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May 07, 2017


Calico's secrecy would make sense if they were developing salable drugs and procedures -- but they're not filing patents,

There are a couple of possible reasons for not filing patents:

First, there may not, yet, be something both novel enough and valuable enough to be worth patenting. Bearing in mind that the rules for what is patentable, especially with novel technologies, can be quite bizarre.

Second, those involved may see the prospect for valuable (and patentable) results, based on the results that they have in hand, but not wish to give potential competitors a leg up. Such things are not unknown in the IT world.

Third, the results of the research so far may be a novel mix of already known treatments. Some possibly already patented. Even if those results are promising, it might make sense to hold off publication until the best mix is explored -- and perhaps the relevant patent rights acquired.

This is not to say that less charitable explanations might not be correct. Just that they are not the only possible ones. Nor even necessarily the most likely.

I can no longer remember what specific works I read, that led me to conclude that the critical difference between magic and science is communication.

Fascinating stuff, Doc. I make a related point when I teach students about Japanese sword making. They try to describe things so that they are replicable so their students can make swords, so they have things like 'when the heated metal has the same color as the moon in August'. However, because they don't have instrumentation, rather than science, you get something that is a lot like religion the way the Japanese practice it, so that any element is viewed as being essential to the process. You said 'Chinese alchemists', do you think they were different than western alchemists?

Trump has MASTERED the arcane art of alchemy.

He proved it by turning BULLSHIT into GOLD.

3. The other alchemical goal, creating gold (or money), is something Silicon Valley has mastered already.

Technically, they've created wealth. Money is the visible manifestation.


Were Chinese & Western alchemists different when it came to open communication? It's a good question that needs to be answered by someone fluent in Classical Chinese.

Chinese alchemy was certainly more successful than Western (including Islamic) alchemy. There's gunpowder, for starters, also Cold Food Powder (a mineral-based psychoactive drug that went in and out of style during the first millennium CE), Autumn Mineral (steroid hormone extracts of human urine), and using seaweed extracts to treat goiter.

Chinese alchemy (like much of Chinese science and technology) was Taoist, which meant it was always in tension with Confucian authority.

(Hmmm...according to the sidebar, wj has posted an invisible comment.)

(No, I got my threads mixed up... :} )

Drat! And here I was all ready to be impressed with myself. Even if I had no clue how I'd done it.

I'm using lower-case "hermetic" in a general sense, to mean "secret, hidden, known only to an elite." Is there a better synonym?

Technically, occult used to mean precisely this, but semantic drift has not been kind to it. recondite?

I wouldn't put too much stock in the secrecy so far. The NSA notoriously hardly publishes anything, but that doesn't mean they've been unable to innovate. If you have enough of the leading experts communicating with each other internally, you can innovate for quite a while without communicating externally.

I think that "esoteric" might also be a passable synonym for "hermetic".

BTW, I had studied mathematics on university level for three years when I first realised that "Hermitian" matrix was named this because of Charles Hermite, not because of Hermes Trismegistos. I had thought that the spelling was just odd. (And in Finnish, it is called hermiittinen, while "hermetic" is hermeettinen , which is even closer.)

The original Western (in the widest sense) idea about alchemy was that the alchemist would help nature to perfect itself and by doing so work on his or her own self-perfection. Why nature would want to turn into purple (gold being only the next to last step) is to me an open question. What use is a dye when there's no cloth left to use it on? ;-)


I think that the practical idea buhund alchemt was the fact that medieval metallurgy was quite imperfect. It was, indeed, possible to extrat gold from e.g. copper, because usually, copper was quite impure.

I have metallurgist friends who have sometimes remarked that a 19th century copperplate may have so high a gold content that the player's value is dominated by the gold impurity, not by the price of copper. In such a case, the quest for transmutation is essentially a quest for purification of already-existing gold. When the Swedish "mountain chemists" (bergchemister of the 16th century embarked on this avenue of research, they created the modern chemistry. (In fact, they mostly worked with baser metals, because that was where the money was. Sweden was the foremost exporter of copper and iron in the Early Modern Europe.)

DS, your "Jobs died" link is broken.


Thank you! fixed now

Lurker, alchemy is far older and the red craze is from a time when purple dye was worth more than its weight in gold, so that explains why the grand elixier (lit: philosopher's stone, i.e. not a liquid) was supposed to be of that colour.
The question is why nature would want to turn all matter into a homogeneous substance, seemingly having produced humans as catalyst for that purpose.
And, no, this is not really a serious question but a slight mocking of the basic idea behind it.

As for gold impurities, after WW1 there was a super secret German project (involving even Nobel laureates) to extract gold from seawater in order to pay the war reparations. Science profitted from it but it turned out to be an economic dud.

First a sidebar/digression, then back to the main topic of tonight' symposium.

Probably worth noting that Apple has always done a fair amount of research that is published, particular when it comes to interface and accessible. This 2015 paper, for instance, sounds interesting: "Cross-Cultural User Experience Design: Helping Product Designers to Consider Cultural Differences", with this abstract:

ABSTRACT: User Experience (UX) designers aim to create a product that causes a pleasant emotional reaction in order to generate an enjoyable memory. However, emotions are subjective and diverse because of cultural differences. As a consequence, cultural differences in UX design are often considered only as theoretical exercises. In this paper, we aim to bridge the gap between theoretical cultural studies and practical application. We analyze established cultural dimensions as well as notes from observational studies, business presentations and ethnographic interviews. Finally, we present “Cultural Personas”, application-oriented tools that characterize derived cultural differences. That supports designers to consider a culturally sensitive UX and thereby to develop better, more enjoyable products.

But yeah, communication does seem like a great threshold for science and magic.

There's a lot to dislike about right-wing think tank dude Angelo Codevilla, but his 1992 book Informing Statecraft remains an excellent read - his extended rant on why policy made in secret is reliably worse than policy made publicly and actually subject to public response is great. Just the same concerns as with science where people do it secretly, really.

I should have proofread. I didn't mean "interface and accessible", I meant "interface and accessibility", the latter covering research into how various kinds of physical disability impair one's ability to use typical interfaces and what fixes those gaps. An increasingly deaf friend of mine tells me that Apple folks turn up a lot in the bibliographies for audiology-related papers, for instance.

I make a related point when I teach students about Japanese sword making...

Which is, surely, technology - something we had plenty of long before the scientific method.
And perhaps commercial scientific endeavour carried out in secret falls into this category ?

As an aside, I am reading John James'entertainimg historical novel Votan, and his eponymous hero has just brought about the Ingerli sword by teaching the smith to write his name.

That should read Ingelrii.

"As an aside, I am reading John James'entertainimg historical novel Votan, and his eponymous hero has just brought about the Ingerli sword by teaching the smith to write his name."

Well, it's no coincidence Fëanor was both a master smith and the inventor of writing.

Nigel, interesting observation. Though where do we draw the line at what technology is? Clovis points and atlatls are, to my mind, technology and their use gave technological advantages to the users.

But Japanese sword makers, by and large, were willing to share their secrets with a larger community, within reason. However, what they didn't have was a way to codify those observations, which seems to be a step that science deals with.


The redness of alchemical preparations isn't particularly related to Tyrian purple, because it was characteristic of Chinese alchemy, too.

Needham discusses the curious fact that Chinese and Classical (whence Islamic & Western) alchemy are strongly similar. Both linked gold and immortality, trying to find a "true gold" that could grant a gold-like immortality to the alchemist or consumer. Both also did a lot of work with mercury compounds and their color changes, and used a metaphor of a marriage or male-female union.

Needham speculated that Chinese alchemy, like Western, was inspired by what had been heard of Ancient Egypt: that Egyptians had methods for preserving bodies indefinitely, covered in gold (cf. King Tut).

And wow, it still happens today: Chinese Buddhist monk mummified and covered in gold leaf. *boggles*

The reason for gold being linked to immortality is pretty obvious.

Most metals corrode/rust. Just as people age. But gold does not. So, once refined, gold is immortal.


Obvious to us, yes. But very much not part of Chinese tradition, in which gold was not outstandingly valued and jade was associated with immortality (jade burial suits, for instance).

It seems likely that these standard alchemical elements came into China with Buddhism, from India.

There is a chapter in this book titled Life and Immortality in the mind of Han China that might be of interest. I'm not sure how much he can be relied on, but Bruce Chatwin in What am I Doing Here? talks about Ferghana and the Heavenly Horses and the quest for immortality, relating it to our own merry-go-rounds, which I remembered when Don Draper in Mad Men made his pitch about Kodak's then new slide carousel. Great stuff to mull over.

The Greeks believed that alchemy originated in Egypt and they were likely correct. But I would not exclude certain influences from Mesopotamia that could have radiated both West and East (through Elam, part of modern Iran, if that was not itself a source).
We know that Egyptians tried to imitate valuable things and did not see this as deceptive (or they would not have put the recipes into their tombs even boasting that their imitations were at times better than the real stuff*). In traditional alchemy 'real' means sharing the most important characteristics with the 'really real', i.e. stuff is characterized not by its inner physical nature but the outward appearance. The sulphur mercury theory (based on much older ideas) considered 'our' mercury and sulphur as not the real ones but contaminated imperfect manifestations of the pure ('philosophical') real (in the Platonic sense I presume) sulphur and mercury.

*given that there would be a trial in the afterlife it would be rather stupid to carry the hard evidence of fraud with you.

You said it;
"open only to those who have the key, who are taught by the correct master. Magic is passed down."

Yes, because when all is said and done, they are going to keep the key within and this is not going to be science but something the 1% rich population gets access to, and genetics (or gene therapy) from - as to pass it down.

There's a long-standing tradition of self-delusion in aging research - going back to the Chinese alchemists you mention, at least, but continuing into the current day. The on-going obsession with "antioxidants" was set off by Pearson and Shaw's popularization of some basic science on using them for aging. That turned out to be more about how the inbred rodent strains used in research are profoundly messed up and you can do a lot to help them, but that doesn't help real populations because they don't have the genetic defects. The obsession continues even though human studies 20 years ago showed high antioxidant doses don't help, and often hurt, in humans.

Resveratrol seems to be following a similar pathway, although it's proponents are mostly much more credible that Pearson and Shaw. Well, except for the one that published dozens of intentionally fraudulent papers, which is actually much worse.

When recovering from a concussion that had triggered a tailspin depression back in 1980, I found a helpful guiding image in the memory of a little Catskills-region-published booklet I'd read a decade earlier about "spiritual alchemy", which took the three stages of developing the Philosopher's Stone to be those of developing the healthy human soul: nigredo, blackening (the Dark Night of the Soul, depression); albedo, whitening (purification, emptying your baggage of heavy rocks); rubedo, reddening (ripening, maturity). With that viewpoint, what at first had seemed a state of utter hopelessness became a state leading to eventual hope, and I just had to hold my breath long enough to reach air.

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