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