infinite. The inquiries that drove Renaissance science, and the universe it disclosed, are deeply integrated into Shakespeare’s poetic worlds.

Until relatively recently, Shakespeare’s contact with the scientific world has gone largely unnoticed both among scholars and general audiences. Perhaps Shakespeare scholars and audiences don’t notice the way he takes up science because they are unfamiliar with much of the science he was exposed to, while most scientists don’t see Shakespeare as valuable for reflecting on science because they assume he was unfamiliar with it. Usually, even when readers are made aware of Shakespeare’s references to this or that scientific subject — perhaps Hamlet’s reference to infinity or Lear’s allusions to atomism — these are treated as little more than interesting artifacts, window-dressing to Shakespeare’s broader human concerns.

A small but growing number of scholars are now taking up the connection between Shakespeare and science. And, spurred perhaps by science fiction, by the ways that science factors in the works of key late-modern writers such as Nabokov, Pynchon, and Wallace, and by the rise of scientific themes in contemporary literary fiction, a growing number of readers are aware that writers can and do take up science, and many are interested in what they do with it.

When we familiarize ourselves with the history of science, we see the imaginative worlds Shakespeare creates to demonstrate science’s power to shape our self-understanding, and the power of the literary arts to shape our response to science. We also see that Shakespeare was remarkably prescient about the questions that science would raise for our lives. He explores, for example, how we are personally affected by the uncertainties that cosmological science can introduce, or what it means when scientists claim that our first-hand experience is illusory, or how we respond when science probes into matters of the heart…

He was a poet of Copernican astronomy before the telescope, of microbiology before the modern microscope.  What can we learn from the Bard’s vision of cosmic upheaval?  Explore at:  “Shakespeare’s Worlds of Science.”

* Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra


As we put it all into perspective, we might spare a thought for Andreas Libavius; he died on this date in 1616.  A rough contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Libavius was a celebrated physician and chemist, the author of over 40 works in the fields of logic, theology, physics, medicine, chemistry, pharmacy, and poetry.  At the same time– and in a way that reflected the fuzzy boundary between the emerging empirical sciences and the occult– he was one of the leading alchemical thinkers of his time: his 1597 Alchymia was the first systematic chemistry textbook, in which he showed, for example, that cuprous salt lotions are detectable with ammonia (which causes them to change color to dark blue)… and in which he also described the possibility of transmutation (the conversion of base metals into gold).

220px-Andreas_Libavius source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 25, 2018 at 1:01 am

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