Science and magic have both always drawn on invisible and occult forcesby Philip Ball / August 8, 2014 / Leave a comment
I suspect that, like me, the first time you encountered someone using a mobile phone with an earpiece and microphone, you saw it as further evidence of our declining social services—this poor fellow gesticulating wildly and talking to voices in his head should really be in residential care.
By filling the ether with voices, we have sacrificed the ability to police the borders of sanity purely in behavioural terms. The psychic implications of Wifi have been insufficiently acknowledged. It’s no longer just a matter of being able to communicate instantly and invisibly over vast distances—something that the German abbot Johannes Trithemius claimed to achieve at the end of the 15th century only with the aid of spirits or demons. No, now almost every point in space in the industrialized world can deliver, invisibly and nearly instantly, access to almost the sum total of all human knowledge—including a facsimile of Trithemius’s Latin book on codes and communication, Stenographia. Not even the craziest Renaissance visionary would have imagined such a thing.
It’s often said that what once was magic is now technology—or as Arthur C Clarke put it, advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But we rarely appreciate what that truly means, encumbered as we are with the simplistic idea that magic is and was superstition while technology is the application of science. In fact magic—of the sort practiced by Trithemius—was a rational system for achieving wonderful effects by manipulating the occult (which is to say, hidden or invisible) forces of nature. That’s also a fair description of science, which didn’t replace magic so much as grew from it. Several of the forces once deemed occult, such as magnetism and gravity, are now uncontroversially a part of science.
In the 19th century Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell provided a framework for understanding such forces as the product of invisible, all-pervasive fields. The theory of fields—now expressed in terms of quantum mechanics—is the bedrock of modern physics, to the extent that particles with apparently solid and tangible properties such as mass are now regarded as manifestations of these immaterial fields. The celebrated Higgs boson is merely the particulate corollary of the Higgs field, which is the true agency of much of the mass that matter possesses.
Maxwell is the…