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Exploring wonders is part of the magic of science

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Learning & Development

Science and magic may have more in common than you think.

It might seem odd to us today, but there once was a time when the border between science and magic was so fluid that practitioners could quite freely employ both in their pursuit of knowledge.

This shouldn’t be too surprising really. In many ways magic was actually the precursor to science and gave form to many of the accepted practices we are now so familiar with. For instance, the ancient discpline of alchemy would over time become chemistry. Similarly, the divinations of astrologers would later provide a basis for the observations of astronomers.

In fact many of the greatest, most inventive minds in the annals of scientific history were either directly involved in or inspired by arcane “magical” practices.

Magic Men – The Scientists Who Believed in Magic

One noteworthy example is Pythagoras, who – although leaving no mathematical writings of his own behind, meaning we must rely on those of later Pythagorean scholars – is still widely credited with being the “father” of pure mathematics. In spite of this, he and his followers practiced a form of number worship we’d most readily associate today with an oddity like numerology (which claims that numbers have a kind of supernatural power to predict or explain things in the real world).

Another good example is the fifteenth-century Swiss physician Paracelsus, one of the most influential medical scientists of early modern Europe. Along with paving the way for modern toxicology, he also happened to be a trained alchemist who believed in the influence of spirits and fairies.

And there are others on the list. The famed mathematicians and astronomers Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler were also well-studied astrologers. Even Isaac Newton, one of the most influential scientists in history, left behind a vast library of papers showing a profound interest in alchemy.

Of course it’s easy to dismiss his interest in the old art until we remember that the law of gravity for which Newton is perhaps most famous was also once written off in some quarters as being magical mumbo jumbo.

So What’s the Connection?

Before we put our hard-headed sceptic hats on (if they’re not on already), it’s worth briefly considering so odd an intermingling of contrary systems of thought and what we can infer from it. After all, isn’t it strange that such rational, brilliant minds could entertain thoughts concerning mysterious outside forces?

Not really. In fact when you think about it, doesn’t science share similar preoccupations?

In a book review for the New Statesman, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams offered a number of interesting insights on the magic-science overlap:

“Part of the story of magic is to do with what the semi-educated medieval public thought was weird or suspect, from maths to metallurgy …

“… Indeed, one of the many ways in which medieval thought paved the way for what we should recognise as scientific study of the universe was in making this distinction between the manipulating of spiritual agencies and the manipulating of invisible forces; prohibiting the one made more space for the other.”

“Magic” therefore related to any practice that went beyond the boundaries of established and accepted thought. Those who employed it were doing what they could to advance learning and explore the great mysteries.

Though not rigorous by today’s scientific standards, magic left a legacy that science could build on: the pursuit of knowledge by proceeding from causes to effects. As with science, this involved experimentation, observation and adaptation.

Magic left a legacy science built on: the pursuit of knowledge by proceeding from causes to effects. Click To Tweet

Pythagoras would go on to advance a more rigorous mathematics that built from first principles using axioms and logic. Paracelsus would encourage personal experimentation over just accepting conventional wisdom.

It’s even reasonable to suggest that over time magical concoctions laid the very foundations for scientific experiments.

Sharing the Magic

So while magic was superseded by highly specialized, standardized, and disciplined scientific methods, its spirit of curiosity passed on intact – as did its primary goal of developing an understanding of the world and the mysterious forces influencing it.

However, there was a crucial difference between the two.

Magic was for initiates. It was all but impenetrable to any but a small group of people in much the same way that science is for many people today. But while magic was characterized by mystery, secrecy and deception, science is characterized by knowledge, education and understanding.

Scientific advances are documented, reviewed and shared among peers. Each small individual step forward is essentially one that is taken by the entire scientific community. Scientists are like magicians who reveal how their tricks were done and offer up the information others need to pursue new opportunities and unravel ever-greater mysteries.

With scientific advances, each individual step forward is shared by the whole scientific community. Click To Tweet

Nothing is Impossible

This open sharing of information and insight is one of science’s great strengths. The more brains that are fixed on a problem, the greater the chances of actually solving it.

Yet there is still a perception that science’s focus on procedure and data actually removes some of the magic of discovery. This is understandable, but it is also necessary. Science relies on facts and solid evidence before it can draw conclusions or confirm findings.

But still there is magic. It occurs whenever a scientist finds a new way of tackling an old problem. It likewise occurs when some breakthrough discovery opens new vistas of possibility. Einstein once said that “The greatest scientists are artists as well”. You could easily exchange the word “artist” for “magician”. If that sounds a little hyperbolic, then just take a look at the science stories hitting the headlines each and every day.

From using 3D printing technology to construct human tissue to planning ways to refreeze the Arctic; from merging computers with human brains to exploring the nature of time. It’s interesting to imagine how those from past centuries might have responded to such incredible advances.

Who other than a scientist could make such things possible? And what is science but a peek into a greater world of wonders anyway?

Micheál Heffernan

Senior Editor

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