Isaac Newton never found the philosopher’s stone or the Elixir of Life, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. We look back on this as a comical thing. What was the world’s most influential scientist thinking? How did he not recognize that alchemy was fundamentally a different — and illegitimate! — game compared to his hard-science work?
He was also a bit of a theologian. Oh my.
This critique of Newton, that he apparently couldn’t tell the difference between real science and hocus pocus, very much applies to many an academic today. Here’s where I could list names, and there are so many. Where to start. Just consider Jordan Peterson, who mixes psychology with Jungian whimsy and Christian symbolism. Then there are the postmodern scholars (whom Peterson loudly critiques) who lean into in vogue Theory to further political agendas rather than unbiased pursuits of knowledge. And of course there are all manner of fringe characters like Deepak Chopra who merge spiritual words with hard physics and astronomy.
Everyone is a little religious in one regard or another. Everyone is a little bit like Isaac Newton with his alchemy.
The temptation to get sloppy with the fine lines between domains of knowledge is just so great!
The reason why is: the universal resonance of poetry. Yes, poetry: the unquantifiable. It’s something that, in certain moods, rings true with each of us.
Domains of knowledge are important. But we shouldn’t pretend like it’s not also fun — and fundamentally human — to skewer the lines between them.
Pataphysics does this oh so delightfully. Invented in the early 1900s, pataphysics, defined as the “science” of imaginary solutions, inspired Dadaism and surrealism and influenced several postmodern philosophers. Rather than starting from science and peppering in a little poetry, Alfred Jarry — the founder of pataphysics — does this in reverse. The great absurdist knows at every level that he’s writing over-the-top fiction. But he writes in a mock scientific manner with excruciating, exacting details. And he calls it a science.
The result is predominantly literary. Or even purely literary. But the domain skewering is so effective that you see science differently. You get confused for a moment and think possibly it’s science that’s in fact literature. And doesn’t a core piece of the scientific process — the published study — exist as a written document that, to be useful, requires some measure of literary skill?
Once a little poetry infects the world, it’s impossible to pry it out entirely. We’ve got to live with that. Which makes nuts-and-bolts hard science practices (observation and testing) all the more consequential. Rockets need to work and so do dentist drills and vaccines. We need you, real science!
But as Isaac Newton wrote, “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.”
Do you know who can calculate the madness of people?
Poets and pataphysicians.