This fall, I went to Grantham, England, which every two years holds a joyful celebration of the life of crusty old Isaac Newton. The town is near Newton’s birthplace, the amazing Woolthorpe Manor: a perfectly preserved farmhouse where you can see the VERY ROOM where Newton did his experiments with light and prisms.
Grantham is also where, as a twelve-year-old boy, Newton lived in an attic above an apothecary’s workshop, where he could see Magical Looking Things happening.
Which is where I came in.
In my Magick and Alchemy show, I mix together mysterious ingredients, just as real apothecaries (and alchemists!) did.
It would be nice if in my show, I could (like the alchemists) stand over a cauldron of molten metal and toss in mysterious substances that produced all sorts of magical looking special effects. Explosions! Stinks and bangs! Clouds of colored smoke!
I can’t, of course. But even much safer mixtures can produce what looked—to the alchemists—very much like magic. Why did what the alchemists called “salts” sometimes cause a liquid to change color, and other times to bubble over? Why do some salts mysteriously change their shape when stirred into water?
What I like about alchemy is trying to imagine the world before science as we know it existed. So many things were utter mysteries. Then, very gradually, we began to figure out, say, what happens when a candle burns. The modern-day science of chemistry emerged from the mists.
I notice, now, that I’m a lot more interested in chemistry than I used to be. Trying to think like an alchemist helps me wonder about things much more than I used to.
Which, of course, is what science is all about.