Giants’ Shoulders #29: Esoteric Science Special

Athanasius Kircher's museum

Heterodoxology is proud to present the twenty-ninth installment of your favourite History of Science Blog Carnival: The Giant’s Shoulders. This time featuring an Esoteric Science Special, dedicated to all those esoteric pursuits of superior knowledge; a celebration of all strange, alien, and counterintuitive methods that have been attempted to dissect, read, or tame nature’s secrets, from renaissance natural philosophy to present-day Grand Unified Theories – from the cleverly inventive, through the hopelessly megalomaniac, to the simply misguided.

What better way to start than by noting the recent demonstration of a maxim dear to all lovers of knowledge: “Physicists prove that Knowledge is Power”. A goetic experiment trapping Maxwell’s demon in some strange concoction, with nano-scale beads inserted, gives flesh to the old statement attributed to Francis Bacon. Tom Wolff at Science not Fiction has more:

“The experiments were precise enough to establish a conversation rate of 28 percent, information to energy. Not really enough to solve world energy problems, but enough to prove an interesting point: Knowledge may not be exactly power, but it sure is work.”

As anyone working in academia would certainly agree.


Egyptian cosmology: Geb, Shu and Nut.

Cosmology must be at the core of any truly ambitious quest for superior knowledge. John over at Ptak Science Books presents a nice “Visual Chronology of Cosmologies”, from the Egyptian cosmos, through Inca, Mexican, Chinese representations, through early modern Europe to the 19th century.

Once cosmology has been introduced, we may continue with some pieces on classic esoteric sciences. First out: Astrology.

Daryn at PACH Smörgasbord has an installment on “Byzantine Astrology during the Reign of Manuel I Komnenos”, or, more precisely, about a talk on this topic given by Anne-Laurence Caudano:

“She opened by summarizing Manuel I’s defense of astrology. His defense rested on three pillars: proper astrology could be distinguished from demonic magic, the stars were not efficient causes, Biblical examples and quotations from Church fathers who did not condemn astrology.”

… According to Caudano, these two letters are properly understood as responses to Manuel I’s defense and show us how scholars at the time were trying separate astronomy from astrology, how they were trying to establish the boundaries for the study of the stars, and finally how science needed to be orthodox.”

Sticking to astrology, Ptak Science Books has a post on “The invisible influence of the highly visible – comets and meteors in astrology”. Some well-chosen quotations introduce the topic, of deep significance in early modern Europe:

“When beggars die there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” – Shakespeare.

“Threatening the world with Famine, Plague and War: To Princes, Death! To Kingdoms, many Crosses; To all Estates, inevitable Losses! To Herdsmen, Rot; to Plowmen, hapless Seasons; To Sailors, Storms, To Cities, Civil Treasons!” De cometis by John Gadbury, London, 1665

Comet in the skies, 1596.

The notion of occult properties has commonly been connected with the three so-called “occult sciences” (astrology, alchemy, and magia naturalis). Francesco Santos Silva writes about his research project into occult properties in early modern Portuguese medicine, at Heteropraxis.

From astrology and occult properties to alchemy: Rebekah Higgit shares her thoughts on the changing perceptions of alchemy, particularly up to the late 19th century and among different disciplinary communities, at Whewell’s Ghost:

“For many, alchemy was deeply problematic. It caused Newton’s biographer David Brewster all sorts of horrors to discover the extent of his hero’s alchemical writings in the archive: “we cannot understand how a mind of such power, and so nobly occupied with the abstractions of geometry, and the study of the material world could stoop to be even the copyist of the most contemptible alchemical poetry, and the annotator of a work, the obvious production of a fool and a knave”. Such hostility to alchemy was commonplace amongst the historically-minded opticians, mathematicians and astronomers who wrote about Newton. But what of chemists? Were they more sympathetic or even celebratory of their alchemical heritage?”

Read more to find out.

Alchemy and occult properties form a connection to the history of medicine, where a towering esoteric figure is Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim – better known as Paracelsus. Jo Hedesan has two posts (one and two) on Paracelsus available in her Esoteric Coffeehouse. If you drop in for some pitch black coffee, you might also take time to read about the “Faustian hero” Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, and about Samuel Hahnemann’s principles of homeopathy.

Moving towards (with hindsight, obviously) more conventional sciences: next up is astronomy.

Astronomy will always be close when discussing cosmological issues – not only for the historian of western science, but also for those archaeologists who venture into the field of archaeoastrology. Alun at is one of them, and he has a post on the astronomy of Australian aboriginal culture: “There are more things in heaven and earth, cobber, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”:

“Studying astronomy in culture should be simple. There’s only so much that is visible by the naked eye, and it follows predictable patterns. Modern astronomy means that we can reconstruct what was visible anywhere in the world in human history, within certain boundaries for errors. If we know what happens when, then studying a culture should just be a case of taking a shopping list of astronomical phenomena and seeing what a culture does with them. And some bad histories of astronomy read like the author is awarding marks to cultures for astronomical achievements.”

With that warning firmly in mind, and in the name of diversity of opinion, we fearlessly proceed with a list of the “Top 10 Blunders of Ancient Science”, collected by Tristan Bradshaw for Listverse.

After this interlude, we want to counterbalance with some solid history of astronomy. Thony C. at the Renaissance Mathematicus is the obvious place to look; this time, a thorough post on “Galileo’s great bluff and part of the reason why Kuhn is wrong”. Thony shows how Galileo bluffed about the battle of the “two world systems” of Ptolemy and Copernicus, at a time where, in fact:

we have seven contestant in the ring squaring off for the cosmic championship, Copernican heliocentricity, Ptolemaic geocentricity, Gilbertian geocentricity with diurnal rotation, Tychonic geo-heliocentricity, Ursian geo- heliocentricity with diurnal rotation, the Heracleidian model and last but anything but least Kepler’s elliptical heliocentricity. All of these model or systems had their supporters and detractors in the early decades of the 17th century a fact that gives a very different picture to the one presented by Galileo or Kuhn in their works. We don’t have Galileo’s two way fight with the scales stacked in favour of Copernicus or Kuhn’s Copernican paradigm ousting the Ptolemaic one in a clean revolution what we have is a plethora of astronomical models all jostling for centre stage.

Thony supplies a wonderful frontispiece plate from Riccioli’s Almagestum novum (1651), which illustrate the battle and relative strengths between some of these systems. Take your time to look carefully.

Riccioli’s Almagestum novum (1651)

The conclusion to these debates would eventually be a victory for Kepler’s elliptic system. In another post – and aligned with the esoteric theme of this month’s carnival – Thony deals with “Kepler’s Divine Geometry”. It explains how Kepler’s famous model of the planetary spheres ordered after the five regular geometric bodies (see below), published in his first book of 1596, came to him in a flash of inspiration, and furthermore was part of Kepler’s religious aspirations. As he explained in a letter to his teacher Michael Mästlin:

I am in a hurry to publish, dearest teacher, but not for my benefit… I am devoting my effort so that these things can be published as quickly as possible for the glory of God, who wants to be recognised from the Book of Nature… Just as I pledged myself to God, so my intention remains. I wanted to be a theologian, and for a while I was anguished. But, now see how God is also glorified in astronomy, through my efforts.

Read the whole story over at the Renaissance Mathematicus.

Ending the early modern section of this carnival, Kirsten Walsh asks if Newton broke his promise and feigned an hypothesis after all, at Early Modern Experimental Philosophy. The question concerns his optics, and in particular his corpuscular speculations on the nature of light.

Next up in this esoteric science special, we celebrate some personalities who made the history of science a wonderfully eccentric place. Prepare for …


First off, Kyle Munkittrick at Science not Fiction reminds us of the cultural importance of genius, as told through science fiction in particular. It is a tale of nerds, muscles, transhumanism, and the fate of our species in the face of impending doom:

“In science fiction, when humanity is faced with existential crises, we turn to great minds attached to great hearts. While we aren’t under alien attack or facing sentient machines, our world has its own share of problems. Human cognitive enhancement might just be the solution from which all other solutions are born; or maybe it brings too many risks of its own.”

With this in the back of our heads, let’s look at some of those who might have had “a-little-extra” – or at least a “something-else”.

Fred Hoyle is one of the eccentric characters in post-war physics and cosmology. He vigorously supported the steady-state theory of the universe, in opposition to the rivaling big bang theory – and never changed his mind. His stubbornness might have been part of the reason that he insisted to predict the existence of the 7.65 MeV state of carbon-12, and invented an anthropic argument for it:

says Marcus Chown in his book The Magic Furnace, was simply “the most outrageous prediction” ever made in science. “If [the 7.65 MeV state] did not exist, Hoyle reasoned, the universe would contain no carbon. And if there was no carbon, there would be no human beings. Thus Hoyle was saying – and nobody had ever used logic as outrageous as this before – that the mere fact he was alive and pondering the question of carbon was proof the 7.65 MeV state existed.

Robin McKie writes about Hoyle in the Observer, re-posted at the Philosophy of Science Portal, and suggests that the man’s stubbornness and right-out rudeness towards other people may have cost him a Nobel prize.

Next man out is William Crookes – Victorian physicist, chemist, spiritualist, psychical researcher – inventor of the Crookes tube, discoverer of thallium, and the owner of the first estate in London to have electrical light. Some would say a brilliant example of a Victorian exponent of esoteric science, in more than one sense. Felicity Henderson has more at the History of Science Centre’s blog: “Ubi Crookes Ibi  Lux”.

Where there's Crookes, there's Light.

Moving further backwards in the history of science, Dr. SkySkull invites us to join Benjamin Franklin’s Electrical Feast:

“A turkey is to be killed for our dinner by the electrical shock, and roasted by the electrical jack, before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle: when the healths of all the famous electricians in England, Holland, France, and Germany are to be drank in electrified bumpers, under the discharge of guns from the electrical battery.”

John Dee pioneered in mathematics, cartography and navigation in Elizabethan England; he  worked with astrology, astronomy, and alchemy. He also dedicated 1/3 of his life to talking with angels through a crystal. Heterodoxology reported on an article published this spring, which revisits the theories of the angel conversations and proposes an etiology of its own.

Styles of thinking have a cultural basis. How to figure out the following mathematical riddle:

Gods, eyes, elephants, serpents, fires, three, qualities, Vedas, nakshatras, elephants, arms: the wise have said that this is the measure of the circumference when the diameter of the circle is nine nikharvas.

The answer is found in the 14th century Indian mathematician-astronomer Madhava’s mnemonic system, as Jost A Mon explains.

How Long is the Coastline of Great Britain? This was a question which led Benoit Mandelbrot to the discovery of fractals. Ptak Science Books has a post on the recently deceased Mandelbrot’s classical paper from 1967. Mandelbrot, who died on October 14 this year, was also a wonderfully eccentric character, who some might say stumbled upon his major discoveries despite himself. Jascha Hoffman has an obituary in The New York Times, re-posted by The Philosophy of Science Portal.

An older post, but well worth revisiting: Will Thomas writes about the American physicist William Coblentz, an expert in spectroscopy with – in the best tradition from Crookes – a developed passion for things paranormal. Read more on Coblentz’  ideas on Man’s Place in the Supraphysical World at Ether Wave Propaganda.

Ending the genius gallery, Samantha Reno at the Clinical Research Blog supplies a list of the Top 50 Blogs by (Contemporary) Scientific Researchers.

Next topic in the esoteric science special:


The Mayans have gotten some bad press lately with regards to purported predictions of the world’s end in 2012, spread by currents of New Age religion and popular culture. In the real world, and in real history, the Mayans had to fight floods to avoid local and regular destruction. Ironically, as Jo Marchant at Decoding the Heavens writes, the sophisticated canal system they invented to protect themselves from destruction by water, may have led to their eventual destruction by drought.

Modern science is not without its own doomsday scenarios. As New Scientist reports, the countdown to oblivion may  already have begun:

“We could run into the end of time,” Ben Freivogel tells a seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Several colleagues seem nonplussed, and one Nobel laureate looks downright exasperated. “I’m aware that this sounds like a crazy conclusion,” Freivogel admits, generating a round of what sounds like relieved laughter. But perhaps their relief is short-lived. … He thinks that time, as described by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, could simply end in our universe, taking us with it. He gives us another 5 billion years or so before the axe falls.

So to all the alchemists out there: No worries, there’s still some time left to enjoy the fruits of your labour on the elixir.

Then there are the possible terrors of a technology induced apocalypse – like the wonderfully bizarre Strangelovian scenario of nuclear destruction examined by John Ptak: “Ueber-Spectacular Understatement Department: The Happy Post-Apocalyptic America and the “Awkwardness” of Holocaust, 1962”.

“A nuclear attack can be expected to alter the occupational composition of the labor force,”

wrote an amazingly prescient Dr. Joseph D. Coker, before contending that radioactive impact craters in the middle of destructed American cities would probably be a bit of an “awkward” experience.

“For the love of King Neptune’s Pants:  Awkward?  How in the name of _______ could someone in such a high position and authority relate massive attacks on every major American population center which would cover the area in fire and thousands of gigantic highly radioactive craters in which a city used to exist be called “awkward”? “

Do read more, and also check out the whole series of atomic bomb related posts at Ptak Science Books. Explosive stuff, huh huh.

Apocalypse doesn’t always need to be negatively framed; in fact often apocalyptic religious discourse attach utopian millenarian views to the end of the (old) world. This is typically characteristic of New Age religion, and contemporary esoteric apocalypticisms. This has informed New Age receptions of modern physics as well – with quite a lot of help from the strategic uses of the history of science wielded by the generation of scientists who distinguished their new “modern” physics from the old “classical worldview” – a topic explored here at Heterodoxology, in a post on the “Emic historiography of science”.


“Weird Science Facts” from Skulls in the Stars.

Ten robots you could actually date (Computer Technician)

“The dinosaur in the church: bad journalism, media ingenuousness or paleontological publicity?” (History of Geology)

The most awesome camera ever built (Halloween special from Cocktail Party Physics).

… and some corrections on the history of the camera obscura, supplied by Thony C.

When you can’t find UFOs in the skies, try digging instead: archaeological expedition to Roswell. (AlunSalt).

Tycho died of mercury poisoning? “Scientists exhume Danish astronomer’s remains” (Physorg).

Physics, psychology and a 20th century esoteric concept: C. G. Jung and Wolfgang Pauli on “synchronicity” (Heterodoxology).

“The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum” – on the grotesque birth of forensic science (Bubble Chamber).

“The most important menu in computing history?” (Ptak Science Books).

The Great Coca Cola Trial (Part I and Part II)

“The Rare Mountain Mammoth” (Mammoth Tales)

“Darwin’s Hobby-Horse” (Darwin and Human Nature: The Blog).

“Raccoon intelligence” (Advances in the History of Psychology).

Vito Volterra’s egg (Part I and Part II; John Vining, The Huntington Blog)


In Other News:

“How to draw a black hole? Upcoming talk at HSS in Montreal” (False Vacuum)

Update on “A History of the Ecological Sciences” (Dispersals of Darwin).

Report on the IAHR conference in Toronto, with panels on esotericism, science, and religion (part one and two; Heterodoxology)

A short history of the University of Toronto collection of historical scientific instruments (University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection).

“Tetens on experimental vs. speculative philosophy” (Early Modern Experimental Philosophy).

Technocracy in the UK (Ether Wave Propaganda).

“Helpful tools for understanding nuclear fusion” (Vision of Earth).

“The biomedical invisibles” (Biomedicine on display)

“Thoughts on Warwick’s “Human Features” Seminar” (Chris Renwick’s Blog)

* * *

And that’s all we’ve got this month. Thank you for visiting, and thank you, contributors, for filling this issue with the esoterica and curiosa of science history! Do not forget next month’s Scientific Christmas Carol hosted by the ghost of William Whewell at his own blog. The special is – of course – Victorian science, and contributions can be submitted to Rebekah Higgit, or directly to Giants’ Shoulders. Happy blogging!


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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. A great carnival thanks Egil ThC

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  3. […] Giants’ Shoulders #29: Esoteric Science Special Robin McKie writes about Hoyle in the Observer, re-posted at the Philosophy of Science Portal, and suggests that the man’s stubbornness and right-out rudeness towards other people may have cost him a Nobel prize. … […]

  4. […] Giants’ Shoulders #29: Esoteric Science Special Robin McKie writes about Hoyle in the Observer, re-posted at the Philosophy of Science Portal, and suggests that the man’s stubbornness and right-out rudeness towards other people may have cost him a Nobel prize. … […]

  5. […] Nights are getting cold, but days are still beautiful. Why sit inside? Giants’ Shoulders #29: Esoteric Science Special […]

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