Evolution of the Sciences

Even as a young child I was very interested in astronomy. One of the most irritating things about this was when an indulgent adult would patronizingly ask me what I was interested in.


"Really? Astrology? How interesting. What sign are you then?"

Even as a five year old I knew the difference between the two. Astronomy was the science of stars, moons, planets, telescopes, galaxies, lunar modules, comets and all the interesting stuff. Astrology was, not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks.

And it still is, isn't it? Russell Grant's star may not be in the ascendant as much any more but there still seems to be a mass market for delusion. Many newspapers still carry horoscopes, including the Metro which is supplied free to the commuters of the UK on a daily basis. Does nobody ever question the fact that the central idea of these predictions requires 5 million other people across the country to share their fate diurnally?

Oh but it's just a bit of fun, they say.

It's also a nice little earner. OK, so the Metro is free (and it's not as if anyone reads it for the horoscope anyway) but I wonder how many people have paid to download a horoscope app to their iPhone or iPad? It's evolution in action I suppose. Wherever people are vulnerable and gullible, struggling to make sense of life in a meaningless uncaring cosmos, there will be someone trying to make a fast buck off that uncertainty. If there's a niche, a virus will evolve to exploit it.

It wasn't always that way. In the past astrology was a respectable discipline, and four or five hundred years ago was indistinguishable from astronomy, they were merely different aspects of the same system. Accurate astrological predictions demanded precise observation and recording of the positions of celestial bodies; if anything astronomers were the astrologers' technical support.

You can just imagine the Astrologer Royal rushing in with his robes flapping shrieking that he simply must have the latest accurate planetary almanack figures in order to to bring the King his Breakfast Good News whilst the Chief Astronomer, wiping his hands on a oily rag, shakes his head mournfully and points out that the lack of funding for new telescopes is directly responsible for the poor quality of current celestial data...

But the point is that out of the nonsense came something wonderful, and from this we can surmise that every science must pass through a childhood and adolescence before it starts making sense.

Alchemy is another case in point. Nowadays largely forgotten, the word itself appropriated by the common tongue merely to mean an inexplicable change, alchemy was once big business. For one thing it promised access to unlimited reserves of precious gold without all that tedious mucking about in mines, so it's no wonder that every Tom, Dick and Dee was interested. Even someone as well respected as Sir Isaac Newton, responsible for prisms, gravity and calculus and considered by some to be the first true scientist in the modern sense, was blinded by the promises of alchemy (not to mention the mercury fumes) and wasted a lot of his time in pursuit of the Philosopher's Stone and the Elixir of Life.

Of course it is possible to change lead into gold by nuclear transmutation, but attempting to do so by mixing up the minerals and fooling around with fire and potions was not only barking up the wrong tree, but barking up a tree that was in the wrong scientific forest all together.

But without alchemy we'd never had developed chemistry. Once again a flowerbed full of bullshit proves to be excellent fertilizer allowing something better to flourish.

Could this happen again? Modern rationalism holds that All Weird Shit is Bunk - not just the aforementioned astrology and alchemy but all the other stuff as well - ghosts, astral projection, ESP, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, ouija boards, leylines, gods. Could it be possible that some of this rubbish, whilst still remaining rubbish, might point us in the direction of something new and exciting?

I'd like to think so. As I have mentioned before, I think it is extremely unlikely that we already know all that there is to be known. A hundred years ago we had no idea of the extent of modern quantum theory and the ridiculous things it would make us believe.

Who knows what else is lurking amongst the shit and what it will expect of us?


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