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Technology, is it science or alchemy?

Symbols for X and YWoman and man? The X and Y for creating life? Actually, symbols for copper and iron, designated by the alchemists; curiously, X/Y to the Bronze Age overtaken by Iron, the supremacy of technology.

Our sixth-graders are learning that alchemy was a science that is no longer practiced. I must be oversimplifying the lesson, because it occurs to me that modern science, on the contrary, has become exclusively alchemist.

Not in its eastern spiritual form seeking enlightenment, nor the pre-Chemistry Islamic alchemy of Geber, but its indecorous European operation in pursuit of wealth-conjuring.

We call it applied science, it’s the academic denomination which gets the funding, whose patrons justify their investment in exchange for technological leaps, intent to deliver mankind from the laws of nature, by spinning straw into gold.

It feels no less heretical to say it. Because we know something of alchemy’s prospects.

As distinguished from the spiritual seekers, the European alchemists were charged by their monarchs to make gold. They had very little to go on, except that lead was a substance closely resembling gold, it had the heft and malleability, it needed only luster. Those kings inclined to invest in laboratories jumped into the technology race. The more their scientists came to understand the material properties, the closer it seemed they got. Eventually of course we can all see on the Periodic Table that the alchemists had only to nudge Pb just a couple of frames over. But now we understand elements are as intractable as prime numbers.

In their early grasping at straws, the alchemists figured the seven heavenly bodies which moved across the stars, might have an influence over the metals they hoped to manipulate. Maybe not so strangely, they were never closer to the truth.

No, and not even.

A Wiki-tangent: the seven celestial objects visible to the ancients already held influence over the days of the week. They were, in order of proximity to the Earth from farthest to nearest: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus, Mercury, and the moon. The Romans believed that these beings kept watch over the Earth in hourly turns, repeating in cycles of seven. Thus the English days of the week are named for which god/planet took the first hour that day, starting with Saturn’s day, Sunday, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus (we substituted their Norse god counterparts: Tiw, Wodan, Thor and Frigg).

Alchemy symbols for the metal

The celestial bodies were associated by many cultures with the classic elements, earth, fire, water, air. When the alchemists correlated the planets to the known metallic elements, the sun became gold; the moon, silver; Mercury, itself; Venus, copper; Mars, iron; Jupiter, tin; and Saturn, lead. Interesting alignment isn’t it? Lead and tin seemed the choicest starting blocks from which to morph a precious metal, but astronomically, they were the furthest away.

The answer was literally in the stars, and could have saved a lot of trouble.

Eventually man learned that he couldn’t change the elements. Since then, the gold-from-lead alchemist has gone the way of the druid. But what of today’s wealth-from-ether scientists? How is man’s presumption to master Gaia any less foolish than the gibberish of the alchemists?

I wonder where modern man should be looking for his best clues to scientific advances. For all we enhance our measure of the known world, progress seems to lead us further from a holistic understanding. Mankind’s earliest wisdom might lack for technological remedies, but may already have the answers to what will be sustainable.

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