Friday, November 18, 2016

Your Friday Reading: Magic

It’s Friday afternoon! Let’s look into the archives of physics and pretend we’re still working.

You might be wondering how I find these bits of science history to present to you. The answer is the Niels Bohr library here at the American Center for Physics in College Park, Maryland, an amazing compilation of the most international textbooks and books about physics/science I’ve ever seen. (I’ve spent my fair share of time in science libraries; my labmates at CERN can tell you I love surrounding myself with science books.) I’ve never seen a library in the US with such an extensive collection of science journals and books from the mid twentieth century that includes Soviet journals in the original Russian!

I enjoy perusing the stacks in stodgy, dusty libraries. Besides bookstores, it’s where I thrive. At Niels Bohr, surrounded by history books and science books, you feel like if only you spent enough time in this library (and, of course, were fluent in French, German, Italian, Japanese and Russian, to start), you would be able to learn everything you ever wanted to know.

Which might sound similar—and I’ll give away my age here—to the great library romance we all grew up reading, the library in Harry Potter. (Like all of us, I still like to fancy myself a bit of a Hermione, even if I’ll never quite reach that level of glory. Although I will have you know I took the high-stakes Buzzfeed quiz titled, “What percentage Hermione are you? And got a 100. So, you know. What more evidence do you need?)

And that’s how, wandering the library here among the books and secrets, I came across a 13-volume work on a shelf and did a double take. The title read History of Magic.

As we all know, A History of Magic is the textbook from Harry Potter that Hermione has down cold and of which she is always recounting relevant sections to loveable sidekicks Harry and Ron.

Image Credit: Eran Moore Rea at Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics

But, crucially, this is not entirely a left turn from my investigations into the history of science. In fact, that multiple-volume work was historian Lynn Thorndike’s opus, the first volume published in 1923: A History of Magic and Experimental Science.

Thorndike’s series spans all the way from the first to the seventeenth century (it ends with Newton, the “last of the magicians”).

I spoke with Matt Jones, a historian at Columbia University (where, incidentally, Lynn Thorndike’s papers are housed), who told me that Thorndike worked against the very idea that there was a Renaissance, because Thorndike wanted to show the vibrancy of intellectual life in the Middle Ages before the Renaissance. Now, A History of Magic and Experimental Science is seen by many historians as a catalog of sorts, bringing together an enormous body of primary sources on magic and the footsteps to scientific research before the Renaissance.

“[A History of Magic and Experimental Science] has a funny position,” Jones said. “…[Thorndike] was part of a general intellectual turn [over several decades]…What happens is that in the second half of the 20th century, from say the 1970s forward, there comes to be a revolution of what really matters in a history of science, and that takes a lot of different paths [including especially] the intense emphasis on experiment and the famous experimentalists of science.”

“That opens up [the field] to a large body work centered around the question, 'What is experiment?' which is still part of the field of the history of science,” said Jones.

Jones connected Thorndike’s collection of primary sources to Frances Yates’ seminal 1964 work, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition which, as Jones said, worked “to ground the development of the scientific attitude in something that seems profoundly counter to being scientific”—that is, the “natural magic” of the Middle Ages. Yates’ thesis was that the scientific attitude was connected to the idea that humans have the “ability to modify the world,” Jones said. “[Yates argued] that human beings come to have a self-conception of having more mastery in the world largely with this sense of empowerment that comes with the magical conception.”

Although Yates’s ideas were controversial, she inspired other attempts to rethink the history of the scientific revolution. In their 1985 work Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer present the turn to experiment in the second half of the 17th century as one solution to the old religious idea that humans’ sensory experience was forever befuddled. This notion, Shapin and Schaffer argued, gave scientists (or “natural philosophers” as they were called at the time) like Robert Boyle the impetus to argue that controlled experiments would generate more insight into the natural world than everyday observation.

Even in the 1920s, Thorndike’s ideas about the connection between historical science and historical magic were controversial. As he wrote in the introduction to the first volume of A History of Magic and Experimental Science, “I shall endeavor to justify this use of the word from the sources as I proceed. My idea is that magic and experimental science have been connected in their development; that magicians were perhaps the first to experiment; and that the history of both magic and experimental science can be better understood by studying them together.”

Thorndike’s points here are not without their critics. Historian Dana Durand wrote in his 1942 review of Thorndike’s work, “There is [in Thorndike’s work] no clear separation between unique, casual, passive noting of phenomena, and repeated, planned, active attempts to reproduce them.” Instead of providing a through and compelling case for the connection between the history of magic and the history of experimental science, Durand thought, what Thorndike actually did was quite different. “What he [Thorndike] has done…has been to extend a standing invitation to the historians of seventeenth-century science to turn their steps backward, instead of restlessly pressing forward along the lines of modern ‘progress.’”

The history of ancient science remains a subject of scholarly inquiry, partly thanks to the breadth of Thorndike’s collection of primary sources.

So if you ever have a moment to feel like Hermione in the Forbidden Section of the Hogwarts library, take a look at the historical and scientific sections of your library, or, if possible, take trip to the Niels Bohr library here at the American Center for Physics. You never know what you might find.

—Eran Moore Rea

For further information:

Matt Jones’s new book, Reckoning with Matter: Calculating Machines, Innovation, and Thinking about Thinking from Pascal to Babbage.

The 1942 review of Thorndike’s work.

Lynn Thorndike's A History of Magic and Experimental Science available for free on

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