Today, old magic finds a place in modern science.
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.
Another e-mail just arrived
from a person with a new cosmology -- a new
quasi-magical explanation of the space-time
continuum. My father was a newspaperman, so I've
seen letters like that all my life. You grow jaded,
even though you know that, in the end, a part of
physics remains out of the reach of reason.
That's why Thomas Levenson strikes a nerve with his
book, Measure for Measure: A Musical History of
Science. Levenson writes of Newton's refusal to
explain his inverse square law for the force of
gravity. People asked why it worked the way it did,
and he answered, "I don't make hypotheses."
Levenson goes on to suggest that Newton actually saved modern science by keeping it
connected to the old alchemy and to its magic. Down through the
15th and 16th centuries, we'd left alchemy to create observational sciences -- biology,
geography, anatomy. We'd developed a fine
confidence in our ability to look at nature and to know what we are seeing. We began to believe that
observation alone provided explanations.
Leibnitz scathed Newton for his arrogance in
writing an equation and calling it a law of nature.
That, said Leibnitz, appealed to magic just the way
the old alchemists had done. Leibnitz believed we
have nothing until we know the underlying causes.
"Newton's recognition of secret, occult forces,"
writes Levenson, "freed him from the trap" laid by the
new sciences. That trap was being
unable to move forward until we could explain
everything. Newton wrote this remarkable passage in
Have not the small particles of Bodies certain
Powers, Virtues and Forces by which they act at a
distance, not only upon the rays of light ... but
also upon one another ...
Much of that was prophetic, for Einstein later
showed us that gravity actually does act upon even
By now physics has articulated many of the
mechanisms of Newton's forces. Yet physics always
comes to rest, at last, upon magic. And by magic I
mean a set of inexplicable underlying facts
of nature. Mary Shelley caught the dilemma in the
introduction to her book Frankenstein. She
set out to explain how she came upon her idea.
"Everything," she began,
must have a beginning. That beginning must be
linked to something that went before. The Hindoos
give the world an elephant to support it, but the
elephant stands on a tortoise. Invention [is not
created] out of the void, but out of chaos. The
materials must first be there.
The materials of physics are a minimal set of
unexplained facts, and all our explanations come to
rest upon those facts. Newton freed physics by
being perfectly clear on that point. It is not by
eliminating magic from physics that we move ahead,
but by reducing magic to the barest possible
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds