A history of science is something of an oxymoron, as scientific work provides the categories, some secure, others less so, through which we look back and make sense of something. But what? There is no march of progress to be seen. We get vaccines and we get the atomic bomb. We get the technical skills to perform open heart surgery, and we get the technical skills to cut down the rainforest and plunder the carbon reserves under the ground. Newton’s genius is celebrated and claimed as our heritage. His alchemy and more urgent concern with biblical prophecy is ignored. This is not a straight line.
Alchemy and magic arise at the periphery of science, shifting and changing meaning from one era to another. Egyptian alchemy is not Arab alchemy is not the alchemy of John Dee, but there is something constant that leaves a recognisable signature in the wondrous evocative images that defy interpretation, the obscure and occult instructions, and the concern with transmutation of everything. Metals are, of course, important here, but not for a single reason, nor as an exclusive concern. Nor is this to be understood as the outward sign of an inner spiritual or psychological quest. Those terms are modern, and simply inapplicable to those labouring in Alexandria, Babylon or Prague.
What if there is, though, a Magnum Opus? A grand work that continues today, spinning off both sense and nonsense in its activity, generating science and alchemy and magic together. If we interpret the results of our distributed toil and inquiry differently, we might seem to perceive its contours. For computers, satellites, and cinema might be seen as the products, not of either science or alchemy, but of their shared underlying form of inquiry, and a testament to their sophistication. Oil painting and music festivals are possible because we can alter the way light courses, and because we are skilled, whether we know it or not, in the theurgic arts. The boons and banes we produce are produced by a common energetic engagement with the properties of substances, their optical characteristics, and their transmutations. It seems clear that such a work, if even thought of, would be indescribable in a vocabulary that has developed to draw a line between science and alchemy, and to describe our own self-image using only those terms on the correct side of the divide.
We cannot see the magnum opus, for it is inherently inarticulable. Articulated, it becomes either nonsense or dogma. The apprentice to the magnum opus knows that she cannot know the work she participates in, but she believes that she contributes to the work nonetheless. Alchemists have much in common with cathedral builders: they hope that the project they contribute to is the glorious work, but they also know they cannot ever be certain. Those whose activities are Ora et Labora, or prayer and work, do not advertise themselves. Many labour for confused and poorly understood purposes. Purpose is assumed to be something the individual may find, for themselves only. It is not to be expected to arise from collective activity.
But most activity, most work, does not make headlines. It does not announce itself, and it does not assert progress over time. The real work may more closely resemble Tibetan monks drawing sand mandalas, and this distributed activity produces the world we live in and mischaracterise as fractured here, whole there, as deluded there, and rational here. We have no grasp on an abstractum called “the world”.