The painting below is The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone by Joseph Wright. It depicts German alchemist Hennig Brand’s discovery of phosphorous. Made in 1771, it came right at the tail end of the Enlightenment, a period that Europeans look back on as the age when they gave birth to the modern world.
The work is a vivid portrayal of the classic alchemist, revered in their time as great scholars who believed they understood the fundamental elements of nature and that if they just concocted the right experiment they would be able to spin anything into gold and drink into eternity from the fountain of youth.
I should say that alchemy did do quite a bit of good in the world. From various mixtures of what they thought was earth, wind, fire and air, alchemists did make significant advances in metallurgy, material science, and medicine.
But they were limited in what they could achieve because they did not have the fundamentals right. It wasn’t until the Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev came up with the periodic table in 1869 that we were able to classify elements in a manner that represents how they exist in nature and start doing modern chemistry.
But the periodic table did not wipe out alchemy, it continued to be seriously studied and practiced well into the 20th century largely because of the staying power of language. Language helps shape our understanding of reality. It breaks up the world into discreet things whose names and definitions form pathways in our brains. Names have a lasting impact on culture, and the more they are used the more ingrained they become. One of the best examples of this was our collective discovery of the color ‘blue’ as told in the famous Radiolab episode, Why isn’t the Sky Blue?
When the definition we use to describe something do not align with how that thing exists in nature, problems can arise. This is particularly problematic in medical science. We created names for diseases before we had the tools needed to accurately describe them. Some of those names persist to this day and each has stories that connect the clues we do have to explain its existence. Everyday people still get diagnosed with them, and everyday scientists work to develop treatments for them. Trying to solve puzzles that don’t exist.
Institutions, companies and organizations get built on them, people get funded to go in search of them, and for many patients they become part of their identity. But they are a fiction, a story we repeat and repeat until we forget that there is no there there. To move forward in our attempts to modify the course of these diseases, we need to go back and try to understand their fundamental nature, the baseline reality of what they really are, stripped of the preconceived notions we have of them.
For more on why this is important, as well as an overview of some of the other systemic failures of the past and how technology has opened the door to a new era for medical science, watch this talk I gave a few days ago at the University of Toronto.
I’ll finish with a quote from a character I made up. The tremor-ridden bard himself, Mr. William Shakeyspeare.
And here are a few more of his witticisms…