The French writer Diderot, in D’Alembert’s Dream, writes: “Now look, my friend, if you come to think it out you will find that in all things our real opinion is not the one from which we have never wavered, but the one to which we have most regularly returned” (p. 164 of the Penguin edition, if you feel the need to look this up).
One of the things that being done my PhD has allowed me to do is to look beyond the narrow arrow-slit view of my field of study. I’m finding myself coming back to all sorts of old interests and ideas: walking across Europe one day, writing novels, stained glass, drawing even. (I’m working on some form of a logo or illustration for the Inn. We’ll see whether I require more experienced help later; I’m not totally clear on how one moves from a drawing on real paper to a digital image, though I imagine it involves scanning.)
Along with Diderot (a contemporary of Voltaire; a serious French atheist and materialist of the mid-eighteenth century; writer of the first modern encyclopedia), we’ve been studying some early modern science. Newton, to be particular. I’ve been reminded several times how much I love science, how I started my academic career attempting to decide between physics and humanities. I chose humanities, and I’m glad for the choice, because — I remember quite clearly — I love the ideas of physics, the learning about how the natural world works — but I didn’t much like the labs.
I’m still not sure about the labs, but I’d like to do more of the small experiments one can do at home. I’d like to read more of the physics, modern physics that to me seems weirdly like the purely reasonable (in a technical sense; as in, not experimental) natural philosophy of the Aristotelian tradition. Why is that? Why do we suddenly come round to an experimental basis for matter being fundamentally unknowable, for the bulk of the universe to consist of occult forces? (What is dark energy if not a precisely occult, which is to say hidden, force?) Why does the empty vacuum of space seem to be possibly no void (as Aristotle held) but something empty because what it is is insensible to our instruments?
I don’t know. I haven’t done a systematic enough study of either medieval or contemporary physics. But one of the things I’m returning to is my old love of natural philosophy. It should be much more fun now that I have a better understanding of what that entails — and that the best natural philosophers, like Sir Isaac Newton, were always humanists as well.