Qwghlm, alchemy & the Master of the Mint

October 7, 2006

“For to say that, assuming the earth moves and the sun stands still, all the appearances are saved better than with eccentrics and epicycles, is to speak well; there is no danger in this, and it is sufficient for mathematicians. But to want to affirm that the sun really is fixed in the center of the heavens and only revolves around itself (i. e., turns upon its axis ) without traveling from east to west, and that the earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves with great speed around the sun, is a very dangerous thing”

Cardinal Bellarmine Letter to Foscarini April 12th 1615

This I discover is the 100th blog since “it” started up back in July. I say “it” because the blog seems to have taken on a life of its own, consuming my morning hours: which just goes to show how addictive the blogosphere is! I decided to celebrate it by returning to my roots in knowledge management and provide a reflection on balance between the specialist and generalist; considering the utility of both. For the relevance of the above quote you will have to wait until the end.

This subject was prompted by the news that the Royal Society who arguably laid the foundations of modern science, have just made their achives available on line. A incredible body of material that includes early papers by Boyle, Newton, Wren and many others. Most of those early scientists were generalists not specialists, something that seems to characterise periods in which human knowledge goes through a rebirth of ideas. Also many members were naval sea captains and other practical folk as well as the products of Oxford and Cambridge. In effect during a period of discovery it is necessary for an intelligent mind to be open to many possibilities and seek to synthesis ideas across many disciplines by engaging in action.

Well that is my thesis, but in the eclectic manner that a blog permits, nay encourages, I want to start with a Fantasy novel: educated readers will have already guessed which from the title of this blog. Now I have long been a fan of Neil Stephenson whose Baroque Cycle is one of the best examples of the history sub-genre in Fantasy. The final volume, containing the final three books of a nine book series came out in paperback last year. Through “fiction” it tells the history of that magical period of discovery in which Newton was one of principle agents. It also does it through one of the most memorable set of main characters I have ever seen. Newton is a part of the book through direct linkages with each of the characters. I had known as every school boy knows (or should know) that he had discovered the universal law of gravitation, the binomial theorem and had been in dispute with Liebniz as to who first discovered the calculus. I also knew that he was an alchemist all his life and wrote books on theology; which is less well known. I knew that he had been Master of Mint but assumed it was some honorary appointment of little meaning. However Stephenson portrays him as active in the role. Hunting down counterfeiters in the bars of London and bringing them to justice. In those days given the problem with counterfeiting the punishment was severe: hung, drawn & quartered.

Now all this seemed a little far fetched so I selected the period for a deep dive into history. I do this for a different period every year or so, and have just emerged from the Weimar Republic. Interestingly each of these dives seems to be stimulated by fiction. The Weimar interest came from watching again after a too long absence, one of the best films of all time: Cabaret. The trilogy Brothers of Gwynedd by Edith Pargeter (better known as Ellis Peters of Brother Cadfael fame) took me on a journey to the thirteenth century that ended in the court rolls of the Edward the first of England, a nasty piece of work even by the standards of the time. He created the punishment of being hung, drawn and quartered in 1283 for use on Dafydd ap Gruffydd brother of Llywelyn the last Prince of Wales: according to legend his wife and children had they eyelids sewn open to that they could not avoid witnessing their father’s agony. It was one of the methods by which the English civilised the Romano-Celts …..

Either way I discovered, as I have many times before, that good authors research their facts and Stephenson had it right. Newton was fully engaged in one of the major economic problems of his day. He created the gold standard, regularised the great re-coining and was knighted for this, not his scientific discoveries.

So that brings me back to my thesis. During a period of radical change, what Kuhn calls a paradigm shift, the specialisms of a past orthodoxy break down. If you look at any of the major periods of change you will see that most things move into a state of flux with architecture, science, music and philosophy all undergoing radical and interlocked forms of change. Of course once things settle down and we get to know more, then thinking and exploration require a greater degree of specialism. You can see that in the social sciences and to a lesser degree the humanities today. Doctoral theses in the main are narrow in their compass and ambition. To be respected requires focus and thereby specialism. The bigger picture, the ability to sense and see patterns between and across disciplines, and critically in the interaction of thought with the needs of the world and society is deprecated at worst or allowed as an indulgence of hobby at best. I remember the horror of my school and my parents when I turned down near unconditional offers to study physics at Imperial College London and Oxford. I wanted to study philosophy AND physics. Both of the prestigious Universities suggested that I could attend other lectures and study philosophy in my spare time. I am pretty sure I got the offers I did because they were curious at someone who was a bit different. But, and this was critical they wanted me to focus. I went to Lancaster University instead who would let me do both. It was plate glass not old stone or even red brick and open to new ideas. It even had a free ninth in your first year which was designed to get you to study for one ninth of your time in a completely different field. The diversity of that education taught me to blend concepts. I also gained a practical knowledge of jurisprudence and the legal system as a result of student activism outside formal lectures in the subject. When you are expelled by your University and then reinstated having proved them guilty of a breech of natural justice you gain knowledge through experience, but that is a story for another day.

My point here is a simple one, and brings me to the quote with which I started. During a period of change and flux, the implications of an idea, and the interaction between ideas cannot be seen by the specialists of a past paradigm. Cardinal Bellarmine was a highly intelligent man. His Disputationes de controversiis christianae fidei still exists in translation and is a monumental rebuttal of Protestantism. (I make no special claim for that in the modern day, but I use it as an illustration of his place in the one of the main intellectual controversies of the time). He was in many ways a supporter of Galileo Galilei, but he wanted him to confine this theory to the domain of mathematics, not to disturb the peace by claiming that the earth actually went around the sun. It might be a useful hypothesis that allowed calculations on the movement of the heavenly bodies to be made accurately but that was it.

Many an innovator or a maverick in a modern organisation can tell you the same story: Interesting ideas but could you please make them a little more conventional and above all please stop upsetting people. The old patterns can dominate too long after they have lost their utility. New ways of thinking require the generalists or the polymaths who, like Newton are comfortable in many spheres not just one. Many a Vice President, and far too many Professors have paraphrased Cardinal Bellarmine without realising the nature of their error.

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