I’m currently reading Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds†. It’s astonishing how little has changed since 1852 (when the second edition was published); our current economic crisis and its causes would have felt quite familiar to Mackay.
He devotes a long chapter to the alchemists, and treats their hunt for the philosopher’s stone with derision. It’s easy for us to laugh about it, as we have modern science to explain the world around us, and therefore can conclude that a philosopher’s stone is impossible. On the other hand, we are now able to transmute lead to gold; we just use an ion accelerator instead of the lapis philosophorum.
To the alchemists of old, the hunt did not seem futile or stupid. They were convinced that they were on the right track; after all, many alchemists before them walked the same way (quite respectable persons in their time, no less). Only after hundreds of years the mania ceased – and only afterwards it was widely recognized as a mania. (By the way, I think Mackay’s treatment of Paracelsus is too harsh; he had enough redeeming qualities).
Now I have an idle thought: what if our current hunt for the grand unified theory is just the same? What if one of our fundamental assumptions is wrong and there is no GUT? What if we just ask the wrong questions and are completely on the wrong track? We build the Large Hadron Collider for billions of Euros, in order to find the Higgs boson – and if we don’t find it, will we build a larger, more expensive collider?
I am wondering if people in two hundred years time will think about us:
How stupid those people were; instead of putting their money to good use, they wasted huge sums on ever larger and ever more expensive accelerators; they never came to their senses. It was as if the early alchemists tried to distill alcohol to ever higher concentrations in order to transmute lead to gold with it – futile. Simply futile.
† A good antidote to James Surowiecki’s stupid The Wisdom of Crowds. Mackay wrote his first edition of Madness (1841) 163 years before Surowiecki wrote his Wisdom (2004), and the fact that (respectable) people, even so-called scientists, today talk of
Wisdom of Crowds and mean it seriously, would have stricken Mackay as just another folly, bordering on madness.