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Complicated facts

Philip Ball talks about dissecting the science and philosphy of the past

Jennifer Rohn 22 August 2006

Paracelsus: where science and magic meet

I’m not a historian or a biographer – I’m more of a synthesizer

Editor's note: Philip Ball is a freelance science writer and also serves as a Consultant Editor for Nature magazine, where he was an editor for physical sciences for over a decade. With a BA in chemistry and a Ph.D. in physics, his writing and broadcasting endeavors span a broad range of subjects from technical aspects to the intersection of science with art, history, politics and philosophy. caught up with him recently to find out about his most recent writing projects.

Philip Ball is in a very good mood – he’s just delivered the first draft of his latest book to his agent. We’ve met on the South Bank in London, squeezed onto a free bit of bench on the terrace of the National Film Theatre café facing the River Thames. It’s a beautiful summer evening, and the place is swarming with people.

Ball is probably best known for his Aventis Prize-winning book Critical Mass, an investigation of the mavericks who try to explain social behavior using ideas and laws borrowed from physics. I ask him about his most recent book, The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science.

“I’ll never get sick of Paracelsus as a topic.” He laughs, then adds: “Although I am sick of the book. It’s just like other topics I’ve written about, water and color for example. I feel I can’t get bored by these subjects because there is always some new dimension to consider. Paracelsus was an enduringly fascinating person, but so was his era. The issues he raises go on forever.”

Paracelsus (1493-1541), born in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, was a physician, alchemist, astrologer and occultist, probably best known for his famous toxological maxim Alle Ding' sind Gift und nichts ohn' Gift; allein die Dosis macht, das ein Ding kein Gift ist (“The dose makes the poison”). In his book, Ball paints a vivid picture of a man half miracle worker and half charlatan, living in an age when science and magic legitimately overlapped.

Ball admits it was difficult to tease out Paracelsus the man from the sources to hand. “I think in both science and history you find academic specialists committed to a certain polemical point of view. But the historians are more extreme than the scientists in that regard; they are determined to push this point of view at the expense of everything else.”

So how does he define his role as an author when he’s writing about the past? “I’m not a historian or a biographer – I’m more of a synthesizer,” he says. “This isn’t always a good strategy for a book; readers want a clear position. Whereas I like to find an accommodation.”

For example? “In Critical Mass, it was tempting to oversell the revolutionary aspects. But I like to imbed the ideas within a broader cultural context and trace the lines of influence. Real life isn’t like a science documentary. Seed magazine wrote about me that I ‘complicate the facts’. And this wasn’t an insult! It’s just that things are rarely cut and dry.”

This is definitely true, Ball says, for his most recent subject matter: cathedrals in the late medieval period and how their construction resonated with the thinking of the time. The historians whose work he is using in his research are particularly contentious.

“There is a lot more material and commentary than I’ve had access to in some of my other projects, but interestingly, I’m finding it harder to reach a consensus,” he says. “There are no primary records. In the building of these Gothic cathedrals, we have what you might call ‘architect monks’, who have a disdain for anything manual. In this context you have to wonder, what does ‘architect’ mean? The story emerges in those uncertainties.”

In the 1950s, there was a flourishing of ideas about how the cathedrals were tied up with a school of intellectual thought. “I was captivated by this idea,” Ball says. “The 12th century was the real Renaissance, and I wanted to use the cathedral as a vehicle to explore this idea.”

According to Ball, it’s been thought that this school was a “proto-scientific” way of thinking about the world. “They developed a platonic natural philosophy. It was an early faith in reason: the world is ordered. Yes, God made it, but there was room for human enquiry. It turned out that it was more complicated than that – the idea still stands, but it’s not so neat. Me ‘complicating the facts’ again!”

Ball says it’s still an open question whether the architects of the cathedrals had access to the intellectual ideas floating around at the time. “Geometry, certainly, but I doubt they were reading Plato in their spare time. Maybe all the ideas were just passed down by word of mouth.” If all goes well, the book will come out next year.

I ask him how it’s going with his first novel, which Ball is embarrassed that I know about. “Fiction is a lottery,” he says. “My agent can’t make any promises. I don’t think a non-fiction track record helps, beyond the obvious infrastructural advantages.”

What’s it about? “It has a lot of science in it, though thankfully people who’ve read the draft so far haven’t been put off by it. It’s about ‘fringe’ science, which falls in the continuum somewhere between legitimate science and crank or bad science. I’m talking about stuff like ‘memory of water’. Loads of stuff came into Nature about it; they have a quasi-community – they’ve even put on a Gordon conference! I was actually there – it was the last conference Benveniste attended before he died. I’m interested in fringe science because scientists don’t like to acknowledge that these types exist, even in their own departments. Writing it was fun – I had to fit it in around ‘real’ work, which was sometimes hard to justify.”

I ask him if the experience has affected his nonfiction.

“I never really thought about that before.” He pauses. “But actually, I was writing the novel concurrently with Paracelsus. And to make the question more complicated, the Paracelsus book originated in a play version that I’d written to get him out of my system – though of course this only made it worse. I did find that Paracelsus was the most novelistic non-fiction book I’d ever written. I’ve never used that style before – I suppose this could have been the influence of the novel and the play.”

Ball isn’t too impressed with the few novels about scientists that he’s read. “They haven’t drawn me in – it’s hard to capture what doing science is really like, and it always comes across as too self-conscious. It would be nice to see lab lit novels done well, but I’m not convinced that there’s a story to be made of life in the lab. Your choices are limited: priority and jealousy; accusation and fraud; they could be set anywhere. I would be most interested in a novel that explores how scientists interact with the wider world, with culture. To some extent you see this with Don Delillo and Richard Powers. There is an ambiguity about science there that I like. And I can see a role for stuff like Michael Crichton’s ‘vaguely plausible but not impossible’ science scenarios.” Science theatre, Ball thinks, has more potential, because he sees it as a more “intellectual medium”.

I ask Ball if he still enjoys writing news stories for Nature.

“Writing news is useful for keeping a hand in,” he says. “When you’re writing a book, the deadline is next year – with news, the deadline is this afternoon! It’s like piano scales – it keeps you on your toes, forces you to be mentally agile. And it’s not just the time, but the space constraints, that are challenging. You have to say everything with very few words. Plus I go in once a week to the Nature offices to read – mostly specialist journals. This is really good for me – I can keep on top of what’s happening. I don’t look at press-release services like AlphaGalileo – I want to find a story that Roger Highfield [science editor of the London Daily Telegraph] won’t.”

At the moment, he splits his time roughly equally between Nature and his own projects. “The freelance life is fabulous,” he says. “Where else could I have that sort of freedom?”

What’s next? “I’m going to take a break now, as I normally do between major projects. It’s a short commission from Oxford University Press – 30,000 words revisiting my ideas about pattern formation.” He smiles. “A little light relief!”

Related links

The paperback version of The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science will be available on 4 January 2007.

Encounter Philip Ball in the blogosphere here.