What Would Newton Do? Rep. Paul Broun’s Scientific Asynchrony

The other day my 10-year-old daughter came home incensed: a friend had told her of a congressman’s assertion that evolution and the Big Bang Theory were lies sent by Satan to deceive Americans.  She and her friend were spittin’ mad and spent their lunch hour talking about his stupidity (yeah, my daughter has some cool friends).

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Rep. Paul Broun

I was plenty shocked, so I decided to look this up.  I was floored.  The congressman in question, Rep. Paul Broun, proclaimed to a group of sportsmen at a church in Hartwell, Georgia, “God’s Word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” (August Chronicle)

Pretty bad, but it gets worse: Rep. Broun is a medical doctor, somebody who, presumably, studied some science at some point.

Even worse?: Rep. Broun sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Shortly after this episode (and an extended discussion with my daughter about faith and science, God and creation—about what early modern natural philosophers would have called “the book of God” and “the book of Nature”), I saw this article about the BBC’s documentary, Isaac Newton: The Last Magician. The film details a perceived oddity of Newton’s career: an obsession with alchemy that lasted until his death. It may come as a surprise to some that a towering figure in the story of modern science was obsessed with a field we associate with magical thinking, pseudo-science, and occult study.

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Godfrey Kneller’s 1689 portrait of Isaac Newton (age 46)

The juxtaposition of these two events—my daughter asking me about Broun and reading about Newton’s research interests—made me think about the asynchrony of science. I mean, it doesn’t all happen in a straight line, does it?  We posit, hypothesize, doubt, prove, doubt again, and then prove again. But while we’re doubting and proving, we’re holding different sets of assumption in our head, provisionally balancing outcomes and worldviews.

Newton could write the magisterial Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and analyze the refraction and diffraction of light in the Opticks, all while influenced by Rosicrucians in his search for the Philosopher’s Stone.

Broun is trained in biology and chemistry. He’s made his living based on science determined by modern scientific practices.  Yet he can still assert that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang Theory are lies sent by the Devil.

But the more I thought about it, the less comfortable I became with lumping Newton and Broun together in this asynchrony.

First, of course, there is the possibility that Broun only made those statements in order to secure the evangelical Christian vote, that it was a calculated misrepresentation of his actual beliefs.

But there’s something deeper, too.  Newton’s alchemy relied on principles very similar to those that would eventually yield the modern field of chemistry.  Exciting new finds in the natural world seemed to buttress the kinds of ancient claims made by the alchemists.  As Natalie Angier notes in her excellent article on Newton in The New York Times:

There were plenty of theoretical and empirical reasons at the time to take the principles of alchemy seriously, to believe that compounds could be broken down into their basic constituents and those constituents then reconfigured into other, more desirable substances.

Miners were pulling up from the ground twisted bundles of copper and silver that were shaped like the stalks of a plant, suggesting that veins of metals and minerals were proliferating underground with almost florid zeal.

The principles of alchemy that Newton relied on were not so very different from modern scientists’ shared assumptions.  Again, Algier:

The conceptual underpinning to the era’s alchemical fixation was the idea of matter as hierarchical and particulate — that tiny, indivisible and semipermanent particles come together to form ever more complex and increasingly porous substances, a notion not so different from the reality revealed by 20th-century molecular biology and quantum physics.

With the right solvents and the perfect reactions, the researchers thought, it should be possible to reduce a substance to its core constituents — its corpuscles, as Newton called them — and then prompt the corpuscles to adopt new configurations and programs. Newton and his peers believed it was possible to prompt metals to grow, or “vegetate,” in a flask. After all, many chemical reactions were known to leave lovely dendritic residues in their wake. Dissolve a pinch of silver and mercury in a solution of nitric acid, drop in a lump of metal amalgam, and soon a spidery, glittering “Tree of Diana” will form on the glass. Or add iron to hydrochloric acid and boil the solution to dryness. Then prepare a powdery silicate mix of sand and potassium carbonate. Put the two together, and you will have a silica garden, in which the ruddy ferric chloride rises and bifurcates, rises and bifurcates, as though it were reaching toward sunlight and bursting into bloom. rises and bifurcates, rises and bifurcates, as though it were reaching toward sunlight and bursting into bloom.

The principles and assumptions underpinning Broun’s scientific background (his medical school education, for example), however, are markedly different from the evangelic Christian tenets he proclaims.  Whereas modern scientific assertions require prediction based on observation, Broun relies on literal interpretation of an ancient text.

I guess a lot of this is just me thinking out loud (which is what blogs are supposed to be, right?).  What do you all think?

 

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “What Would Newton Do? Rep. Paul Broun’s Scientific Asynchrony

  1. James Zachary

    Broun is a blooming idiot.

  2. Elizabeth

    First off, the fact that he sits on the Committee for Science, Space, and Technology scares me. I don’t fault people for believing in the literal 6 days of creation vice evolution. I don’t believe they are right, but I believe a lot of people who believe that are genuinely doing their best to reconcile their faith with science and are not using it to score political points–much like Newton. It bothers me that Rep Broun does seem to be using it for political purposes, and it still scares me that he sits on the SST committee. Interesting discussion, though. I wouldn’t have thought to bring Newton into the mix.

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