Apples and Alchemy

Kage Baker never thought much of Isaac Newton. As one of the fathers of modern Western science, his is a name known and revered by most science fiction writers. But as someone whose first love was not science but history, Kage was not as impressed by his scientific achievements.

Part of that was her personal loathing for mathematics – as she used to say, of what use to her was calculus? (I know, I know – but you never argued with her, Dear Reader.) And Newton was certainly not objective about it, was he? she asked – citing all those arguments over Leibniz. She understood the celebrity phenomenon naturally, daughter of Hollywood that she was; she saw Newton as a man obsessed with fame rather than a seeker after impartial Truth.

She admired Galileo and Kepler more, saying that both those gentlemen showed the exemplary capability of learning from their mistakes and correcting their theories. Kepler’s bold abandonment of perfect solids impressed her with its devotion to observational fact. Galileo bet his life on his observations. And there is no devotee – of science or history – who does not count Eppur Si Muove as one of the deathless battle cries against blind conformism. Well, battle mutters …

Today is Isaac Newton’s birthday, of course. Which I recall because, in the “A Year Ago Today” game, I remember spending the better portion of this day discussing him with Kage. She was about ready to made a break from the hospital; she was bored and argumentative. We spent all day arguing over the history of science; which to some extent at least proves the value of a classical education …

Kage knew perfectly well that Newton’s studies in the laws of motion had revolutionized science, but maintained that heliocentrism was on the outs anyway – people had been re-discovering it over and over for the last 3 millennia. The story of the apple was a pretty fairy tale. His experiments in optics were just pretty. And then there were the Biblical hermeneutics (“Bibliomancy!”) and the life-long devotion to alchemy …

In vain did I plead Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica , planetary motion, reflecting telescopes, prisms and binomials. ” ‘Shoulders of giants’,” Kage gleefully pointed out.

What Kage most admired about Newton was his career as the Master of the Royal Mint. That took a man of his hands to accomplish, and a shrewd one at that: practical work. Hero of Alexandria, tinkerer and miracle-worker supreme, was her favourite artificer of all time, closely followed by da Vinci. Newton’s solution’s to the problem of England’s almost total lack of usable currency was swift, clever, insightful and – best of all – it worked. It was as close as he ever got, she said, to the successful production of the Philosopher’s Stone: better, because he made gold out of nothing at all.

And a lot of Newton’s solution is working to this modern day; meaning that the wistful alchemist’s answer to slipping, dipping and coin clipping has continued to work right up to the point of currency becoming obsolete anyway. Which is a pretty good record, really.

This may all seem like a willfully eccentric interpretation of the great Newton’s career (and some of it undoubtedly was), but it was also the way Kage, personally, explored ideas. The basic process starts with What if … Kage’s preferred method was to go on from there and imagine a whole world based on that single speculation. She liked to get into the idea and inhabit the universe necessarily created by its existence.

Not all of this ever, ever made it into a story: but for even the briefest vision, Kage worked out the physical laws and world it would need to survive. It’s one of the big basic writer tricks. She needed to know how it all worked in order to write about it. Sometimes that takes research into what is already known. And sometimes, you have to make up what no one has yet imagined clearly.

And I bet Newton would have understood that perfectly.

Tomorrow: the Circles of Hell are all separated by stairs