When Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy discovered that with radioactivity one atom can be transformed into another, Soddy recalled blurting out “Rutherford, this is transmutation: the thorium is disintegrating and transmuting itself into argon gas.” As “the words seemed to flash through” Soddy “as if from some outside force,” Rutherford replied, “For Mike’s sake, Soddy, don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our heads off as alchemists.”
In his third-century Interpretation of Dreams, Artemidorus lauded the soothsaying accuracy of Aristander, to whom Alexander the Great, while besieging the city of Tyre, Tyros in Greek, reported that he had dreamed of a satyr dancing on his shield. Aristander said that “satyr,” satyros in Greek, could be broken into “sa” and “Tyros,” meaning “Tyros is yours,” and encouraged Alexander to redouble his attacks. The Macedonian did, and he took the city.
Among the acts advertised for a show in the Isle of Wight in 1849 by the “Unparalleled Necromancer Rhia Rhama Rhoos” were the Pudding Wonder and the Pyramid Wonder. The latter, it was noted, had been bought for five thousand guineas from “a Chinese Mandarin, who died of grief immediately after parting with the secret.” The performer and author of the ad copy was Charles Dickens.
In 1936 Sotheby’s auctioned many of Isaac Newton’s nonscientific papers, containing much writing about his alchemical interests. A large batch was bought by John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in a lecture published posthumously as “Newton, the Man,” that the physicist and mathematician “was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”
On April 2, 1877, at London’s Royal Aquarium, a fourteen-year-old girl with the stage name Zazel became the first female to perform the human-cannonball trick in public. She later worked for P. T. Barnum, who, in response to the “Dangerous Performances Bill” under consideration by British Parliament, wrote defensively to the New York Times in 1880 that he paid Zazel $250 a day—“I should never have invested this large sum in any feature, however attractive, had I not known it was placed beyond the chance of accident.”
In 1891 Erik Weisz began using the stage name Harry Houdini—the first name deriving from his nickname “Ehrie” and the surname from the great French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, who himself had taken the surname from his wife, Josephe Cecile Eglantine Houdin, in order, he wrote, “to distinguish me from my numerous homonyms.”
It is said that a visitor once came to the home of Nobel Prize–winning physicist Niels Bohr and, having noticed a horseshoe hung above the entrance, asked incredulously if the professor believed horseshoes brought good luck. “No,” Bohr replied, “but I am told that they bring luck even to those who do not believe in them.”
Charles Mackenzie, a fur trader in Missouri in 1805, noted that the local American Indians with whom he traded held a low opinion of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s party when it came through. “The Indians admired the air gun, as it could discharge forty shots out of one load,” Mackenzie reflected, “but they dreaded the magic of the owners.
Some four hundred years after the death of Lucretius, St. Jerome wrote the only existing biography of the philosopher, in two sentences, suggesting that Lucretius “was rendered insane by a love potion” and killed himself. In 1868 Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in “Lucretius” that the philosopher’s wife “dreaming some rival, sought and found a witch/Who brewed the philter which had power, they said,/To lead an errant passion home again./And this, at times, she mingled with his drink,/And this destroyed him.”
At the end of The Tempest, Prospero relinquishes his “rough magic” and declares, “I’ll break my staff,/Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,/And deeper than did ever plummet sound/I’ll drown my book.” In W.H. Auden’s “commentary” on the play, The Sea and the Mirror, Prospero says at the beginning, “Now, Ariel, I am that I am, your late and lonely master,/Who knows now what magic is:—the power to enchant/That comes from disillusion. What the books teach one/Is that desires end up in stinking ponds.”
At a seance in the White House in 1862, Nettie Colburn Maynard, the medium, recalled that, after losing consciousness, she, channeling Daniel Webster, spoke for over an hour, during which President Abraham Lincoln was assured that the Emancipation Proclamation he had written but not signed would be “the crowning event of his administration and life” and that he needed to “stand firm” against dissenters.
The second of the 282 laws in the Code of Hammurabi, dating from the eighteenth century BC, states, “If a man charge a man with sorcery, and cannot prove it, he who is charged with sorcery shall go to the river; into the river he shall throw himself, and if the river overcome him, his accuser shall take to himself his house. If the river show that man to be innocent, and he come forth unharmed, he who charged him with sorcery shall be put to death.”
In 1936, as part of the Federal Theater Project, Orson Welles at the age of twenty staged a version of Macbeth with an all-black cast, substituting voodoo for witchcraft and changing the setting from Scotland to Haiti. Reflecting on his interest in film in an interview in 1958, Welles said, “I liked cinema before I began to do it. Now I can’t stop myself from hearing the clappers at the beginning of each shot; the magic is destroyed.”
“I don’t believe in miracles, because it’s been a long time since we’ve had any,” Joseph Heller said in an interview in 1988. Some sixteen hundred years earlier, St. Augustine had written, “Men say, ‘Why do not the miracles, which you talk about as having been worked, take place now?’ I might indeed reply that they were necessary before the world believed for the very purpose of making it believe.”