Cool College Class Alert: Astrology & Magic for Scientists

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Professor Lawrence Principe and his students practice using astrolabes for magical -- that is, scientific -- purposes.
Professor Lawrence Principe and his students practice using astrolabes for magical -- that is, scientific -- purposes.

“Magic” isn’t usually a word you expect to hear echoing through the halls of Johns Hopkins’ science departments (unless maybe in reference to collectable trading cards). But in professor Lawrence Principe’s classroom, the so-called “outcast disciplines of science” — astrology, magic, and alchemy — have become the subject of serious discussion.

Though it may at first sound Hogwartsian, this is not, alas, a class where graduate students in chemistry learn to whip up love potions and protective charms. Instead, Principe hopes to foster an understanding of science’s present through the lens of its past. “We don’t want to have a history of science that’s written backwards—that only tells us where our current ideas come from,” Principe told the Johns Hopkins Arts & Sciences Magazine. “We want a truer depiction of the development of science. The truth is, astrology, alchemy, and magic were widespread practices that contributed to modern science and involved extremely intelligent people.” Astrology leads to astronomy, magic to medicine, and alchemy to chemistry; any history that tries to erase this esoteric heritage, Principe says, is not complete.

Justin Rivest, one of Principe’s students who’s studying the history of medicine, explains a bit further how medicine and magic intersected in the Renaissance:  “Usually it was the job of the chair of the mathematics department to draw up horoscopes and almanacs for the doctors and medical students. That way, for instance, they would know the most favorable days of the year for bloodletting.”

Principe calls his course Wretched Subjects, reclaiming an insult once leveled at these pursuits by historian of science George Sarton. And the “wretched” in question include such luminaries as Galileo (who prepared extensive horoscopes for himself and his family); Isaac Newton (a big fan of biblical prophecy); and chemist Robert Boyle (who spent nearly four decades dabbling in alchemy). Makes you wonder why more of today’s scientists and doctors aren’t dabbling in the arcane sciences — who knows, they just might learn something.



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  1. Today’s scientists and doctors aren’t dabbling in these obscure and obsolete practices for the same reason that we no longer travel by oxcart. While it is informative and instructive to see where we came from, in practices as well as geography and geneology, that does not imply that we should return to those practices now. And I doubt that Professor Principe would advocate that. Bloodletting as a means of treating disease, has very limited usefulness; attempting to convert lead into gold is not a good investment plan, either. [It can be done, but the process costs more than the gold is worth.]
    The value of a class such as Wretched Subjects is in the perspective it can give the students, many of whom might suppose that technical information was *always* available on Google. Such enlightenment might help them to wonder whether the things they now take for granted as the “natural” way of the world might also be mistaken ideas. Many science courses start off the semester with the admonition that “perhaps half of what we learn from this textbook is wrong – – – we just don’t yet know which half.” And the process of finding out is what we call ‘science’.

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