(Photo: ESA/Hubble and NASA)
What do cosmologists dream about?
The study of particle physics seems light years away from me here at my writing desk, Autumnal sunshine streaming through the window. Yet the discipline examines both what surrounds me and what is within. I can’t see it, but it is all here. I am made of the things these scientists seek under powerful electron microscopes, as is my desk and my dog Ben, who is now staring at me for his next walk through space-time. I’d better be quick with this blog.
Empedocles of Sicily (c. 500BC), generally accepted as one of the early founders of science, asserted that the base constituents of all of the universe are earth, water, air and fire; the four classical elements. These may, at first, seem miles away from cutting edge science of today, but they really aren’t, considering the great thinkers of the time only had their biology and imaginations, and zero technological wizardry. Peter Kingsley in his book, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic, presents evidence that Empedocles be better described as Divine Man and Shaman, and that he belonged to the tradition of Root Cutters (Rhizotomoi) or herbal magicians. For Empedocles referred to these base units of matter not as “elements” (stoikheia), but as roots (rhizai) or root-clumps (rhizômata). Empedocles was a gardener, the best of all philosophers, of course.
Next, Aristotle endorsed minima naturalia. This concept is more complicated, meaning the smallest components of homogeneous substances in nature that are divisible, yet crucially retain the essential character of the overall form. Any divisibility below minima naturalia would no longer be that substance because the form of the substance cannot be preserved in smaller amounts. One might say, this was the beginning of modern chemistry.
Then Leucippus, Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius proposed and developed the idea of atoms (indivisibles, or the smallest possible matter). Democritus proposed matter sits within some kind of void. Now, this void…what does it contain in its entirety? Whatever the medium is, in which all things exist, is this the mysterious fifth element?
Traditional, philosophical religions of the East had already considered this question. Aether is the fifth classical element in ancient Greek philosophy and science, similar to the Hindu akasha. In Greek thought it seems that the aether was the celestial fire, the pure essence of where the gods lived and that which they breathed. In this connection, it seems that aether is radiative heat like that of the sun, able to travel through empty space, or alternatively rooted in the idea of what physicists refer to now as Dark Matter.
Quintessence is the Latinate name of the fifth element used by medieval alchemists for a medium similar or identical to that thought to make up the heavenly bodies. Sulphur, mercury combined with quintessence (more likely, multiple distilled alcohol), was thought to be the elixir for an enduring life. Of course, no-one achieved such a miracle. What a pity! In ordinary language, quintessence and the corresponding adjective quintessential are also used in the figurative sense of “(a thing) that is the perfect example of its kind.”
“The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?”
(William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark)
Alchemy is now perceived as simply magic, at best, an early proto-scientific inquiry combining chemistry, physics, astrology, art, semiotics, metallurgy, medicine, and mysticism. Practitioners weren’t confined to using the scientific method. Some Christian alchemists claimed the practice was the inner teaching; the aim of conjuring the philosopher’s stone (lapis) was equitable to Christ-experience, a new birth. The Vatican issued encyclicals against alchemy, but many church leaders, as well as scientists and philosophers, defended the tradition. There were significant discoveries made by alchemists, none-the-less, and helped to provide a foundation for science today as we know it.
On that note, Ben is now a very discontented dog (no matter how much star dust circulates in his system). I must now take him out for a wander, and we shall look out for lapis along the river… you never know. Stranger things have happened (aka President Trump). I will return to cosmologists’ dreams with more discoveries, not least gravitational waves. Later.