The Last Sorcerer

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T.

Once again I’ve fallen in love, or, at least my version of it. After weeks of preparation for my presentations to the Sections Meeting, I allowed myself to wander through the local public library. Now, when I say wander, I mean that I walk about with no intent whatsoever. I open my eyes, I let things come to me, and I try not to impose any sort of agenda on my search. I’ve been doing this for years, and some of my best ideas result from my finding a jewel among the dusty shelves. This is the story of last week’s find.

I was in the biography section when I saw a book slightly askew. The glare from the window kept me from seeing the title so I pulled it out and turned the cover toward me. Rich brown tones bordered a formal portrait of a man wearing an enormous wig that extended nearly to his waist. Across the top it said “Isaac Newton,” and across the middle it said, The Last Sorcerer. I was entranced.

As a discipline, Newtonian physics is often derided by those in the postmodern community as archaic and inaccurate. They often claim that what they call “Einsteinian” physics has supplanted Newton’s laws and try to build a new model of reality based upon the seemingly mystical activity within the subatomic world. By doing so they reveal their ignorance of what Newton and Einstein described. I don’t know about you, but I personally live in the Newtonian macrocosm, and Isaac (I like to call him Isaac) described it well enough, I think. For more on this, see The Quantum Scam on my web site.

Anyway, it was the word “sorcerer” that really caught my eye. A highly regarded historian, Michael White, published this book in ‘97, and the references and careful research are impressive. White delves into Newton’s prolonged fascination with the practice of Alchemy. You remember Alchemy, don’t you? The alchemists were men (and a small number of women) who tried to get metals to transmutate into something else, usually gold. They didn’t actually manage to do this, but that didn’t keep them from trying for several centuries. We know that for the most part their efforts resulted in nothing more than poverty and public derision, and, often, madness. Still, their methods were refined into modern day chemistry and their equipment is still in use today. They worked in secret and published under pseudonyms in order to avoid exposure to their scientific colleagues. Newton was one of them, and this part of his life has long been hidden or ignored by those who only wish him to be remembered as we typically do; the first giant of modern scientific thought. White makes a compelling case for the title The Last Sorcerer, and, believe or not, this is precisely how this great man is most closely connected to physical therapy. No kidding.

Newton’s Madness

Twice in his life Isaac Newton became virtually uncommunicative, paranoid, suffered from tremors and insomnia. He displayed unprovoked bursts of temper, kind of like Woody Hayes. The first period lasted six years, beginning about 1667 and the second was shorter but every bit as intense, beginning in 1693. In between he published his Principia, and changed forever the way we understood the universe. This is carefully documented in an essay entitled “Newton’s Madness” by the neurologist Harold L. Klawans in his book of the same name (Harper 1991).

As I mentioned earlier, Newton was a devotee of alchemical practice. This required that he spend long hours bent over and commonly sleeping next to an oven that constantly burned, carefully cooking the elements of his craft. There were seven metals used in the alchemist’s arsenal, but mercury was favored by far. This had to do with its liquidity at room temperature. Not knowing any better, they thought this meant that it was a part of all other metals since these also became liquid at higher temperatures. This is the kind of thing that happens when scientists use empiricism alone-they make major mistakes in interpretation. We now know that Newton’s symptoms were the direct result of his mercury intoxication. He even drank some of it. Two men named Spargo and Pounds confirmed this diagnosis by examining some locks of Isaac’s hair a few years ago.

I looked up the word “mercurial” and found that it meant sudden, unexpected and unexplained changes in mood. Then I began to think of the various “elements” of the body that therapists and doctors commonly deal with. There’s the connective tissue, the vascular elements, the contractile tissues, various organs, and, the most mercurial of all, the nervous element. It’s been my observation that most of us prefer to treat anything other than that last one. After all, the others behave predictably for the most part, and when they are not well, we know how to provoke them toward health. Trying to treat the nervous tissue will drive you crazy, it seems. At the very least, the ideas you might have about its behavior will sound crazy to other therapists. I asked an orthopedist yesterday what sort of medical specialty is most likely to produce a crazy man. Without hesitation he said, “Neurosurgery.” (I’m using the word “crazy” here in a very loose sense, obviously, but I assume you get my point.)

These days I sit and think of all the years I’ve spent gently holding another’s skin (according to Montague, this is the surface manifestation of the nervous system), and I wonder how much I’ve been affected by it, whether my colleague’s general opinion of me as an odd character might not be justified, considering all the ideas and sensations my intimate contact with this has produced in me. It doesn’t help that I can be a cranky conversationalist about therapeutic matters or that I keep to myself a lot.

Perhaps Isaac and I have a bit in common, though his enormous legacy as a scientist transcends all of my grandest delusions.

The Star Regulus of Antimony

Apparently, you don’t just decide to become an alchemist one day and start cooking up some mercury, you have to study for a while first. The alchemists believed that the intent of the practitioner was every bit as important as the heat of the furnace. They believed intensely in the notion that our thoughts somehow had a distant effect, and that this was enhanced by study and a semi-monastic existence. This kind of thing changes you, and Isaac Newton wasn’t immune. He was immersed in his studies for years before he did any experimentation, and by the time he began, he was committed to seeing things differently.

In alchemy, if you blend the element antimony with various reducing agents, you get what they call reguli-crystalline compounds with striking arrangements of radiating shards. When iron is the agent used, you get The Star Regulus of Antimony, an especially impressive piece of material. Newton was fascinated by the shape, but he didn’t see the shards radiating out, he saw them radiating in.

In The Last Sorcerer Michael White makes a compelling case for the idea that Newton only understood the effect of gravity because he had seen something in his alchemical studies that helped him imagine how it might possibly work. It seems to me that the notion of distant effect as articulated in alchemical lore would look a lot like gravity, and strange as it is, Newton already believed it to be true.

Carl Jung thought that alchemy was a useful metaphor for our internal processes. He felt that with enough thoughtful work, if we repeat and repeat our mantras of improvement (repetition was an essential of the alchemist’s method), they might begin to transform us. There’s a line from Ben Jonson’s comedy “The Alchemist,” “For look, how oft I iterate the work, So many times I add unto his virtue.” No one worked harder than Newton at proving his mathematical description of gravity, or repeated his thinking with such clarity.

Think of the alchemy of our work; full of repetition, requiring plenty of study before we begin, and, perhaps most importantly, how our intention actually makes a difference if it’s evident to the patient. Perhaps every good therapist is an alchemist of sorts, and, if they’re very good, they work to embrace the scientific paradigm when explaining what it is they see and do. After all, nothing less was good enough for Isaac.

Isaac’s Telescope  

Newton was offered the prestigious Lucasian Chair at Trinity College in 1670 and soon after began a series of lectures on optics. His ideas were markedly different than those of his predecessor and backed entirely by rigorous mathematics. As Michael White reports in The Last Sorcerer, “Not a single student showed up for his second lecture, and throughout almost every lecture for the next seventeen years Newton talked to an empty room, listening merely to his own voice bouncing back at him.” Isaac continued to lecture because he had agreed to do so, no matter whether or not anyone was listening. 

In contrast to this image of Newton’s solitude and the indifference of his peers, there is the story of his telescope. Of course, Newton didn’t invent this devise, but his unique knowledge of optics led him to personally construct one that far exceeded the power of those commonly produced yet was over ten times smaller. When his colleagues saw this, they went nuts. It was for this, and not his theories about optics, that he was nominated to become a Fellow of The Royal Society. Of course, it was his optical theory that led to the innovations necessary to produce such a cool telescope. 

If we once again think of Newton’s connection to therapy, these two stories are especially telling. In a profession known for its tendency to act, to act vigorously, largely and often forcefully in an effort to get patients moving and functioning normally again, the subtlety of theory, thoughtful, slow movement and gentle handling are often dismissed and may be hard to find in the modern, productive department. 

Of course, without the optical theory, anyone trying to reproduce Isaac’s telescope would be obliged only to copy what he or she saw. This might have worked quite well at times, but any modification needed because of  alterations in the condition of light would be accomplished by trial and error, at best. Newton knew that the telescope would work even before he built it, because he understood the nature of light. 

“Just tell me what to do. Show me where to put my hands and how hard to push.” This is something I’ve heard from many students over the years. When I insist that knowing the materials down to the deepest level is what drives effective technique, many lose interest, and I guess I can understand that. Those lectures aren’t nearly so interesting as a demonstration of care. 

But I sense in that image of Isaac speaking to an empty room something familiar to me. Perhaps others who dwell on theory feel it too. We like the telescope as much as the next guy, but we never forget where it came from, or where it might lead us.