Today, let's practice Natural Magic. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
The ancient science of alchemy
enjoyed a flurry of revitalization during the sixteenth
century, a bit like Don Quixote
briefly rising from his deathbed to reassert his madness,
I suppose. But, in the language of that last gasp, we
hear scientists figuring out how to accommodate a new
science of experiment and observation.
John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's
science advisor, introduced the term thaumaturgika
for the making of magical machines -- machines for
creating an illusion of magic. Consider what
thaumaturgical magic it would seem if you could've, say,
driven your car into Queen Elizabeth's court. Any machine
is magic until it's understood -- just as surely as
putting a live person in a box, and sawing the box in two
without harming the person, is magic.
Dee took another term from an Italian colleague --
Magiae Naturalis or Natural Magic. That
referred to scientific demonstrations that might as
well've been magical. Suppose you made small iron figures
of dancers glide and turn about a table-top by the use of
hidden magnets. Whether that's magical trickery or a
scientific demonstration depends on how much you choose
to tell your audience.
We do experiments of that kind for children all the time.
And the child does not always come away understanding why
they work. A science teacher might place a thick board on
a person's head and hammer a nail into it without
severely jarring the person. I doubt that many children
understand the underlying principles of momentum and
inertia. What the child does understand is that
the person sitting under the board is not frightened.
Therefore, this situation must obey some agreed-upon
order of nature.
But, as modern objective science took form in the early
seventeenth century, the line between magic and science
blurred for a season. Historian Robin Rider tells how
Francis Bacon finally wrote in the charter of London's
Royal Society, that it would provide scientific
experiments to extend "the knowledge of Causes." Natural
magicians were, he said, too easily tempted to
"disguise those things and labour to make them seem more miraculous."
Rider traces demonstration experiments all the way into
the nineteenth century. By the late eighteenth century,
demonstrations were very popular. Portrait artist
Joseph Wright of Derby also
painted people doing experiments. Before the Revolution
the French had a voracious
appetite for books about experiments. The Royal
Institution of London opened in 1801 with a series of
public lecture demonstrations. Sir
Humphrey Davy was a star of that circuit.
With the coming of formal academic science in the
nineteenth century, our fascination moved from the stage
to textbooks. The word magic no longer seemed to apply to
the workings of nature. Yet if you have ever done an
experiment that has yielded a new phenomenon, you know
the sheer pleasure of that moment. For magic does enter
the brief gap that separates discovery from explanation.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.