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Quicksilver

by Neil Stephenson

I bought the Baroque Cycle trilogy as they were published, but did not begin it until now… Somewhat daunting in length, this nevertheless was a pretty fast, enjoyable read. While I do like science fiction – and Snow Crash was my entry point to Stephenson’s work – I am not a particular fan of history, or of historical fiction. Still, he makes it easy. The characters are well drawn, and the physical environs vivid and palpable. Bringing historical figures such as Newton and Leibniz into the narrative only makes it that much more fun.

Science was in its nascence, and while we might think we’ve come a long way since then, it is well to remember that not all lines of inquiry are going to lead where we hope. Still, the goals seem familiar:

“…the trick of refining, from the base, dark, cold, essentially focal matter of which the World was made, the Philosophick Mercury–the pure living essence of God’s power and presence in the world–the key to the transmutation of metals, the attainment of immortal life and perfect wisdom.”

So too, some of the arguments:

“Here Daniel was a bit lost. ‘Fluxion seems to mean a flowing over time–so it makes perfect sense when you apply it the word to the position of a punt on a river, who is as a matter of fact, flowing over time. But now you seem to be applying it to the shape of a weed, which is not flowing–it’s just standing there sort of bent.’

‘But Daniel, the virtue of this approach is that it doesn’t matter what the actual physical situation is, a curve is ever a curve, and whatever you can do to the curve of a river you can do just as rightly to the curve of a weed–we are free from all that old nonsense now.’ Meaning the Aristotelean approach, in which such easy mixing of things with obviously different natures would be abhorrent. All that mattered henceforth, apparently, was what form they adopted when translated into the language of analysis. ‘Translating a thing into the analytical language is akin to what the alchemist does when he extracts, from some crude ore, a pure spirit, or virtue, or pneuma. The foeces–the gross external forms of things– which only mislead and confuse us–are cast off to reveal the underlying spirit. And when this is done we may learn that some things that are superficially different are, in their real nature, the same.’”

Which philosophical approach are we getting at here? Stephenson’s quoting of Galileo leaves little doubt:

“Philosophy is written in this immense book that stands ever open before our eyes (I speak of the Universe), but it cannot be read if one does not first learn the language and recognize the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without the means of which it is humanly impossible to understand a word; without these philosophy is confused wandering in a dark labyrinth.”

And later:

“Every assertion that Euclid, et al., made concerning geometry was backed up by a chain of logical proofs that could be followed all the way back to a few axioms that were obviously true, e.g., ‘the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.’ The truths of geometry were necessary truths; the human mind could imagine a universe in which Daniel’s name was David, or in which Ipswich had been built on the other side of the Orwell, but geometry and math had to be true, there was no conceivable universe in which 2 + 3 was equal to 2 + 2.”

In one scene, the distinction between science and superstition is paired with a little joke about Asians not being good at math:

“This Mandarin seems to have no desire to refine his philosophikal position–to disentangle the worthy science of number theory from the base superstition of numerology–most unfortunate for him and the rest of his race.”

Stephenson wants to set the stage for the Enlightenment, and the role of science and reason in bringing that forth, as well as everything that has followed. Today it is information, or data, that has become the focus of the knowledge trades. At Trinity College in London, in 1672:

“And whereas the ’Change-men made common cause to buy shares in sailing-ships or joint stock companies, and traded Jamaica sugar for Spanish silver, these men were transacting diverse small conspiracies or trading snatches of courtly data.”

The story contains men of books, as well as men of action. They are to be contrasted, but their techniques are not necessarily mutually exclusive:

“And being an excellent commander, about to go into a real battle, he had the wit to bring along a few people who could actually get things done for him. It may seem hard for you to believe, but mark my word–whenever serious and competent people need to get things done in the real world, all considerations of tradition and protocol fly out the window.”

And unique men:

“No, even without lenses and parabolic mirrors, Newton and Hooke see things that you and I don’t. Leibniz is proposing a strange inversion of what we normally mean when we describe a man as distinguished, or unique. Normally when we say these things, we mean that the man himself stands out from a crowd in some way. But Leibniz is saying that such a man’s uniqueness is rooted in his ability to perceive the rest of the universe with unusual clarity–to distinguish one thing from another more effectively than ordinary souls.”

I look forward to reading further about unique men in The Confusion.

Category: novel | Tags: , , ,