Alchemy, Science, Life, and Health

(“I find that nothing’s ever exactly like you expect….”
(Professor Richard Lazarus, “The Lazarus Experiment,” BBC))

A mad scientist’s lot is not a happy one. All he wants is to redefine being human: and the next thing you know, he’s eating guests at his victory celebration.

Doctor Who’s The Lazarus Experiment doesn’t have much to do with The Devil Bat and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, apart from featuring a mad scientist — and science gone horribly wrong.

Some movies, like Fantastic Voyage and Things to Come, present science and technology as useful.

But “tampering with things man was not supposed to know,” as Mr. Squibbs put it, keeps the plot going for quite a few; like Altered Species, They Saved Hitler’s Brain, and Island of Lost Souls.

Reticence, reasonable and otherwise, regarding new ideas isn’t new. (August 21, 2016)

“Smallpox is a visitation from God; but the cowpox is produced by presumptuous man; the former was what Heaven ordained, the latter is, perhaps, a daring violation our of holy religion.”
(A physician’s reaction to Dr. Edward Jenner’s experiments in developing a vaccine for smallpox, (1796) via Psychological Sciences, Vanderbilt University)

“I have read in the Philosophical Transactions the account of the effects of lightning on St. Bride’s steeple. ‘Tis amazing to me, that after the full demonstration you had given, of the identity of lightning and of electricity, and the power of metalline conductors, they should ever think of repairing that steeple without such conductors. How astonishing is the force of prejudice even in an age of so much knowledge and free enquiry!”
(Letter, To Benjamin Franklin from John Winthrop, 6 January 1768, via

Learning: Sometimes the Hard Way

Metalline conductors, we call them lightning rods these days, were new technology in 1768.

Folks were learning about electricity, sometimes the hard way.

Georg Wilhelm Richmann was measuring an insulated rod’s interaction with a thunderstorm in 1753 when something resembling ball lightning interacted with him: lethally.

He’s probably the first person to die while conducting electrical experiments.

The lesson isn’t, I think, that movies make folks fear science, or that God smites those who study thunderstorms.

Ideally, Richmann’s death would have impressed scientists throughout all generations that following safety protocols makes sense.

We don’t live in an ideal world: so less than two centuries later Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin died after working with a mass of plutonium, subsequently dubbed the “demon core.”1

Mad Scientists and Seeking Knowledge

(From Phil & Kaja Foglio, used w/o permission.)
(Finally! A mad scientist gets it right: Girl Genius, July 10, 2013.)

Let’s give B-movie ‘mad scientist’ film writers credit.

Their fictional meddlers with “more than heavenly power permits”2 were probably crazy enough to demand unswerving obedience without realizing that something/someone that’s smart enough to understand the orders is sharp enough to get upset.

I was going somewhere with this. Let me think.

Unexpected results; mad scientists; lightning rods; more scientists, mad and otherwise.


Loudly-religious analogs of Mr. Squibbs notwithstanding, seeking knowledge and developing new tech isn’t a sin.

Science and technology, studying the universe and using what we learn, is part of being human. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 22922296)

Ethics matter, just as they do for everything else we do. (Catechism, 2294)

Faith isn’t reason — but isn’t opposed to reason. Science and faith, the Catholic variety, get along. (Catechism, 154159)

We do, however, need to remember that our preconceived notions may not accurately reflect reality.

“…God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures – and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. … Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893) [emphasis mine])

Wanting Health and Long Life

Scientists occasionally act as if curiosity justifies whatever they’re doing; which reminds me of Johann Conrad Dippel, a colorful fellow born at Castle Frankenstein3 in 1673.

He studied alchemy around the time serious researchers started calling what they did “chemistry” in a desperate — and eventually successful — attempt to distinguish their work from folks hawking elixirs and panaceas.

Anyway: Dippel had trouble managing money; invented Dipple’s oil, useful as an animal and insect repellent; and was accused of grave robbing, presumably for his alleged soul-transfer experiments.

Like I said: a colorful fellow.

He wrote that he’d invented an elixir that’d keep him alive until he was 135 years old, and died a few months short of his 61st birthday.

Dippel’s interest in an elixir of life was hardly unique. That, and the philosopher’s stone, had been an alchemical El Dorado for centuries. Interestingly, we can transmute lead into gold these days; but the process costs more than the gold is worth.

We’re also getting better at extending human life and maintaining public health. This is a good thing. (Catechism, 2211, 22882291)

Here’s where it gets tricky.

Culling the Unfit

Plato said that the state should control human reproduction.

Human nature being what it is, and was, citizens below philosopher king rank would be fooled into cooperating.

His “Republic” described a rigged lottery. Folks with high scores would be ‘randomly’ paired: but Plato realized that his “gold soul” couples could produce “bronze soul” kids.

Infanticide, killing defective or unwanted kids, had been routine long before Plato; and still is, with varying degrees of acceptance.

Different cultures had different approaches. Table IV of the Roman Twelve Tables required the pater familias to kill any deformed child. The Spartan Gerousia, a council of elders, decided if a child would live or die.4

Since I think all human life is precious, I can’t see culling the unfit as a good idea. (Catechism, 2258, 2268)

I’ll grant that I’m biased.

Enjoying Life and Health: Reasonably

I’m taking medications to control mental and physical issues. (October 14, 2016)

On top of that, I have artificial hips, both hands were re-engineered, my teeth are mostly metal or ceramic, and I keep a set of clip-on lenses in front of my eyes.

Sometimes I feel as if life’s not worth living, but that could easily be attitudes stored in my implicit memory during the decades before learning that depression’s symptoms aren’t normal for adolescents and adults.

On the whole, I think being alive is a good idea: even if I’m not enjoying a “quality lifestyle” by some standards.

I’m not, arguably, “as God made me,” and haven’t been since early childhood. Surgery corrected, more or less, congenital hip dysplasia before I started kindergarten.

Another surgeon repaired part of my lower GI tract a decade or so back, which probably saved my life. He also removed my appendix and Meckel’s diverticulum, in an abundance of caution. I mentioned other modifications earlier.

I don’t feel guilty about any of that, since life and health are a “precious gift” from God. I’m expected to take reasonable care of mine. (Catechism, 2288, 2278)

What’s changed during my lifetime — and is changing — is how many previously-inescapable health problems can be treated.

The mad scientist’s dream of indefinitely extending life, or removing unwanted parts of human nature — without the distressing side effects encountered by Dr. Jekyll5 — may be just a dream. But it’s getting serious attention again.

I’ll be talking about that in another post.

More about science and being human:

1 Why “twisting the dragon’s tail” is a bad idea:

2 Doctor Faustus, or, picking the wrong research assistant:

3 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may have been inspired partly by Dipple’s reputation:

4 Eugenics and all that:

5 ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time:’


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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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