What Would Newton Do? Rep. Paul Broun’s Scientific Asynchrony

The other day my 10-year-old daughter came home incensed: a friend had told her of a congressman’s assertion that evolution and the Big Bang Theory were lies sent by Satan to deceive Americans.  She and her friend were spittin’ mad and spent their lunch hour talking about his stupidity (yeah, my daughter has some cool friends).

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Rep. Paul Broun

I was plenty shocked, so I decided to look this up.  I was floored.  The congressman in question, Rep. Paul Broun, proclaimed to a group of sportsmen at a church in Hartwell, Georgia, “God’s Word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” (August Chronicle)

Pretty bad, but it gets worse: Rep. Broun is a medical doctor, somebody who, presumably, studied some science at some point.

Even worse?: Rep. Broun sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Shortly after this episode (and an extended discussion with my daughter about faith and science, God and creation—about what early modern natural philosophers would have called “the book of God” and “the book of Nature”), I saw this article about the BBC’s documentary, Isaac Newton: The Last Magician. The film details a perceived oddity of Newton’s career: an obsession with alchemy that lasted until his death. It may come as a surprise to some that a towering figure in the story of modern science was obsessed with a field we associate with magical thinking, pseudo-science, and occult study.

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Godfrey Kneller’s 1689 portrait of Isaac Newton (age 46)

The juxtaposition of these two events—my daughter asking me about Broun and reading about Newton’s research interests—made me think about the asynchrony of science. I mean, it doesn’t all happen in a straight line, does it?  We posit, hypothesize, doubt, prove, doubt again, and then prove again. But while we’re doubting and proving, we’re holding different sets of assumption in our head, provisionally balancing outcomes and worldviews.

Newton could write the magisterial Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and analyze the refraction and diffraction of light in the Opticks, all while influenced by Rosicrucians in his search for the Philosopher’s Stone.

Broun is trained in biology and chemistry. He’s made his living based on science determined by modern scientific practices.  Yet he can still assert that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang Theory are lies sent by the Devil.

But the more I thought about it, the less comfortable I became with lumping Newton and Broun together in this asynchrony.

First, of course, there is the possibility that Broun only made those statements in order to secure the evangelical Christian vote, that it was a calculated misrepresentation of his actual beliefs.

But there’s something deeper, too.  Newton’s alchemy relied on principles very similar to those that would eventually yield the modern field of chemistry.  Exciting new finds in the natural world seemed to buttress the kinds of ancient claims made by the alchemists.  As Natalie Angier notes in her excellent article on Newton in The New York Times:

There were plenty of theoretical and empirical reasons at the time to take the principles of alchemy seriously, to believe that compounds could be broken down into their basic constituents and those constituents then reconfigured into other, more desirable substances.

Miners were pulling up from the ground twisted bundles of copper and silver that were shaped like the stalks of a plant, suggesting that veins of metals and minerals were proliferating underground with almost florid zeal.

The principles of alchemy that Newton relied on were not so very different from modern scientists’ shared assumptions.  Again, Algier:

The conceptual underpinning to the era’s alchemical fixation was the idea of matter as hierarchical and particulate — that tiny, indivisible and semipermanent particles come together to form ever more complex and increasingly porous substances, a notion not so different from the reality revealed by 20th-century molecular biology and quantum physics.

With the right solvents and the perfect reactions, the researchers thought, it should be possible to reduce a substance to its core constituents — its corpuscles, as Newton called them — and then prompt the corpuscles to adopt new configurations and programs. Newton and his peers believed it was possible to prompt metals to grow, or “vegetate,” in a flask. After all, many chemical reactions were known to leave lovely dendritic residues in their wake. Dissolve a pinch of silver and mercury in a solution of nitric acid, drop in a lump of metal amalgam, and soon a spidery, glittering “Tree of Diana” will form on the glass. Or add iron to hydrochloric acid and boil the solution to dryness. Then prepare a powdery silicate mix of sand and potassium carbonate. Put the two together, and you will have a silica garden, in which the ruddy ferric chloride rises and bifurcates, rises and bifurcates, as though it were reaching toward sunlight and bursting into bloom. rises and bifurcates, rises and bifurcates, as though it were reaching toward sunlight and bursting into bloom.

The principles and assumptions underpinning Broun’s scientific background (his medical school education, for example), however, are markedly different from the evangelic Christian tenets he proclaims.  Whereas modern scientific assertions require prediction based on observation, Broun relies on literal interpretation of an ancient text.

I guess a lot of this is just me thinking out loud (which is what blogs are supposed to be, right?).  What do you all think?

 

The Coolest Thing You’ll See All Day: The Renaissance Anatomy “Pop-Up Book”

My eldest daughter—burgeoning animal-rights activist and wannabe vegan (alas, she likes bacon and cheese too much to commit)—is supposed to do her first dissection soon in biology class.  She is not happy about it, and after some thought, I realized I wasn’t really either: with all of the virtual tools at our disposal, do we really need to kill animals and expose our kids to harsh chemicals for 7th-grade biology?

So I’m doing some prep to make a case to the school district for using a virtual program like Frogouts or McGraw Hill’s dissection tool.

This may be a moot point (as the school district may already have something in place as a substitution), but it got me to thinking again about the bizarre history of dissection practices and early instances of virtual dissection.  Unlike in current medical schools, where a cadaver is shared between three or four medical students, in the middle ages dissections occurred in a theater.  The actual cutting was performed by a surgeon—a relatively low-level practitioner who couldn’t claim the vaulted status of physician.  Guiding the surgeon was the professor of medicine, who sat on high and read from Galen, the undisputed ancient authority on medicine.  Actual physicians seldom (if ever) cut into a real body (there’s some discussion of this here), like this:

medieval dissection
Illustration of a dissection from the Fasciculo di Medicina, ed by Johannes Ketham, 1493

In the Renaissance, a physician named Andreas Vesalius challenged Galen’s primacy and encouraged physicians and medical students to cut into the bodies themselves.  Though the idea caught like wildfire, there was a hitch: it was not easy (and often not lawful) to obtain human bodies for dissection.  At different times and in different places, those wanting to dissect a human body had to obtain them from professional grave-robbers who kept the anatomists in fresh bodies.

It is perhaps due to the desire to have first-hand experience, and the difficulty of getting fresh bodies, that there was a boon in the publication of what are called “fugitive sheets,” or what a professor of mine in grad school called “Renaissance pop-up books.”  Basically, they are anatomy books with illustrations that can be lifted and folded back to provide a sort of early modern virtual dissection.  Here’s a great example of a fugitive sheet from the Wellcome Collection:

Anatomical fugitive sheets of a skeleton, male figure and a female figure.  Wittenberg, 1573

Anatomical fugitive sheet, male figure

Anatomical fugitive sheet, female figure

(Really, you have, have, have to click on these to see them—they’re cool.)

Anatomical flap books were not just a Renaissance phenomenon, however.  Here’s an amazing website from Duke University Library’s exhibit, Animated Anatomies.

And here it is in video form:

 

And if that is not the coolest thing you’ve seen all day, then . . . well, you have an amazing life.

The Perils of Wisdom: Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month, March

A Renaissance poesy ring inscribed with "In love abide till Death devide," a sentiment Henry, Lord Neville, might have done well to remember.  (This ring from medieval-rings.com can be yours for a mere $6,500)
A Renaissance poesy ring inscribed with the verse, “In love abide till Death devide,” a sentiment Henry, Lord Neville, might have done well to remember. (This ring, from medieval-rings.com, can be yours for a mere $6,500)

Have you ever met one of those peckerheads who’s almost too pathetic for so robust an insult?  The kind of guy who doesn’t want to do bad things, but would be okay with it if bad things happened to people he didn’t like?*

Our Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead for March** is that guy. His name was Henry, Lord Neville, the earl of Westmorland, and he conspired to murder his wife and father.  Kind of.

I learned about Henry in this great book called The Sorcerer’s Tale by Alec Ryrie that I bought at the Wellcome Collection bookstore (not where you’d expect to find a book about a sorcerer). I bought it because I’m fascinated by the intersections of magic and science in 16th- and 17th-century England, and this book didn’t disappoint: Ryrie meticulously recreates the life of Gregory Wisdom (yes, that seems to have been his real name), who managed to craft a life as (in unequal parts) con-man, magician, and surgeon in 16th-century London.

Ryrie’s book is about Wisdom, but this blog post is about Henry, Lord Neville. As Ryrie describes it, Lord Henry was easy pickings for a charlatan like Wisdom.  He was rich, dumb, greedy, and unhappy in his marriage.

Wisdom was introduced to Lord Henry by one of Henry’s servants, the euphonically named Ninian Menville (who was also a massive peckerhead, but maybe we should leave that for another month).

Wisdom offered to make a magic ring for Lord Henry, a talisman that would help him win at cards and dice.  Not that Wisdom was in the habit of making such rings for just anybody, mind you . . . only his “dear friends.”  He assured Lord Henry that the ring would net £2000 or £3000 in only a few months, and for this amazing trinket he required only a pension of £20 for life (enough, says Ryrie, to comfortably retire on). Lord Henry took the bait.

The ring didn’t work. Wisdom blamed Lord Henry, accusing him of laying with a woman not his wife, an act that would void the ring of any magic it contained.  (This was a pretty astute guess on Wisdom’s part, as Lord Henry was known to have an unhappy marriage and to frequent the brothels as well as the gambling houses.)

You’d think Lord Henry would have nothing more to do with Wisdom, but ignorance and greed are powerful forces.  To distract Lord Henry from the ring debacle, Wisdom revealed that another magician of his acquaintance had told him of a vast buried treasure on the Nevilles’ own estate, a cache of gold worth well over £2000.  Of course, somebody would have to go retrieve it, and that somebody would need traveling expenses…

Lord Henry was out another £6.

Up till now, Lord Henry had proved to be an idiot, but he wasn’t yet a peckerhead.  That was about to change.

After allowing time for Menville to soothe Lord Henry’s ruffled feathers, Wisdom again showed up, this time tempting Lord Henry with a different kind of bait: “My lord, I know you love not your wife” said Wisdom (according to Lord Henry’s own account), “whereby you lead an abominable life in whoredom, which will be your destruction both of body and soul. If your wife were dead, then might you choose one, which you might find in your heart to love, and by that means lead an honest and a godly life. And here I have a book, wherewith I can dispatch her, and not known but that she died of God’s hand.”

Lord Henry wrote that he was shocked—gasp, just shocked!—by Wisdom’s proposal to use magic and spells to murder his wife, but somehow he overcame his revulsion in order to meet Wisdom and Menville again three weeks later. This time, though, they informed him that they had placed a spell on his father as well.  This double murder would make Lord Henry not just a bachelor, but a *rich* bachelor.

The spell on the father was a bit of a surprise, it seems, and seems to have caused Lord Henry some guilt–though not enough guilt to do anything about the situation for several weeks. However it came about, Lord Henry had Wisdom captured and claims to have gone, with Menville, to the duke of Suffolk’s house to confess his sins.  Unfortunately, claimed Lord Henry, the duke was too ill to see him (a clear fabrication, as the duke, who did get sick later in the year, was perfectly capable of receiving visitors during the time in question).

Oh well.  He tried. Shrug.

He let Wisdom go, perhaps finally realizing that he, too, would be implicated in any charge brought against the sorcerer.

Lord Henry’s wife, Anne, lived.  The earl lived.  Everything went on as normal until a year later, when the story finally broke.  Lord Henry was imprisoned, and there was the requisite scandal.

And then, here’s the crazy thing—after a little cooling-off period, Lord Henry was free to go.  He went back to his wife and father and resumed his gambling and whoring and all-around-jerkiness.  He outlived his wife and lived to assume the earldom from his father.

What gets me about Lord Henry is his bullshit passiveness in the proposed murder of his wife and father.  One can imagine him throwing up his hands, feigning helplessness:  “Oh well, what could I do?  I mean, the spell was already cast!  And, I mean, my wife was going to get to go to heaven, after all…”

So, for behavior befitting a peckerhead (albeit a weak, limp, flaccid peckerhead), I nominate Henry, Lord Neville, for March’s Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month.

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*Kind of like George Costanza from Seinfeld, maybe? I still haven’t recovered from the episode in which George called up Marisa Tomei for a date mere hours after Susan died from licking too many of the wedding invitation envelopes . . . but that’s fodder for an altogether different kind of blog.

**I know, I know, I skipped February.  I was too busy celebrating Valentine’s Day and the birthday of my decidedly non-vile-hearted husband.

For Valentine’s Day: The 17th-Century Method for Knowing When Your Heart is Broken

t-shirt available at redbubble.com
t-shirt available at redbubble.com

I’ve been happily married for almost 18 years, but my kids listen to enough Taylor Swift (Lord help me) for me to know what a broken heart means in 21st-century America:  It means “breaking down and coming undone,” feeling that “I’m only me when I’m with you” (don’t get me started on how messed up this is), and sopping up the “teardrops on my guitar” (Taylor Swift lyrics).

Maybe what Taylor needs is a good dose of 17th-century medical inquiry. How did you know when your heart was broken?  When it stopped beating.  Probably because of a plague.  

For a more nuanced understanding of the workings of the heart, we owe a debt of gratitude to physician and natural philosopher William Harvey, who is credited with “discovering” the circulation of the blood.  Harvey was the first to systematically describe the action of the heart and the circuitous motion of the blood in the body.

Before Harvey, most physicians followed 2nd-century Roman physician Galen, who theorized that the heart’s role was to produce the body’s heat: venous blood came from digested food that was “cooked” in the liver and imbued with vital spirit. Other parts of the body sucked up this blood for nourishment.  Some of the blood that went to the heart  passed through the ventricular septum, where it was further refined and mixed with “inspired air” from the lungs. This new concoction was the arterial blood, also used for nourishment.

One critical problem for 17th-century doctors, however, was that medical schools favored a model of dissection in which the professor merely read anatomical texts; a hired anatomist (sometimes, if not often, himself illiterate) did the actual dissection.  So the anatomy professor did not always realize that what was in the text was not what could be found in the body itself.

Harvey, who insisted on performing dissections himself, observed that the heart simply does not behave the way the textbook said it would. Nor, to his aggravation, could he find any proof that ventricular blood could pass through the septum.

Another vexing problem for Harvey was how the blood could circulate around the body without reversing direction, pooling in the hands and feet. This was cleverly solved, however, by considering a discovery made by his professor at Padua, Hieronymus Fabricius, that veins had valves that could stop the flow of blood. Harvey relied on a beautifully simple experiment to show the function of the veins: you can see it in the video below from 23:16-24:55Do be careful, however, as the rest of the video has much blood and organ stuff.

William Harvey and the Circulation of the Blood. Douglas Fisher Productions. 1978

Here, also, is a picture of the experiment.

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Image of veins from Harvey’s Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, Wikimedia Commons

So, play along at home, my friends! Try these experiments: if your blood does not flow in the correct direction, likely your heart is broken.  But if the experiment is successful, your heart is in fine working condition and primed to have a very happy Valentine’s Day.

Edited to add:  I told my daughter about this post, and she sent me this meme to share with you all. We are clearly a family of literalists.

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