Alchemy and skepticism:
There has been a bit of a change in attitude in the air regarding alchemy.  For one thing, Isaac Newton was interested in it, a fact that was not widely noised abroad in my youth.  And it appears that not all of our contempt for the field has been justified.  (Alchemists, Ancient and Modern ECONOMIST vol. 398 no. 8722 February 20, 2011 page 85 reporting an address by Lawrence Principle of Johns Hopkins to the American Association for the Advancement of Science)  Dr. Principle is interested in rehabilitating the image of alchemy, which apparently has been under a cloud for some nine centuries.  The article suggests that the alchemists were not charlatans to the man but included legitimate seekers of truth who simply were wrong.

Ah how deep is prejudice. 

Of course they were not wrong at all.  They were seeking to transmute other metals into gold not out of greed but out of the belief that they would thus learn more about the nature of reality.  And, yes, you can do it.  Zap some platinum with enough protons and you can make gold.  No, it’s not practical, but that was not the real point.  The point was reaching a deeper understanding of the world, and if particle physics is not that, then at least it’s a jolly good attempt if maybe not as much fun as chemistry. 

But I am quite in sympathy with the article’s other point, which is that the alchemists were at times deceived by their own observations, seeing into them what they wanted to see.  And that is a danger for all.

It is certainly a danger for me.  Over the years I did not start out saying, “I wish we had to marry cousins,” at least not consciously.  I do not believe it now.  I believe we ought to know that failure to do so has dire consequences for fertility.  But I think we ought to have the choice.  Still the specter of the unexamined assumption dogs me day and night, not least of all for the lack of a sufficient dialogue on the topic.

But those who cherish the notion that the bigger and more diverse the gene pool the better, for them without malice an awakening swift and rude.

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