Adrienne Mayor on Gods and Robots

Adrienne Mayor Gods and Robots coverThe first robot to walk the earth was a bronze giant called Talos. This wondrous machine was created not by MIT Robotics Lab, but by Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention. More than 2,500 years ago, long before medieval automata, and centuries before technology made self-moving devices possible, Greek mythology was exploring ideas about creating artificial life—and grappling with still-unresolved ethical concerns about biotechne, “life through craft.” In the compelling, richly illustrated Gods and Robots, Adrienne Mayor tells the fascinating story of how ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese myths envisioned artificial life, automata, self-moving devices, and human enhancements—and how these visions relate to and reflect the ancient invention of real animated machines.

Mayor answered some questions for us about robots, mythology, and her research.

Who first imagined the concept of robots? 

Most historians of science trace the first automatons to the Middle Ages. But I wondered, Was it possible that that ideas about creating artificial life were thinkable long before technology made such enterprises possible? Remarkably, as early as the time of Homer, ancient Greek myths were envisioning how to imitate, augment, and surpass nature, by means of bio-techne, “life through craft”—what we now call biotechnology. Beings described as fabricated, “made, not born,” appeared in myths about Jason and the Argonauts, the sorceress Medea, the bronze robot Talos, the ingenious craftsman Daedalus, the fire-bringer Prometheus, and Pandora, the female android created by Hephaestus, god of invention. These vivid stories were ancient thought experiments set in an alternate world where technology was marvelously advanced.

What makes these ancient stories so compelling today?

Time-traveling back into the past more than two millennia to study what are essentially some of the first-ever science fiction stories by a pre-industrial society may seem strange. But I think the sophistication and relevance of these ancient dreams of technology might help us understand the timeless link between imagination and science. Some of the imaginary self-propelled devices and lifelike androids in the myths foreshadow some of today’s technological inventions of driverless cars, automated machines, and humanoid automatons. There are even mythic versions of Artificial Intelligence and ancient parallels to the modern “Uncanny Valley” effect—that eerie sensation when people encounter hyper-realistic robots. Notably, some of the doubts about creating artificial life expressed in antiquity anticipate our own practical and ethical dilemmas about AI and playing god by improving on nature. Taken together, the ancient narratives really represent a kind of “Mythology for the Age of Artificial Intelligence.”

Why were these perceptive myths about artificial life overlooked until now?

Historians of science tend to assume that automatons featured in classical myths were simply inert matter brought to life by a fiat or a magical spell, like Adam and Eve and Pygmalion’s ivory statue of Galatea. But many of the self-moving devices and automata described in myths were not merely lifeless things animated by magic or divine command. My book focuses on the myths of androids and automatons visualized as products of technology, designed and constructed with the same materials and methods that human artisans used to make tools, structures, and statues in antiquity, but with awesome results beyond what was technologically possible at the time. Some philosophers of science claim it was impossible in antiquity to imagine technology beyond what already existed, until mechanics was formalized as a discipline. But imagination has always driven innovation. Where science fiction goes, technology often follows. The last chapter of Gods and Robots traces the relationship between classical myths and real historical automata that began to proliferate in the Hellenistic era, when Alexandria in Egypt became the hub of learning and innovation and engineers designed self-moving machines and lifelike animated statues.

Modern sci-fi movies pop up in several chapters. How do they relate to ancient myths?

Some 2,500 years before movies were invented, ancient Greek vase painters illustrated popular stories of the bronze robot warrior Talos, the techno-wizard Medea, and the fembot Pandora dispatched to earth on an evil mission, in ways that seem very “cinematic.” Echoes of those classical myths reverberate in cult films like Metropolis (1927), Frankenstein (1931), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Blade Runner (1982 and 2017), and recent sci-fi movies and TV shows such as Ex Machina and Westworld.

Movies and myths about imagined technology are cultural dreams. Like contemporary science fiction tales, the myths show how the power of imagination allows humans to ponder how artificial life might be created—if only one possessed sublime technology and genius. We can see “futuristic” thinking in the myths’ automated machines and tools, self-driving chariots, self-navigating ships, metal robots powered by special fluids, and AI servants made of gold and silver. Another similarity to sci-fi tales is that the myths warn about disturbing consequences of creating artificial life.

There are 75 extraordinary illustrations in Gods and Robots. Any ancient images that surprised you?

A small museum in Italy has an amazing Greek vase painted in the fifth century BC. It shows Medea and Jason using a tool to destroy the formidable bronze robot Talos. Here is proof that more than 2,500 years ago, an automaton was not only imagined as a machine with internal workings, but that its destruction required technology. Pandora appears on a magnificent amphora from the same time. The artist portrays Pandora as life-sized doll about to be wound up, standing stiffly with a weird grin. The vase’s decorative border design is made up of Hephaestus’s tools to underscore her constructed nature. Another astonishing find was a group of carved cameos depicting the myth of Prometheus creating the first human beings. Instead of merely molding clay figures, Prometheus is shown using different tools to build the first human starting from the inside out, with the skeleton as the framework.

Have you come across any unexpected legends about automatons?

A little-known legend translated from Sanskrit claims that after his death, Buddha’s bodily remains were guarded by robotic warriors in a secret underground chamber in India.

Is there anything about ancient automatons that you would like to know more about?

It would be fascinating to gather automaton traditions from India, China, and Japan, to compare Eastern and Western perspectives on artificial life, AI, and robots.

Adrienne Mayor is the author, most recently, of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World and The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, which was a finalist for the National Book Award (both Princeton). She is a research scholar in classics and the history of science at Stanford University and lives in Palo Alto, California.

Browse our Middle Eastern Studies 2019 Catalog

Our new Middle Eastern Studies catalog includes a groundbreaking history showing how Egyptian-Israeli peace ensured lasting Palestinian statelessness; a definitive political picture of the Islamic Republic of Iran; an exploration of frequently neglected aspects of Iranian spirituality and politics; and a bold new religious history of the late antique and medieval Middle East that places ordinary Christians at the center of the story.

If you’re attending the Middle East Studies Association meeting in San Antonio this week, visit the PUP table to see our full range of Middle Eastern studies titles.

Seth Anziska Preventing Palestine book cover

How and why Palestinian statelessness persists are the central questions of Seth Anziska’s groundbreaking book, which explores the complex legacy of the Camp David Accords. Combining astute political analysis, extensive original research, and interviews with diplomats, military veterans, and communal leaders, Preventing Palestine offers a bold new interpretation of a highly charged struggle for self-determination.

 

Amin Saikal Iran Rising book cover

When Iranians overthrew their monarchy, rejecting a pro-Western shah in favor of an Islamic regime, many observers predicted that revolutionary turmoil would paralyze the country for decades to come. Yet forty years after the 1978–79 revolution, Iran has emerged as a critical player in the Middle East and the wider world. In Iran Rising, renowned Iran specialist Amin Saikal describes how the country has managed to survive despite ongoing domestic struggles, Western sanctions, and countless other serious challenges.

 

Alireza Doostdar Iranian Metaphysicals book cover

Since the late nineteenth century, modernizing intellectuals, religious leaders, and statesmen in Iran have attempted to curtail occult practices and appeals to saintly powers as “superstitious,” instead encouraging the development of rational religious sensibilities and dispositions. However, these rationalizing processes have multiplied the possibilities for experimental engagement with the immaterial realm. The Iranian Metaphysicals shows that metaphysical experimentation lies at the center of some of the most influential intellectual and religious movements in modern Iran.

 

Jack Tannous Making of the Medieval Middle East book cover

In the second half of the first millennium CE, the Christian Middle East fractured irreparably into competing churches and Arabs conquered the region, setting in motion a process that would lead to its eventual conversion to Islam. The Making of the Medieval Middle East recasts these conquered lands as largely Christian ones whose growing Muslim populations are properly understood as converting away from and in competition with the non-Muslim communities around them.

UPress Week Blog Tour: #TurnItUp Arts and Culture

Welcome to the University Press Week blog tour. We’re kicking off today by turning up the volume on arts and culture with these fantastic university press offerings from our colleagues: Duke University Press writes about how partnerships with museums have helped them build a strong art list, Athabasca University Press offers a playlist by author Mark A. McCutcheon of all the songs featured in his book, The Medium Is the Monster: Canadian Adaptations of Frankenstein and the Discourse of Technology. Rutgers University Press dedicates a post to their book, Junctures in Women’s Leadership: The Arts by Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin. Over at Yale University Press, you can read a piece by author Dominic Bradbury about how immigrants enrich a country’s art and architecture, then head over to University of Minnesota Press for a post about their author Adrienne Kennedy, who will be inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame today. Stay tuned for a great lineup of #TurnItUP posts throughout the week!

Browse our Anthropology 2019 Catalog

Our new Anthropology catalog includes a gripping account of the Russian visionaries who are pursuing human immortality; an exploration of frequently neglected aspects of Iranian spirituality and politics; an examination of the revolution in game live streaming and esports broadcasting; and a vivid look at how India has developed the idea of entrepreneurial citizens as leaders mobilizing society.

If you’re attending the American Anthropological Association meeting in San Jose this weekend, visit Booth 307 to browse our anthropology titles and more!

As long as we have known death, we have dreamed of life without end. In The Future of Immortality, Anya Bernstein explores the contemporary Russian communities of visionaries and utopians who are pressing at the very limits of the human. Along the way, she draws out the ethical and philosophical implications of an end to human mortality. As vividly written as any novel, this is a fascinating account of techno-scientific and religious futurism—and the ways in which it hopes to transform our very being.

 

Alireza Doostdar Iranian Metaphysicals book cover

Since the late nineteenth century, modernizing intellectuals, religious leaders, and statesmen in Iran have attempted to curtail occult practices and appeals to saintly powers as “superstitious,” instead encouraging the development of rational religious sensibilities and dispositions. However, these rationalizing processes have multiplied the possibilities for experimental engagement with the immaterial realm. The Iranian Metaphysicals shows that this metaphysical experimentation lies at the center of some of the most influential intellectual and religious movements in modern Iran.

 

T.L. Taylor Watch Me Play book cover

Every day thousands of people broadcast their gaming live to audiences over the internet using popular sites such as Twitch, which reaches more than one hundred million viewers a month. In these new platforms for interactive entertainment, big esports events featuring digital game competitors live stream globally, and audiences can interact with broadcasters—and each other—through chat in real time. What are the ramifications of this exploding online industry? Taking readers inside home studios and backstage at large esports events, Watch Me Play investigates the rise of game live streaming and how it is poised to alter how we understand media and audiences.

 

Lilly Irani Chasing Innovation book cover

Can entrepreneurs develop a nation, serve the poor, and pursue creative freedom, all while generating economic value? In Chasing Innovation, Lilly Irani shows the contradictions that arise as designers, engineers, and businesspeople frame development and governance as opportunities to innovate. Irani documents the rise of “entrepreneurial citizenship” in India over the past seventy years, demonstrating how a global ethos of development through design has come to shape state policy, economic investment, and the middle class in one of the world’s fastest-growing nations.

Brian Kernighan on Millions, Billions, Zillions

KernighanNumbers are often intimidating, confusing, and even deliberately deceptive—especially when they are really big. The media loves to report on millions, billions, and trillions, but frequently makes basic mistakes or presents such numbers in misleading ways. And misunderstanding numbers can have serious consequences, since they can deceive us in many of our most important decisions, including how to vote, what to buy, and whether to make a financial investment. In this short, accessible, enlightening, and entertaining book, leading computer scientist Brian Kernighan teaches anyone—even diehard math-phobes—how to demystify the numbers that assault us every day. Giving you the simple tools you need to avoid being fooled by dubious numbers, Millions, Billions, Zillions is an essential survival guide for a world drowning in big—and often bad—data.

Why is it so important to be able to spot “bad statistics?”

We use statistical estimates all the time to decide where to invest, or what to buy, or what politicians to believe. Does a college education pay off financially? Is marijuana safer than alcohol? What brands of cars are most reliable? Do guns make society more dangerous? We make major personal and societal decisions about such topics, based on numbers that might be wrong or biased or cherry-picked. The better the statistics, the more accurately we can make good decisions based on them.

Can you give a recent example of numbers being presented in the media in a misleading way?

“No safe level of alcohol, new study concludes.” There were quite a few variants of this headline in late August. There’s no doubt whatsoever that heavy drinking is bad for you, but this study was actually a meta-analysis that combined the results of nearly 700 studies covering millions of people.  By combining results, it concluded that there was a tiny increase in risk in going from zero drinks a day to one drink, and more risk for higher numbers. But the result is based on correlation, not necessarily causation, and ignores potentially related factors like smoking, occupational hazards, and who knows what else. Fortunately, quite a few news stories pointed out flaws in the study’s conclusion.  To quote from an excellent review at the New York Times, “[The study] found that, over all, harms increased with each additional drink per day, and that the overall harms were lowest at zero. That’s how you get the headlines.”

What is an example of how a person could spot potential errors in big numbers?

One of the most effective techniques for dealing with big numbers is to ask, “How would that affect me personally?” For example, a few months ago a news story said that a proposed bill in California would offer free medical care for every resident, at a cost of $330 million per year. The population of California is nearly 40 million, so each person’s share of the cost would be less than $10. Sounds like a real bargain, doesn’t it? Given what we know about the endlessly rising costs of health care, it can’t possibly be right. In fact, the story was subsequently corrected; the cost of the bill would be $330 *billion* dollars, so each person’s share would be more like $10,000. Asking “What’s my share?” is a good way to assess big numbers.

In your book you talk about Little’s Law. Can you please describe it and explain why it’s useful?

Little’s Law is a kind of conservation law that can help you assess the accuracy of statements like “every week, 10,000 Americans turn 65.” Little’s Law describes the relationship between the time period (every week), the number of things involved (10,000 Americans), and the event (turning 65). Suppose there are 320 million Americans, each of whom is born, lives to age 80, then dies. Then 4 million people are born each year, 4 million die, and in fact there are 4 million at any particular age. Now divide by 365 days in a year, to see that about 11,000 people turn 65 on any particular day. So the original statement can’t be right—it should have said “per day,” not “per week.” Of course this ignores birth rate, life expectancy, and immigration, but Little’s Law is plenty good enough for spotting significant errors, like using weeks instead of days.

Is presenting numbers in ways designed to mislead more prevalent in the era of “alternative facts” than in the past?

I don’t know whether deceptive presentations are more prevalent today than they might have been, say, 20 years ago, but it’s not hard to find presentations that could mislead someone who isn’t paying attention. The technology for producing deceptive graphs and charts is better than it used to be, and social media makes it all too easy to spread them rapidly and widely.

Brian W. Kernighan is professor of computer science at Princeton University. His many books include Understanding the Digital World: What You Need to Know about Computers, the Internet, Privacy, and Security. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Bird Fact Friday —The Laughing Gull

Adapted from pages 35-37 of Gulls Simplified:

A flock of adult Laughing Gulls, photographed in New Jersey in May. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson

This lanky gull stands with a horizontal profile and shows black wing tips that are acutely pointed and extend well beyond the tail. A long, slender bill droops near the tip. Long, typically black legs are set moderately forward, with some birds showing dull to fairly bright red legs in the breeding season. The dark hood is replaced by a mostly white head with a dark ear patch and scattered dark markings on the crown in winter. 

On beaches and in the water, they tend to gather in tightly bunched monotypic flocks away from larger gulls. In mixed-species flocks, Laughing Gulls often segregate to one side. Very agile and aerial, this species is adept at snapping insects out of the air and may gather in wheeling numbers over  marshes and uplands when an insect hatch is in progress. They are also a threat to coastal tern colonies and beach-nesting shorebirds, since they can swoop in and grab an egg or small chick before the defending birds can react to their approach. The bird’s loud, raucous (laughing) call is iconic, as much a part of a visit to coastal beaches and marshes as the sound of surf and the tang of salt-laden air. The sound of feeding flocks approaches the level of a din. Breeding colonies are noisy, even at night.

Skilled foragers, Laughing Gulls are adept at plucking food from human hands, whether the morsel is offered or not, and they seem to know all about picnic baskets, potato chip bags, and their contents. Very social and vocal, Laughing Gulls also forage offshore in large aggregations, usually within sight of land, where noisy feeding flocks hover and wheel over schools of baitfish. They commonly pursue other gulls and seabirds to steal food.

While most commonly found on sandy beaches, Laughing Gulls also frequents tidal wetlands, plowed fields, parks, and picnic areas. You may also share your hotel swimming pool with these birds in coastal areas with warm climates as they drop by for a drink or a swim. Though mostly coastal year-round, individuals are occasionally found well inland, most commonly on freshly turned agricultural land, landfills, and the parking lots of food outlets.

 

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

 

William R. Newman on Newton the Alchemist

When Isaac Newton’s alchemical papers surfaced at a Sotheby’s auction in 1936, the quantity and seeming incoherence of the manuscripts were shocking. No longer the exemplar of Enlightenment rationality, the legendary physicist suddenly became “the last of the magicians.” Newton the Alchemist unlocks the secrets of Newton’s alchemical quest, providing a radically new understanding of the uncommon genius who probed nature at its deepest levels in pursuit of empirical knowledge.

People often say that Isaac Newton was not only a great physicist, but also an alchemist. This seems astonishing, given his huge role in the development of science. Is it true, and if so, what is the evidence for it?

The astonishment that Newton was an alchemist stems mostly from the derisive opinion that many moderns hold of alchemy. How could the man who discovered the law of universal gravitation, who co-invented calculus, and who was the first to realize the compound nature of white light also engage in the seeming pseudo-science of alchemy? There are many ways to answer this question, but the first thing is to consider the evidence of Newton’s alchemical undertaking. We now know that at least a million words in Newton’s hand survive in which he addresses alchemical themes. Much of this material has been edited in the last decade, and is available on the Chymistry of Isaac Newton site at www.chymistry.org. Newton wrote synopses of alchemical texts, analyzed their content in the form of reading notes and commentaries, composed florilegia or anthologies made up of snippets from his sources, kept experimental laboratory notebooks that recorded his alchemical research over a period of decades, and even put together a succession of concordances called the Index chemicus in which he compared the sayings of different authors to one another. The extent of his dedication to alchemy was almost unprecedented. Newton was not just an alchemist, he was an alchemist’s alchemist.  

What did Newton hope to gain by studying alchemy? Did he actually believe in the philosophers’ stone, and if so, why? And what was the philosophers’ stone exactly?

Newton’s involvement in alchemy was polyvalent, as befits a pursuit that engaged him intensively for more than three decades and which traditionally included multiple goals. The term “alchemy” in the early modern period was largely coextensive with “chymistry,” a field that included distilling, pigment-making, salt-refining, and the manufacture of drugs alongside the perennial attempt to transmute metals. Beyond an interest in all these technical pursuits, Newton employed alchemical themes in his physics, particularly in the area of optics. Newton’s theory that white light is a mixture of unaltered spectral colors was bolstered by techniques of material analysis and synthesis that had a long prehistory in the domain of alchemy. But at the same time, he hoped to attain the grand secret that would make it possible to perform radical changes in matter. The philosophers’ stone as described by alchemical authors was a material that could transmute base metals into gold and silver and “perfect” certain other materials as well. At the same time, many authors believed that the philosophers’ stone could cure human ailments and extend life to the maximum limit that God would allow. Some of Newton’s sources even claim that the philosophers’ stone would allow its possessors to contact angels and to communicate telephatically with one another. Did Newton believe all of this? Suffice it to say that nowhere in his voluminous notes does he dispute these assertions, even while recounting them. Although he may have been exercising a suspension of disbelief in the case of the more extravagant claims for the philosophers’ stone, his long involvement in the aurific art implies that he must at least have thought the alchemists were on to something when they discussed transmutation.      

Did Newton also believe, as many contemporary alchemists did, that the totality of Greek and Roman mythology was just encoded alchemy?

It’s certainly true that Newton’s favorite sources thought Greek and Roman mythology to contain valuable alchemical secrets. Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a particularly popular target of interpretation, since the whole book deals with radical transformations of one thing into another. Newton himself decoded the story of Cadmus and the founding of Thebes, one of Ovid’s myths, into practical laboratory instructions in one of his notebooks. In Newton’s early reading, Cadmus becomes the iron required to reduce the metalloid antimony from its ore stibnite, and the dragon who attacks Cadmus is the stibnite itself. But does this mean that Newton believed the originators of the myth to have meant it as a veiled alchemical recipe? If so, this would run contrary to Newton’s extensive interpretations of ancient mythology and religion that occur alongside his studies of biblical chronology. In these texts, which occupy about four million words and are thus even more extensive than his alchemical writings, Newton argues that the famous figures of ancient mythology were actual people whose lives were later embellished by mythologizing writers. It is likely, then, that Newton’s alchemical decoding of mythology is actually an attempt to interpret early modern writers who used ancient myth as a way of wrapping their processes in enigma rather than signifying that he himself believed Ovid, for example, to have been an alchemist.    

What did Newton make of the bizarre language that alchemists traditionally used for their secrets, including terms like “the Babylonian Dragon,” “the Caduceus of Mercury,” and “the Green Lion”?

Newton spent decades trying to decipher the enigmatic terminology of the alchemists. In reality, exotic Decknamen (cover-names) were only part of an extensive and well-developed set of tools that alchemists had long employed for the purpose of revealing and concealing their knowledge. Other techniques included syncope (leaving out steps and materials), parathesis (adding in unnecessary terms and processes), and dispersion of knowledge, which consisted of dividing up processes and distributing them over different parts of a text or even putting the parts in entirely different texts.   The bulk of Newton’s reading notes consist of his attempts to arrive at the correct meaning of terms, and he was aware of the fact that the same term often meant different things to different authors. His Index chemicus, for example, lists multiple different meanings for the term “Green Lion,” which Newton links to specific writers. In a word, Newton’s alchemy is as much about the literary decipherment of riddles as it is about putting his interpretation to the test in the laboratory.

Did Newton consider himself to be an “adept,” that is, one of the masters of alchemy who had acquired the great secret of the art?

Although Newton occasionally records eureka moments in his laboratory notebooks such as “I saw the sophic sal ammoniac” or “I have understood the luciferous Venus,” he never records that he found the philosophers’ stone or performed an actual transmutation. He seems to have viewed himself as being on the way to finding the philosophers’ stone, but not to have ever thought that he had attained it. Nonetheless, his rapport with the adepts is clear. Several of his manuscripts record instances where he copied the early modern alchemical practice of encoding one’s name in a phrase that could be interpreted as an anagram. Michael Sendivogius, for example, a celebrated Polish adept, became “Divi Leschi Genus Amo” (“I love the race of the divine Lech”). The most famous of these anagrams in Newton’s case is “Jeova sanctus unus,” which can be rearranged to yield “Isaacus Neuutonus,” Latin for Isaac Newton. This is not the only such anagram in his alchemical papers. One manuscript in fact contains over thirty different phrases in which Newton concealed his name. Along with other clues in his papers, this suggests strongly that Newton believed himself to belong rightly to the band of the adepts, even if he was only an aspirant to their ranks.        

How does your book Newton the Alchemist change what we already knew about Newton’s alchemical quest?

Thanks to scholarly work done in the last third of the twentieth century, there is currently a widespread “master narrative” of Newton’s alchemy, though one with which I disagree. The major scholars of the subject at that time argued that alchemy for Newton was above all a religious quest, and that its impact on his more mainstream science lay in his emphasis on invisible forces that could act at a distance, such as gravitational attraction. Contemporary sources ranging from popular outlets such as Wikipedia to serious scholarly monographs echo these themes. In reality, however, there is little to no evidence to support either view.  Although there was a constant bleed-through from his alchemical research to his public science, Newton pursued the philosophers’ stone neither for the sake of God nor for the sake of physics. Instead, he practiced alchemy as an alchemist. In a word, the celebrated scientist aimed his bolt at the marvelous menstrua and volatile spirits of the sages, the instruments required for making the philosophers’ stone. Difficult as it may be for moderns to accept that the most influential physicist before Einstein dreamed of becoming an alchemical adept, the gargantuan labor that Newton devoted to experimental chrysopoeia speaks for itself.

A common view of Newton’s alchemy is that he kept it a secret from the world. Is this true, and if so, why was he so secretive? Did he think that alchemy was somehow dangerous? Or was it disreputable?

Newton generally kept quiet about his alchemical research, though he did engage in collaborations with select individuals such as his friend Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, and later, the Dutch distiller William Yworth. The main reason for his caution lay in his concern that alchemy might lay claim to secrets that could be dangerous if revealed to the world at large. The social order would be turned topsy-turvy if gold and silver lost their value as a result of the philosophers’ stone falling into the hands of the hoi polloi, and other disastrous consequences might result as well. Newton’s anxiety emerges quite clearly from a letter that he sent to the Secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, in 1676. The occasion was a publication by another alchemical researcher, Robert Boyle, who had recently published a paper on a special “sophic” mercury that would grow hot if mixed with gold. Newton was alarmed at Boyle’s candor, and suggested to Oldenburg that the author of The Sceptical Chymist should in the future revert to a “high silence” in order to avoid revealing secrets that the “true Hermetick Philosopher” must keep hidden lest they cause “immense dammage to ye world.”

You argue in your book that it’s not enough to read about Newton’s alchemical experiments, but that historians actually need to do them in a laboratory. Tell us what you have found by repeating Newton’s experiments and why this is important.

Anyone who tries to wade through Newton’s laboratory notebooks will be struck at once by the multitude of obscure expressions that he employs for materials. Although terms such as “the Green Lion,” “sophic sal ammoniac,” and “liquor of antimony” already existed in the literature of alchemy, they meant different things to different authors. In order to determine what their precise meaning was to Newton, one must look carefully at the properties that he ascribes to each material and to the protocols that he applies when he uses it in the laboratory. A good example may be found in the case of liquor of antimony, which Newton also refers to as vinegar, spirit, and salt of antimony. Extensive examination of these terms in his notebooks shows that they were interchangeable for Newton, and that they referred to a solution of crude antimony (mostly antimony sulfide) in a special aqua regia. Having made this material in the laboratory, I was then able to use it to make other Newtonian products, such a “vitriol of Venus,” a crystalline copper compound produced from the dried solution of copper or a copper ore in liquor of vitriol. This product is volatile at relatively low temperatures and can be used to volatilize other metals, which helps explain why Newton thought he was on the path to alchemical success. He hoped to liberate the internal principle of metallic activity by subtilizing the heavy metals and freeing them from what he saw as their gross accretions.      

Was alchemy considered a deviant or “occult” practice in Newton’s day? Did doing alchemy make Newton a sorceror or witch?  

It is a popular modern misconception that alchemy, astrology, and magic were all part and parcel of the same “occult” enterprise. To most medieval and early modern thinkers, these were distinct areas of practice, despite the currently reigning stereotypes. Newton had little or no interest in astrology, which did not distinguish him from most European alchemists. If by “magic” one means sorcery or witchcraft, this too was an area quite distinct from alchemy, and entirely alien to Newton’s interests. There was an overlap with alchemy in the domain of “natural magic,” however, and Newton evinced a marked interest in this field in his adolescence. One of the things that I have been able to show is that his earliest interest in alchemy, as revealed by his copying and reworking of an anonymous Treatise of Chymistry in the 1660s, may have grown out of his youthful fascination with works on natural magic and “books of secrets.” But natural magic was considered a legitimate field of endeavor by most experimental scientists in the seventeenth century, not a transgressive or deviant activity.

William R. Newman is Distinguished Professor and Ruth N. Halls Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Indiana University. His many books include Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution and Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Jack Zipes: The Rise of Édouard Laboulaye from the Dead

I am not certain when the urge or itch began, but about ten years ago, when I founded the series of Oddly Modern Fairy Tales with Hanne Winarsky, then senior editor at Princeton University Press, I began to “rebel” against the classical well-known fairy tales, not to mention the insipid Disney fairy-tale films. I realized that they had become stale and commodified and had no historical relevance. The fairy tale is a mysterious hybrid genre and has secrets about our past to reveal if you value each tale’s historical idiosyncrasies. As a scholar of these tales, I realized you cannot deal with present socio-political-cultural conditions unless you have a firm grasp on historical transformation. Consequently, all my concerns as a scholar of folklore and fairy-tale studies and, also as a writer and translator of tales, made a huge U-Turn. Indeed, I began to search and research the gaps of the past that we needed to fill and still need to fill to make the present more substantial and pave the way for a better future.

In the particular case of folk and fairy tales, this led me to discover and uncover highly significant writers and illustrators of fairy tales in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since I have always been a library nerd, a used book pack rat, and a flea market junky, it was not difficult for me to sniff out numerous neglected authors and their works. In the course of ten years, I have been fortunate not only to find amazing collections of fairy tales written by Kurt Schwitters, Bela Balázs, Naomi Mitchison, Walter De La Mare, Lafacadio Hearn, but also numerous unusual fairy tales by British writers of the 1930s, workers’ tales of the early twentieth century, and “decadent” French fairy tales of the late nineteenth century. Moreover, the books in the series have been edited by superb scholars and writers such as Maria Tatar, Marina Warner, Philip Pullman, Gretchen Schulz, Lewis Seifert, and Michael Rosen. Thanks to these works – with more to come – we now know that the popular fairy tale did not end and will not end in a homogenized form of happily ever after. Rather, the fairy tale as genre has never ended as a fraudulent happy end, it continues to startle us through diverse and extraordinary versions throughout the world.

The plans for the future include fabulous Japanese fairy tales by Lafcadio Hearn, Chinese stories of the early twentieth century during the onset of communism, Jewish tales by Nister, a somewhat bizarre rabbi, radical fairy tales written by Hermynjia zur Mühlen, an Austrian aristocrat, turned communist, provocative and dazzling Italian fairy tales from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Lisa Tetzner’s fairy-tale novel Hans Sees the World, about a boy’s adventures during the 1929 depression, and Yuri Olesha’s Three Fat Men, which concerns an upside-down world in Russia during the 1930s.

What makes Édouard Laboulaye’s political fairy tales of the late nineteenth century significant for today and for history is that he was truly the foremost writer of political fairy tales in all of Europe. In fact, I know of no other writer or politician in the nineteenth century who used the fairy tale so deftly and ironically to oppose tyranny. In addition, Laboulaye was very much an internationalist. He know many foreign languages and had an extraordinary knowledge of folk tales from oral traditions in Italy, Senegal, Egypt, Estonia, Russia, Germany, Iceland, and other countries, and he adapted them to sharpen their political implications and make them more acute. Furthermore, he was certainly a proto feminist: almost all of his tales have feisty female protagonists who courageously oppose stupid fathers, unjust husbands, and corrupt male courts of power. The major tale in my current collection, “Slap-Bam, or The Art of Governing Men,” is a wonderfully humorous narrative that argues for the importance of women in shaping the politics of a country.

Is such relevance reflected, then, in the nature of our current study of folklore and fairy tales at universities? How is it possible for such a writer like Édouard Laboulaye to escape the eyes of university students and their professors? Although political scientists in France are well aware of Laboulaye’s importance – a recent conference in France was dedicated to his work in jurisprudence and history – I have not read one single essay or book about his work in literature and folklore. Is this the fault of French literary scholars caught in the barbed wire and babble of French critical theory all over the world? Is this the fault of most universities in the world that do not have folklore programs, or which have eliminated them? I am not certain. But I have a certain urge and itch to find out why.

Bird Fact Friday— Shining & Purple Honeycreepers

Adapted from pages 532-533 of Birds of Central America:

Illustrations of the Shining Honeycreeper and the Purple Honeycreeper, by Dale Dyer.

Tangers and Honeycreepers are small birds found mainly in canopy of humid broadleaf forest, often with mixed flocks. Female honeycreepers can often be separated by their heads and underpart patterns. 

The Shining Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes lucidus) is found in south Mexico and the northern part of South America. It is an uncommon resident of humid foothills, and rare in Belize. They are identified by their yellow legs. Males ar violet-blue, with a black face, throat, and wings. Female have a bluish crown, nape, and malaria, with whitish underparts with a blue streaking. Their rarely heard dawn song is a thin, high-pitched, repeated tsip tsip chaa, tsip tsip chaa. Meanwhile, their calls are a high-pitched, thin, piercing tseet and or tsip and a nasal, gnatcatcher-like chaa or naaa or whaaa

The Purple Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes caeruleus) is a rare and local resident in the lowlands and foothills of Central/Southern America. Like the Shining Honeycreeper, it is identified by its yellow legs. Males and females closely resemble the Shining Honeycreeper, but watchers can note a more restricted black throat in males. Females, meanwhile, are more extensively streaked below and have green nape and crown. They canopy in the edge of human broadleaf forests, or shaded plantations. They live in pairs or small groups. Their call is a high pitched, lisping zzree or a long, slurred ssseup.

Birds of Central America
Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama

By Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer

Birds of Central America is the first comprehensive field guide to the avifauna of the entire region, including Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Handy and compact, the book presents text and illustrations for nearly 1,200 resident and migrant species, and information on all rare vagrants. Two hundred sixty detailed plates on convenient facing-page spreads depict differing ages and sexes for each species, with a special focus on geographic variation. The guide also contains up-to-date range maps and concise notes on distribution, habitat, behavior, and voice. An introduction provides a brief overview of the region’s landscape, climate, and biogeography.

The culmination of more than a decade of research and field experience, Birds of Central Americais an indispensable resource for all those interested in the bird life of this part of the world.

  • Detailed information on the entire avifauna of Central America
  • 260 beautiful color plates
  • Range maps, text, and illustrations presented on convenient facing-page spreads
  • Up-to-date notes on distribution supported by an extensive bibliography
  • Special focus on geographic variation of bird species

Browse our Brain & Behavior 2019 Catalog

Our new Brain & Behavior catalog includes an explanation for why your personal traits are more innate than you think, a revealing insider’s account of the power—and limitations—of functional MRI, and a guide to the latest research on how young people can develop positive ethnic-racial identities and strong interracial relations.

If you’re attending the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego this weekend, please join us at Booth 220, or stop by any time to see our full range of brain & cognitive science titles and more.

 

Written by one of the world’s leading pioneers in the field, The New Mind Readers cuts through the hype and misperceptions surrounding these emerging new methods, offering needed perspective on what they can and cannot do—and demonstrating how they can provide new answers to age-old questions about the nature of consciousness and what it means to be human.

 

What makes you the way you are—and what makes each of us different from everyone else? In Innate, leading neuroscientist and popular science blogger Kevin Mitchell traces human diversity and individual differences to their deepest level: in the wiring of our brains. Deftly guiding us through important new research, including his own groundbreaking work, he explains how variations in the way our brains develop before birth strongly influence our psychology and behavior throughout our lives, shaping our personality, intelligence, sexuality, and even the way we perceive the world.

 

Today’s young people are growing up in an increasingly ethnically and racially diverse society. How do we help them navigate this world productively, given some of the seemingly intractable conflicts we constantly hear about? In Below the Surface, Deborah Rivas-Drake and Adriana Umaña-Taylor explore the latest research in ethnic and racial identity and interracial relations among diverse youth in the United States. Drawing from multiple disciplines, including developmental psychology, social psychology, education, and sociology, the authors demonstrate that young people can have a strong ethnic-racial identity and still view other groups positively, and that in fact, possessing a solid ethnic-racial identity makes it possible to have a more genuine understanding of other groups.