How Science Played With Magic And Got Burnt
For all the innovation of science, we still fundamentally depend on magic potions and rocks. Fossil fuels are the magic potions brewed deep in the earth, and magnets, uranium, and rare earth minerals are the magic rocks. We can cast incantations over these ingredients and the incantations work, but we still need to find very specific ingredients to throw in the pot.
Arthur C. Clarke said “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and illustrated it thus:
“Suppose you went to any scientist up to the late nineteenth century and told him: “Here are two pieces of a substance called uranium 235. If you hold them apart, nothing will happen. But if you bring them together suddenly, you will liberate as much energy as you could obtain from burning ten thousand tons of coal.” No matter how farsighted and imaginative he might be, your pre-twentieth century scientist would have said: “What utter nonsense! That’s magic, not science. Such things can’t happen in the real world.”
Even generating regular electricity usually involves waving a special rock around some copper wire. This is electromagnetism, which is fundamentally weird as shit. These are all forces that ‘just are’ about the universe. If you keep asking ‘why?’ scientific explanation just stops at a point. It might as well be magic.
The difference between science and magic is that the former has enough explanatory and self-correcting power to enable us to make things out of the magic rocks and potions once we find them. While the ancients had a sense that there certainly was magic in the world, their models were wrong and they couldn’t harness it. We’re able to understand how these magical objects work and so we can harness the wind. Which is kinda the problem. We understood how before we understood why or why not. And so we reap the whirlwind.
One of the general senses around magic was that it was dangerous, treacherous, and you couldn’t generally trust the people using it. However, we stopped believing in magic at precisely the point it began working. We just plunged on ahead discarding the ignorant past, ditching all the wisdom (and fear) we’d…