by Jessie Li
Long before the age of modern science, humanity tried to understand the environment around them through observation and experimentation. Magic provided a way to explain the mysteries of the natural world by providing a framework to understand complex phenomena. As human comprehension of the natural world advanced, magical practices evolved into more structured and methodical forms of inquiry. This gradual shift eventually led to the development of modern science, characterised by its emphasis on empirical evidence, hypothesis testing, and logical reasoning.
Alchemy: an early science
Alchemy, though often dismissed as a pseudoscience today, played a critical role in the advancement of scientific knowledge and methodologies, particularly in the field of chemistry. The alchemists were one of the earliest to adopt a methodical and practical approach to studying the natural world. They carried out experiments with different techniques, carefully documenting their observations and results. Through trial and error, they were able to gain insight to the substances they examined. This approach of relying on experimentation and data collection formed the basis of the scientific method that is widely used in modern science.
Additionally, alchemists developed an extensive understanding of elements, compounds, and their properties, which played a foundational role for the later development of the periodic table. Alchemy also gave rise to concepts such as distillation, calcination, and sublimation, which remain essential in chemistry today. Furthermore, they designed many of the tools and apparatuses that are present in modern laboratories, such as the alembic (a precursor to the modern distillation apparatus), the retort, and the crucible.
Magic as a precursor to science in Chinese history
The concept of magic is prevalent across cultures. In Ancient China, magic was heavily influenced by philosophical and religious beliefs, including Confucianism, Taoism, and folk traditions. At the core of those beliefs were the concepts of yin and yang, the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), and the flow of “qi” (vital energy).
Like alchemy in the Western world, Ancient Chinese alchemists sought to discover the elixir of life and transform base metals into gold. This pursuit led to the development of various chemical processes and a deep understanding of the properties of elements and compounds.
The practice of “Feng Shui” and the understanding of the natural world’s interconnectedness contributed to the early development of earth sciences. The study of the relationship between landforms, climate, and human activity has evolved into contemporary disciplines such as geography, geology, and environmental science.
The Chinese practice of acupuncture, which involves the insertion of needles at specific points on the body to restore the flow of “qi”, shares its roots with ancient magical healing practices. This is a form of traditional Chinese medicine and continues to influence modern medicine and complementary therapies.
Methods of divination, like the “I Ching” (Book of Changes), were deeply rooted in mathematical principles and patterns. The “I Ching”, an essential work in Chinese philosophy and divination, is built upon 64 hexagrams derived from combinations of yin and yang lines. This early adoption of binary code and mathematical notions laid the foundation for progress in the fields of mathematics and computer science in China.
The Chinese believed that celestial events had an influence on the human happenings. For example, the full moon is a symbol of peace, prosperity, and family reunion. This focus on celestial observation influenced the development of modern astronomy in China and subsequently, the development of the lunar calendar and the prediction of eclipses.
Greeks and magic
In Ancient Greece, magic, superstition, religion, and astrology were not separate from science. In fact, the study of magic was closely linked to the study of natural philosophy, which was the precursor of modern science. The Greeks believed that magic was a way of understanding the natural world and the supernatural forces that governed it.
The Greeks believed that the mind and the soul were intimately connected, and many of their magical practices involved the manipulation of the psyche. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who was a student of natural philosophy, explored the workings of the human mind and emotions. His work contributed to the development of modern psychology which is based on the same principles of empirical observation and experimentation.
Furthermore, it was the Greeks who incorporated mathematics into astrology. The Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos (310 BC – about 230 BC) discovered that the Earth revolves around the sun with a cycle of a year while rotating about its axis in a day. He presented the first known heliocentric model long before the Copernican Revolution which started in the 14th century, shifting the worldview from the geocentric model (Earth at the centre of the universe) to the heliocentric model.
Although seemingly unrelated, magic and science are both concepts birthed from our natural curiosity about our environment and our desire to explore and manipulate the world to advance the possibilities of what we can achieve. When I observe what humanity can create through trial and error, creativity, experimentation, and exploration, science itself starts to feel magical.
Jessie Li, 22,
Bsc in Computer Science, did not have time to write a bio.