Monday, June 9, 2008

Putting science into a test tube

Following is a quote describing a 17th century experiment by some
alchemists, especially one named Kenelm Digby who died around 1625.
The first thing that jumps out from this quote is how different
science was almost 400 years ago.
The results described we would not regard as credible. Of course it is not surprising that the quote sounds archaic -- the language is
poetic sounding. This can be fun to savor. But see what you think of this description of something the writer is calling "palingenesis." And my comments after the quote. Quote:

Never was a philosophical imagination more beautiful than that exquisite
Palingenesis, as it has been termed from the Greek, or a regeneration;
or rather, the apparitions of animals and plants. ...
Digby, and the whole of that admirable school, discovered in the ashes
of plants their primitive forms, which were again raised up by the
force of heat. Nothing, they say, perishes in nature; all is but a
continuation, or a revival. The semina of resurrection are concealed in
extinct bodies, as in the blood of man; the ashes of roses will again
revive into roses, though smaller and paler than if they had been
planted: unsubstantial and unodoriferous, they are not roses which grew
on rose-trees, but their delicate apparitions; and, like apparitions,
they are seen but for a moment! The process of the Palingenesis,
this picture of immortality, is described. These philosophers having
burnt a flower, by calcination disengaged the salts from its ashes, and
deposited them in a glass phial; a chemical mixture acted on it, till
in the fermentation they assumed a bluish and spectral hue. This dust,
thus excited by heat, shoots upwards into its primitive forms; by
sympathy the parts unite, and while each is returning to its destined
place, we see distinctly the stalk, the leaves, and the flower, arise:
it is the pale spectre of a flower coming slowly forth from its ashes.
The heat passes away, the magical scene declines, till the whole matter
again precipitates itself into the chaos at the bottom. This vegetable
phœnix lies thus concealed in its cold ashes, till the presence of heat
produced this resurrection—as in its absence it returns to its death.

End of quote.

This is empiricism, the spirit of scientific inquiry asking questions, sincerely concerned to get the outcome, though, it seems doubtful these investigators processing some
vegetable matter in a test tube could have seen what they said they
saw, Yet, a spirit of investigation and curiosity and the thrill of knowledge is apparent in the quote. Although they describe something that I doubt they saw, I am calling this empiricism.

what of the questions behind this investigation, what were the
experimenters looking for? These "apparitions of animals and plants"
prove the truth that "all is but a continuation."
The subject of their studies was DNA. They were using the only ideas
they possessed to investigate a recurring reality. We assume that our
20th century science is superior, and so no doubt it is, unless we pause and struggle to comprehend a larger picture.

We cannot know, what they did not know, 400 years ago, and THAT is the edge
between what we know and what we are ignorant of. To touch that
boundary is to change it. We cannot confidently assert that we, 400 years later, know more than our forebears, to a relevant extent. We manifestly cannot know what we do not know, So perhaps we are not really in a different situation that those gentlemen 400 years ago. Perhaps both our and the 17th century science, are, compared to the extent of what we do NOT know, tiny sandspits.

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