Aug 272017
 

Today is the birthday (854 CE) of Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (ابوبكر محمّد زکرياى رازى) usually known in the West by his Latinized name Razi (also Rhazes or Rasis), a Persian polymath, physician, alchemist, and philosopher who was a key figure in the history of medicine – now mostly forgotten by the history books, as are scores of classical Muslim scholars. To acknowledge them too much would be to dent the fable of the West climbing to dominance all by itself (and with almost no recognition that Muslim scholars preserved the writings of the likes of Plato and Aristotle when the West had no use for them).

Razi made fundamental and enduring contributions to various fields, which he recorded in over 200 manuscripts, and is particularly remembered for numerous advances in medicine through his observations and discoveries. He was an early proponent of experimental medicine, became a successful doctor, and served as chief physician of Baghdad and Ray hospitals. As a teacher of medicine, he attracted students of all backgrounds and interests and was said to be compassionate and devoted to the service of his patients, whether rich or poor. Through translation, his medical works and ideas became known among medieval European practitioners and profoundly influenced medical education in the Latin West.

Razi was born in the city of Ray (modern Rey) situated on the Great Silk Road that for centuries facilitated trade and cultural exchanges between East and West. His nisba (locational surname, like “da Vinci”), Râzī (رازی), means “from the city of Ray” in Persian. It is located on the southern slopes of the Alborz mountain range near Tehran.

In his youth, Razi moved to Baghdad where he studied and practiced at the local bimaristan (hospital). Later, he was invited back to Rey by Mansur ibn Ishaq, then the governor of Rey, and became a bimaristan’s head. He dedicated two books on medicine to Mansur ibn Ishaq, The Spiritual Physic and Al-Mansūrī on Medicine. Because of his newly acquired popularity as physician, Razi was invited to Baghdad where he assumed the responsibilities of a director in a new hospital named after its founder al-Muʿtaḍid (d. 902 CE). Under the reign of Al-Mutadid’s son, Al-Muktafi (r. 902-908) Razi was commissioned to build a new hospital, which would be the largest of the Abbasid Caliphate. To pick the future hospital’s location, Razi adopted what is nowadays known as an evidence-based approach — having fresh meat hung in various places throughout the city and to build the hospital where meat took longest to rot.

He spent the last years of his life in his native Rey suffering from glaucoma. His eye affliction started with cataracts and ended in total blindness. The cause of his blindness is uncertain. One account mentioned by Ibn Juljul attributed the cause to a blow to his head by his patron, Mansur ibn Ishaq, for failing to provide proof for his alchemical theories; while Abulfaraj and Casiri claimed that the cause was a diet of beans only. Allegedly, he was approached by a physician offering an ointment to cure his blindness. Razi then asked him how many layers the eye contained and when he was unable to receive an answer, he declined the treatment saying “my eyes will not be treated by one who does not know the basics of its anatomy”.

Razi’s lectures attracted many students. He was considered a shaikh, an honorary title given to one entitled to teach and be surrounded by several circles of students. When someone raised a question, it was passed on to students of the ‘first circle’; if they did not know the answer, it was passed on to those of the ‘second circle’, and so on. If all students failed to answer, Razi himself would consider the question. Razi was a generous person by nature, with a considerate attitude towards his patients. He was charitable to the poor, treated them without payment in any form. One former pupil from Tabaristan came to look after him, but as al-Biruni wrote, Razi rewarded him for his intentions and sent him back home, proclaiming that his final days were approaching. According to Biruni, Razi died in Rey in 925 at 60 years of age. Biruni, who considered Razi as his mentor, wrote a short biography of Razi including a bibliography of his numerous works. (also see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/al-biruni/ )

After his death, his fame spread beyond the Middle East to Medieval Europe, and lived on. In an undated catalog of the library at Peterborough Abbey, most likely from the 14th century, Razi is listed as a part author of ten books on medicine.

If you are interested in Razi you’ll have to look up his works.  There are plenty of resources online.  This would be a good place to start: http://www.thelivingmoon.com/44cosmic_wisdom/02files/Muhammad_ibn_Zakariya_al-Razi.html   Razi wrote way too much for me to summarize even in the most superficial way. It would take pages for me simply to list his major writings. All I can do is point you in the right direction.  The two most obvious qualities about Razi that are admirable are, first, that he did not rely slavishly on ancient authorities, such as Hippocrates, Galen or Aristotle, but read them critically and wrote about their errors as well as their good qualities; and, second, that he was a very keen observer, making extensive and detailed notes on diseases, chemicals, and the like. These qualities made him a first-rate experimental scientist in many spheres.

As an example, Razi’s book al-Judari wa al-Hasbah (On Smallpox and Measles) was the first book describing smallpox and measles as distinct diseases. It was translated more than a dozen times into Latin and other European languages. Its lack of dogmatism and its reliance on clinical observation show Razi’s medical methods. A small passage:

The eruption of smallpox is preceded by a continued fever, pain in the back, itching in the nose and nightmares during sleep. These are the more acute symptoms of its approach together with a noticeable pain in the back accompanied by fever and an itching felt by the patient all over his body. A swelling of the face appears, which comes and goes, and one notices an overall inflammatory color noticeable as a strong redness on both cheeks and around both eyes. One experiences a heaviness of the whole body and great restlessness, which expresses itself as a lot of stretching and yawning. There is a pain in the throat and chest and one finds it difficult to breathe and cough. Additional symptoms are: dryness of breath, thick spittle, hoarseness of the voice, pain and heaviness of the head, restlessness, nausea and anxiety. Note the difference: restlessness, nausea and anxiety occur more frequently with measles than with smallpox. On the other hand, pain in the back is more apparent with smallpox than with measles. Altogether one experiences heat over the whole body, one has an inflamed colon and one shows an overall shining redness, with a very pronounced redness of the gums.

Razi contributed in many ways to the early practice of pharmacy by compiling texts, in which he introduces the use of “mercurial ointments” and his development of apparatus such as mortars, flasks, spatulas and phials, which were used in pharmacies until the early twentieth century.

On a professional level, Razi introduced many practical, progressive, medical and psychological ideas. He attacked charlatans and fake doctors who roamed the cities and countryside selling their nostrums and “cures”. At the same time, he warned that even highly educated doctors did not have the answers to all medical problems and could not cure all sicknesses or heal every disease. To become more useful in their services and truer to their calling, Razi advised practitioners to keep up with advanced knowledge by continually studying medical books and constantly seeking new information. He made a distinction between curable and incurable diseases. Pertaining to the latter, he commented that in the case of advanced cases of cancer and leprosy the physician should not be blamed when he could not cure them. Razi also remarked that he felt great pity for physicians who took care of princes and nobles because they did not obey the doctor’s orders to restrict their diet or get medical treatment, thus making it difficult to be their physician.

Razi also wrote a medical text for the general public: For One Who Has No Physician to Attend Him (Man la Yahduruhu Al-Tabib) (من لا يحضره الطبيب). Razi was possibly the first Persian doctor to write a home medical manual. He dedicated it to the poor, the traveler, and the ordinary citizen who could consult it for treatment of common ailments when a doctor was not available. Some of the illnesses treated were headaches, colds, coughing, melancholy and diseases of the eye, ear, and stomach.

Razi’s interest in alchemy and his strong belief in the possibility of transmutation of lesser metals to silver and gold was attested half a century after his death by Ibn an-Nadim’s The Philosopher’s Stone. Nadim attributed a series of 12 books to Razi, plus an additional 7, including his refutation of al-Kindi’s denial of the validity of alchemy. Al-Kindi (801–873 CE) had been appointed by the Abbasid Caliph Ma’mum founder of Baghdad, to ‘the House of Wisdom’ in that city. He was a philosopher and an opponent of alchemy. Razi’s two best-known alchemical texts, al-Asrar (الاسرار “The Secrets”), and Sirr al-Asrar (سر الاسرار “The Secret of Secrets”), incorporate his major work in the field.

Apparently Razi’s contemporaries believed that he had obtained the secret of turning iron and copper into gold. Biographer Khosro Moetazed reports in Mohammad Zakaria Razi that a certain General Simjur confronted Razi in public, and asked whether that was the underlying reason for his willingness to treat patients without a fee. “It appeared to those present that Razi was reluctant to answer; he looked sideways at the general and replied:

I understand alchemy and I have been working on the characteristic properties of metals for an extended time. However, it still has not turned out to be evident to me how one can transmute gold from copper. Despite the research from the ancient scientists done over the past centuries, there has been no answer. I very much doubt if it is possible.

Razi developed several chemical instruments that remain in use to this day. He is known to have perfected methods of the distillation of alcohol (which the Arabs used for perfume making, not for drinking). Razi dismissed magic as useless, but he did not reject the idea that miracles were possible (in the sense that some phenomena could not be explained by natural science). He also rejected the idea of four elements – earth, water, fire, and air – as explanations for the physical properties of materials.

Razi’s works present the first systematic classification of carefully observed and verified facts regarding chemical substances, reactions and apparatus, described in a language almost entirely free from mysticism and ambiguity. By modern standards Razi’s taxonomy of matter is a bit strange, but he was attempting to develop a rational, rather than mystical, natural science. Whether or not we should thank him for this is another matter entirely. He did have a metaphysical doctrine, however. Razi’s theory of the “five eternals” suggests that the world is produced out of an interaction between God and four other eternal principles (soul, matter, time, and place).

Toward the end of his life he wrote:

In short, while I am writing the present book, I have written so far around 200 books and articles on different aspects of science, philosophy, theology, and hekmat (wisdom). I never entered the service of any king as a military man or a man of office, and if I ever did have a conversation with a king, it never went beyond my medical responsibility and advice. Those who have seen me know, that I did not into excess with eating, drinking or acting the wrong way. As to my interest in science, people know perfectly well and must have witnessed how I have devoted all my life to science since my youth. My patience and diligence in the pursuit of science has been such that on one special issue specifically I have written 20,000 pages (in small print), moreover I spent fifteen years of my life -night and day- writing the big collection entitled Al Hawi. It was during this time that I lost my eyesight, my hand became paralyzed, with the result that I am now deprived of reading and writing. Nonetheless, I’ve never given up, but kept on reading and writing with the help of others. I could make concessions with my opponents and admit some shortcomings, but I am most curious what they have to say about my scientific achievement. If they consider my approach incorrect, they could present their views and state their points clearly, so that I may study them, and if I determined their views to be right, I would admit it. However, if I disagreed, I would discuss the matter to prove my standpoint. If this is not the case, and they merely disagree with my approach and way of life, I would appreciate they only use my written knowledge and stop interfering with my behavior.

A little over a thousand years ago, an Arab scribe, Abu Muhammad al-Muzaffar ibn Sayyar, wrote Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Recipes). It was a collection of recipes from the court of 9th-century Baghdad, produced for the scribe’s unnamed patron—probably Saif al-Dawlah Al-Hamdani,  prince of 10th-century Aleppo— who asked him for the recipes of “kings and caliphs and lords and leaders.” The book is extant in three manuscripts and fragments of a fourth. These are the dishes actually eaten by the elite of Baghdad when it was the richest city in the world. There are recipes from the personal collections of every caliph from al-Mahdi (d.785) to al-Mutawakkil (d.861), including 20 from Harun al-Rashid’s son al-Ma’mun. 35 of the recipes—nearly one-tenth of the non-medicinal dishes in the book—come from Harun’s brother, the famous poet and gourmet Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi. This was a golden age of medieval Persian cookery. The centerpiece of 9th-century Baghdadi cuisine was rich and complex stews, often cooked in the tandoor oven, which are prominent in the collection. But there are smaller dishes too.  This is a modern interpretation of a recipe for an appetizer, bazmaawurd: chicken and flavorings rolled in flatbread and baked. Bazmaawurd a traditional first course at a banquet in Abbasid Baghdad. The name comes from the Persian bazm, “banquet,” and awurd, “bringing.” The recipe given here is from the collection of the Caliph al-Ma’mun. It calls for the flesh of citron, but fresh citrons are hard to come by in the West, and there is little flesh anyway. They are grown for their peels mostly. Lemon can substitute.

Bazmaawurd

Ingredients

1 fresh thin flour flatbread about 12″ diameter
1 whole chicken breast, boned, roasted, and chopped
2 tbspn chopped walnuts
flesh of 3-4 citrons, chopped
1 tbspn chopped fresh tarragon
1 tbspn chopped mint
2 tbspn chopped basil

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 300˚F/150˚C

Place the flatbread on a lightly greased baking sheet. Spread the chicken evenly over the bread. Sprinkle with citron, walnuts, tarragon, mint and basil. Roll up the bread, and warm in the oven for about 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven, cut into 4 pieces and serve immediately.

Nov 112016
 

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Today is possibly the birthday in 1493 (or possibly 17th December) of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known to history as Paracelsus, a Swiss German philosopher, physician, botanist, astrologer, and general occultist. He is credited with a lot of things that he probably does not deserve, such as being the founder of toxicology. He is usually fairly credited with giving zinc its name, calling it zincum. Paracelsus’ most important legacy is undoubtedly his critique of scholasticism in medicine, science, and theology – the idea that all previously acknowledged authorities must be revered and built upon rather than challenged. Paracelsus was quite happy to discard texts he deemed worthless – pure heresy in his time. Most of his theoretical work does not withstand modern scientific scrutiny, but his general insights helped revolutionize scientific methods over time.

Paracelsus was born and raised in the village of Einsiedeln in Switzerland. His father, Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, was a Swabian (German) chemist and physician. His mother was Swiss and probably a bondswoman of the abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland where he was born. She is believed to have died in his childhood. In 1502 the family moved to Villach in Carinthia where Paracelsus’ father worked as a physician, attending to the medical needs of the pilgrims and inhabitants of the cloister.

Paracelsus was educated by his father in botany, medicine, mineralogy, mining, and natural philosophy. He also received a humanistic and theological education from local clerics and the convent school of St. Paul’s Abbey in the Lavanttal. At the age of 16 he started studying medicine at the University of Basel, later moving to Vienna. He gained his doctorate degree from the University of Ferrara in 1515 or 1516.

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He was employed as a military surgeon in the Venetian service in 1522. Paracelsus appears to have been very well traveled, so it is probable that he was involved in the many wars waged between 1517 and 1524 in Holland, Scandinavia, Prussia, Tartary, the countries under Venetian influence, and possibly the near East. His wanderings as an itinerant physician and sometime journeyman miner took him through Germany, France, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Russia.

Paracelsus was well known as a difficult man. He gained a reputation for being arrogant and soon garnered the anger of other physicians in Europe. Some even claim he was a habitual drinker. He was prone to many outbursts of abusive language, abhorred untested theory, and ridiculed anybody who placed more importance on titles than practice (‘if disease put us to the test, all our splendor, title, ring, and name will be as much help as a horse’s tail’). During his time as a professor at University of Basel, he invited barber-surgeons, alchemists, apothecaries, and others lacking academic background to serve as examples of his belief that only those who practiced an art knew it: ‘The patients are your textbook, the sickbed is your study.’ He held the chair of medicine at the University of Basel and city physician for less than a year. He angered his colleagues by lecturing in German instead of Latin in order to make medical knowledge more accessible to the common people. He is credited as the first to do so. He was the first to publicly condemn the medical authority of Avicenna and Galen and threw their writings into a bonfire on St. John’s Day in 1527.

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In 1526 he bought the rights of citizenship in Strasbourg to establish his own practice. But soon after he was called to Basel to the sickbed of Johann Froben or Frobenius, a successful printer and publisher. Based on historical accounts, Paracelsus cured Frobenius. During that time, the Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus von Rotterdam, also at the University of Basel, witnessed the medical skills of Paracelsus, and the two scholars initiated a dialogue by letter on medical and theological subjects.

He was a contemporary of Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci and Martin Luther. During his life, he was compared with Luther partly because his ideas were different from the mainstream and partly because of openly defiant acts against the existing authorities in medicine. This act struck people as similar to Luther’s defiance of the Catholic Church. Paracelsus rejected that comparison. Famously Paracelsus said, “I leave it to Luther to defend what he says and I will be responsible for what I say. That which you wish to Luther, you wish also to me: You wish us both in the fire.”

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After slandering his opponents with vicious epithets due to a dispute over a physician’s fee, Paracelsus had to leave Basel secretly fearing punishment by the court. He became a tramp, wandering through Central Europe again. Around 1529, he officially adopted the name Paracelsus which is presumed to mean “surpassing Celsus,” the Roman writer on medicine, although, I suppose, it could also be “like Celsus” in that they both made novel contributions (“para” can mean “enlarge” in late Latin). In 1530, at the instigation of the medical faculty at the University of Leipzig, the city council of Nürnberg prohibited the printing of Paracelsus’ works. He revised old manuscripts and wrote new ones but had trouble finding publishers. In 1536, his Die grosse Wundartznei (“The Great Surgery Book”) was published and enabled him to regain fame.

He died at the age of 47 in Salzburg, and his remains were buried according to his wishes in the cemetery at the church of St. Sebastian in Salzburg. His remains are now located in a tomb in the porch of that church. After his death, the movement of Paracelsianism was seized upon by many wishing to subvert the traditional Galenic physics, and his therapies became more widely known and used. Most of Paracelsus’ writings were published after his death and still much controversy prevailed. He was accused of leading “a legion of homicide physicians” and his books were called “heretical and scandalous”. However, after many decades in 1618, a new pharmacopeia by the Royal College of Physicians in London included Paracelsian remedies.

His motto was “Alterius non sit qui suus esse potest” (“Let no man belong to another who can belong to himself.”)

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Paracelsus was one of the first medical professionals to recognize that physicians required a solid academic knowledge in the natural sciences, especially chemistry. Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine although his ideas were not useful. From his study of the elements as they were conceived in his time (earth, water, fire, and air), Paracelsus adopted a tripartite alternative to explain the nature of medicine: sulphur, mercury,  and salt. He mentions the model first in Opus paramirum dating to about 1530. Paracelsus believed that the principles sulphur, mercury, and salt contained the poisons contributing to all diseases. He saw each disease as having three separate cures depending on how it was afflicted, either being caused by the poisoning of sulphur, mercury, or salt. Paracelsus drew the importance of sulphur, salt and mercury from medieval alchemy, where they all occupied a prominent place. He demonstrated his theory by burning a piece of wood. The fire was the work of sulphur, the smoke was mercury, and the residual ash was salt. Paracelsus also believed that mercury, sulphur, and salt provided a good explanation for the nature of medicine because each of these properties existed in many physical forms. The tria prima also defined human identity. Sulphur embodied the soul, (the emotions and desires); salt represented the body; mercury epitomized the spirit (imagination, moral judgment, and the higher mental faculties). By understanding the chemical nature of the tria prima, a physician could discover the means of curing disease. With every disease, the symptoms depended on which of the three principals caused the ailment. Paracelsus theorized that materials which are poisonous in large doses may be curative in small doses (one of the few things he got right).

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His alchemical views led him to believe that sickness and health in the body relied on the harmony of Human (microcosm) and Nature (macrocosm). He believed that humans must have certain balances of minerals in their bodies, and that certain illnesses of the body had chemical remedies that could cure them. As a result of this hermetical idea of harmony, the universe’s macrocosm was represented in every person as a microcosm. An example of this correspondence is the doctrine of signatures used to identify curative powers of plants. If a plant looked like a part of the body, then this signified its ability to cure this given anatomy. Therefore, the root of the orchid looks like a testicle and can therefore heal any testicle associated illness. Paracelsus also suggested that just as humans can ward off the influence of evil spirits with morality, they can also ward off diseases with good health.

Paracelsus believed that true anatomy could only be understood once the nourishment for each part of the body was discovered. He believed that therefore, one must know the influence of the stars on these particular body parts. Diseases were caused by poisons brought from the stars. However, ‘poisons’ were not necessarily something negative, in part because related substances interacted, but also because only the dose determined if a substance was poisonous or not. Paracelsus further claimed that like cures like. If a star or poison caused a disease, then it must be countered by another star or poison. Paracelsus viewed the universe as one coherent organism pervaded by a uniting lifegiving spirit, and this in its entirety, humanity included, was God. His views put him at odds with the Church which saw a necessary difference between the Creator and the created.

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His work Die große Wundarzney is a forerunner of antisepsis. This specific empirical knowledge originated from his personal experiences as an army physician in the Venetian wars. Paracelsus demanded that the application of cow dung, feathers and other obnoxious concoctions to wounds be stopped in favor of keeping the wounds clean, saying, “If you prevent infection, Nature will heal the wound all by herself.” During his time as a military surgeon, Paracelsus was exposed to the crudity of medical knowledge at the time, when doctors believed that infection was a natural part of the healing process. He advocated for cleanliness and protection of wounds, as well as the regulation of diet.

One of his most overlooked achievements was the systematic study of minerals and the curative powers of alpine mineral springs. His countless wanderings also brought him deep into many areas of the Alps, where such therapies were already practiced on a less common scale than today. Paracelsus’ major work On the Miners’ Sickness and Other Diseases of Miners documented the occupational hazards of metalworking, and included treatment and prevention strategies.

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Paracelsus is credited with providing the first clinical/scientific mention of the unconscious. In his work Von den Krankeiten he writes: “Thus, the cause of the disease chorea lasciva is a mere opinion and idea, assumed by imagination, affecting those who believe in such a thing. This opinion and idea are the origin of the disease both in children and adults. In children the case is also imagination, based not on thinking but on perceiving, because they have heard or seen something. The reason is this: their sight and hearing are so strong that unconsciously they have fantasies about what they have seen or heard.” Paracelsus also called for the humane treatment of the mentally ill although he was ignored for several centuries. He saw them not to be possessed by evil spirits, but merely “brothers ensnared in a treatable malady.”

Paracelsus’ home of Einsiedeln is in Schwyz canton, which gives Switzerland its name. Älplermagronen is a popular and traditional recipe from the region. It’s basically pasta and potatoes baked in a creamy cheese sauce and served with hot apple sauce. I’m not sure how healthy it is, but in small doses should be all right.

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Älplermagronen

Ingredients

1 lb potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
1 lb penne pasta
2 large onions, peeled and sliced
4 tbsp butter or oil
1 cup grated melting cheese (Gruyère, Appenzeller, Raclette)
½ cup cream
salt and pepper to taste
apple sauce

Instructions

Heat oven to 375° F.

Cook the potatoes and pasta separately until they are al dente. Drain and reserve.

Heat the butter or oil over medium-low heat in a frying pan, add the onions and sauté them until they are golden brown.

Mix the pasta, potatoes, and cheese together and place in a casserole dish. Pour the cream over the dish and spread the browned onions on top. Season to taste with freshly ground pepper and salt.

Bake covered for 10-15 minutes until the dish is hot and the cheese is melted. Serve with warmed applesauce.

Dec 252015
 

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Christmas Day (by the Julian calendar in use in England at the time), is the birthday (1642) of Sir Isaac Newton PRS, who is widely regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all time, and as a key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), first published in 1687, laid the foundations for classical mechanics. Newton made seminal contributions to optics, and he shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the development of calculus.

Newton’s Principia formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, which dominated scientists’ view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. By deriving Kepler’s laws of planetary motion from his mathematical description of gravity, and then using the same principles to account for the trajectories of comets, the tides, the precession of the equinoxes, and other phenomena, Newton removed the last doubts about the validity of the heliocentric model of the solar system. This work also demonstrated that the motion of objects on Earth and of celestial bodies could be described by the same principles. His prediction that Earth should be shaped as an oblate spheroid was later vindicated by the measurements of Maupertuis, La Condamine, and others, which helped convince most Continental European scientists of the superiority of Newtonian mechanics over the earlier system of Descartes.

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Newton built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of color based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colors of the visible spectrum. He formulated an empirical law of cooling, studied the speed of sound, and introduced the notion of a Newtonian fluid. In addition to his work on calculus, as a mathematician Newton contributed to the study of power series, generalized the binomial theorem to non-integer exponents, developed a method for approximating the roots of a function, and classified most of the cubic plane curves.

Newton was a fellow of Trinity College and the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He was a devout but unorthodox Christian and, unusually for a member of the Cambridge faculty of the day, he refused to take holy orders in the Church of England, perhaps because he privately rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. He was a devout, but unorthodox, Christian. Beyond his work on the mathematical sciences, Newton dedicated much of his time to the study of biblical chronology and alchemy, but most of his work in those areas remained unpublished until long after his death. In his later life, Newton became president of the Royal Society. Newton served the British government as Warden and Master of the Royal Mint.

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I am going to assume that you either are familiar with Newton’s work in physics and mathematics, or don’t want a lesson from me. Instead I’ll focus on a few lesser known aspects of his life and work. First , here are two well-known quotes that I think adequately display his humility:

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

These are less well known:

We build too many walls and not enough bridges.

Genius is patience.

Plato is my friend; Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth.

I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.

We could use him around today. As many of my readers know, I do not use superlatives such as “best” in relation to the greats of the world or their works. But I certainly stand in absolute awe and wonder at what Newton accomplished. Here’s a few tidbits from his life.

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Although born into an Anglican family, by his thirties Newton held a Christian faith that would not have been considered orthodox by contemporary Christianity, and, in consequence, he did not make his fundamental beliefs public. By 1672 he had started to record his theological researches in notebooks which he showed to no one and which have only recently been examined. They demonstrate an extensive knowledge of early church writings and show that in the conflict between Athanasius and Arius, which spawned the Nicene Creed, he took the side of Arius, the loser, who rejected the conventional view of the Trinity. Newton saw Christ as a divine mediator between God and humans, who was subordinate to the Father who created him. He wrote, “the great apostasy is trinitarianism.” Newton tried unsuccessfully to obtain one of the two fellowships that exempted the holder from the ordination requirement. At the last moment in 1675 he received a dispensation from the government that excused him and all future holders of the Lucasian chair from being ordained.

Newton was not a deist, in the conventional way, however. Rejecting trinitarianism did not mean rejecting Christianity. Although the laws of motion and universal gravitation became Newton’s best-known discoveries, he warned against using them to view the universe as a mere machine, as if akin to a great clock. He said, “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

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Newton wrote works on Biblical textual criticism, most notably An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture. He placed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at 3 April, AD 33, which is now one of several dates accepted by some scholars. He believed in a rationally immanent world, but he rejected the hylozoism (matter is living) implicit in Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza. The ordered and dynamically informed universe could be understood, and must be understood, as directed by active reason. In his correspondence, Newton claimed that in writing the Principia “I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity”. He saw evidence of design in the system of the world: “Such a wonderful uniformity in the planetary system must be allowed the effect of choice”. But Newton insisted that divine intervention would eventually be required to reform the system, due to the slow growth of instabilities. For this, Leibniz lampooned him: “God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion machine.”

Newton and Robert Boyle’s approach to a mechanical philosophy was promoted by rationalist pamphleteers as a viable alternative to the pantheists and enthusiasts, and was accepted hesitantly by orthodox preachers as well as some dissidents. The clarity and simplicity of science was seen as a way to combat the emotional and metaphysical superlatives of both superstitious enthusiasm and the threat of atheism, and at the same time, the second wave of English deists used Newton’s discoveries to demonstrate the possibility of a “Natural Religion”.

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In a manuscript Newton wrote in 1704, in which he describes his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible, he estimated that the world would end no earlier than 2060. In predicting this he said, “This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.”

It is now just beginning to be recognized in the wider intellectual world that Newton spent over 30 years studying and writing about alchemy. John Maynard Keynes, who acquired many of Newton’s writings on alchemy, asserted that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason: He was the last of the magicians.” Newton’s interest in alchemy cannot be isolated from his contributions to science. In Newton’s day there was no clear distinction between alchemy and science. Had he not relied on the occult idea of action at a distance, across a vacuum, he might not have developed his theory of gravity. Newton’s writings suggest that one of the goals of his alchemy was the discovery of The Philosopher’s Stone (a material believed to turn base metals into gold), and perhaps to a lesser extent, the discovery of the highly coveted Elixir of Life. Some practices of alchemy were banned in England during Newton’s lifetime, due in part to unscrupulous practitioners who would often promise wealthy benefactors unrealistic results in an attempt to swindle them. The English Crown, also fearing the potential devaluation of gold, should The Philosopher’s Stone actually be discovered, made penalties for alchemy very severe, including execution.

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The story of Newton and the apple has sometimes been debunked as legend, and often popularly altered to claim that the apple struck him on the head. In fact, Newton himself often told the story that he was inspired to formulate his theory of gravitation by watching the fall of an apple from a tree. Acquaintances of Newton (such as William Stukeley, whose manuscript account of 1752 has been made available by the Royal Society) do in fact confirm the incident. Stukeley recorded in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life a conversation with Newton in Kensington on 15 April 1726:

we went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some appletrees; only he, & my self. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. “why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths center? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. if matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.

John Conduitt, Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint and husband of Newton’s niece, also described the event when he wrote about Newton’s life:

In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge to his mother in Lincolnshire. Whilst he was pensively meandering in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from a tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from earth, but that this power must extend much further than was usually thought. Why not as high as the Moon said he to himself & if so, that must influence her motion & perhaps retain her in her orbit, whereupon he fell a calculating what would be the effect of that supposition.

It is known from his notebooks that Newton was grappling in the late 1660s with the idea that terrestrial gravity extends, in an inverse-square proportion, to the Moon; however it took him two decades to develop the full-fledged theory. The question was not whether gravity existed, but whether it extended so far from Earth that it could also be the force holding the Moon to its orbit. Newton showed that if the force decreased as the inverse square of the distance, one could indeed calculate the Moon’s orbital period, and get good agreement. He guessed the same force was responsible for other orbital motions, and hence named it “universal gravitation”.

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Various trees are claimed to be “the” apple tree which Newton describes. The King’s School, Grantham, claims that the tree was purchased by the school, uprooted and transported to the headmaster’s garden some years later. The staff of the [now] National Trust-owned Woolsthorpe Manor dispute this, and claim that a tree present in their gardens is the one described by Newton. A descendant of the original tree can be seen growing outside the main gate of Trinity College, Cambridge, below the room Newton lived in when he studied there. The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale can supply grafts from their tree, which appears identical to Flower of Kent, a coarse-fleshed cooking variety.

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To honor Newton I’ve culled several apple recipes from 17th century cookbooks. The first, entitled “To fry Applepies” comes from A True Gentlewomans Delight, 1653. These are like fruit empanadas or empanaditas. You need to peel the apples and chop them very fine, otherwise they will not cook when you fry the pastries. You could parboil the apples in a little sugar syrup before filling the pastry if you wish.

To fry Applepies.

Take Apples and pare them, and chop them very small, beat in a little Cinnamon, a little Ginger, and some Sugar, a little Rosewater, take your paste, roul it thin, and make them up as big Pasties as you please, to hold a spoonful or a little lesse of your Apples; and so stir them with Butter not to hastily least they be burned.

Here’s apples in wine sauce and cream from Archimagirus Anglo-Gallicus; Or, Excellent & Approved Receipts and Experiments in Cookery, 1658. The herb and spice combinations are well worth a try.

Apples in wine sauce & cream

Boil six Pippins pared, (doe not cut the cores apieces) in Claret wine, a little more than will cover them, put in of sugar a good quantity, then boil a quart of good cream, with a little rosemary and thyme, sweeten it with sugar, one spoonful of sack, when they be cold put them together, lay your Apples like Eggs: Remember to boil in your Apples some ginger, lemmon pils very thin sliced.

Finally a refreshing alternative to cider from The Closet Of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby Kt. Opened, 1677, where, again, rosemary is the flavoring of choice.

Apple-Drink with Sugar, Honey, &c..

A very pleasant drink is made of Apples, thus: Boil sliced Apples in water, to make the water strong of Apples, as when you make to drink it for coolness and pleasure. Sweeten it with Sugar to your taste, such a quantity of sliced Apples, as would make so much water strong enough of Apples; and then bottle it up close for three or four months. There will come a thick mother at the top, which being taken off, all the rest will be very clear, and quick and pleasant to the taste, beyond any Cider. It will be the better to most tastes, if you put a very little Rosemary into the liquor when you boil it, and a little Limon-peel into each bottle when you bottle it up.

Merry Newtonian Christmas !!!

Jun 012014
 

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On this date in 1495 is entered the following in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland:

“To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bolls of malt.”

This is the first known reference to Scotch whisky. Obviously it had been in production for some time before this date, so my title is a tad misleading. Forgive me; I have to draw readers in somehow. “Aqua vitae” (the water of life) is a common Latin name for liquor but in this case means whisky. Historians estimate that this amount of malt would have produced the equivalent of 400 liters or more of whisky, which at that time was considered medicinal.

Friar John Cor was a Tironensian monk based at Lindores Abbey in Fife, but was also a servant at the court of James IV. The King gave him a gift of 14 shillings on Christmas Day in 1488, and at Christmas time in 1494 Cor was given black cloth from Lille in Flanders for his livery clothes as a clerk in royal service. He was probably an apothecary to the court. The Tironensians were well regarded for their skills as alchemists. Because of this early quote, Lindores Abbey has come to be known as the birthplace of Scotch whisky. The whole entangled history of whisky, alchemy, monasticism, and medicine is intriguing.

Whisky is distilled beer. Beer is made by fermenting barley which usually has been malted (allowed to sprout and then roasted) because this intensifies the sugar content needed in fermentation. Archeological evidence shows that beer has been produced for at least 7,000 years, beginning somewhere in the Fertile Crescent – probably in the region now known as Iran. The earliest pottery shards containing traces of beer come from Godin Tepe in the Zagros mountains.

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The discovery of how to make beer may have been accidental. There are natural yeasts in the air, so that if you leave wet barley out it will ferment on its own. Fermentation occurs when you combine yeast and sugar in a wet environment, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Hence yeast is used for beer making and bread making. For beer making the alcohol is important (ancient beers were not carbonated), and for bread making the carbon dioxide is what makes doughs rise (and the alcohol burns off in baking). It has been argued that the control of yeast reactions was one of the first steps in the development of science and technology, setting off a chain of events that got us in the mess we are in today. For example, yeast breads need an oven. Once you have an oven you can fire pottery that is much more durable than pottery fired in the open . . . and so it goes. The onward march of civilization began with bread and beer.

Under conventional methods of brewing you can’t make a beer stronger than about 12% alcohol because at higher concentrations the yeast dies. To get higher concentrations you have to shift to distillation. Generally when people think about distillation they think about producing spirits such as whisky, but distillation has many more uses than producing drinks that make you warm and fuzzy. Making strong drinks is not why distillation was first invented.

The first clear evidence of true distillation comes from Greek alchemists working in Alexandria in the 1st century CE, although the Chinese may have independently developed the process around the same time. Distilled water was described in the 2nd century CE by Alexander of Aphrodisias – working on producing drinkable water from seawater. By the 3rd century CE the Alexandrians were using a distillation alembic. The principles of the alembic are the basis of all true distillation. The image shown here of an alembic is from a work by the 8th century Persian alchemist J?bir ibn Hayy?n. Distillation relies on the fact that different liquids have different boiling points. So the trick is to take a mixture that is made up of two different liquids, such as beer, which consists of water and alcohol, and then raise it to a temperature above the boiling point of the alcohol 79°C but below the boiling point of the water 100°C. That way the alcohol boils off but the water does not. This is distillation.

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Of course it is not much fun to simply boil the alcohol off a perfectly good batch of beer. What you want to do is capture the alcohol and leave the water behind. That’s where the alembic comes in. From the diagram you can see that there is a main vessel under which is a fire. In the main chamber of the vessel is the mix you want to distill. You heat it to the right temperature, the vapors boiling off rise to the top and then descend through the long, thin neck where they cool and return to a liquid which is then collected in a flask at the end of the neck. The stuff you don’t want is left behind. You might wonder why abstemious Muslims such as ibn Hayy?n were distilling alcohol. The fact is that they were not. They were using distillation to make perfumes (which were very famous), or to perform alchemical experiments.

Muslim alchemists brought the process of distillation to western Europe where it was used to distill alcohol for the first time. By the 12th century there is evidence of the distillation of alcohol in numerous places including Italy, Germany, and Ireland. It probably arrived in Scotland via Ireland, but the dates are unclear. In each of these places distillation was used on the local alcoholic beverage to produce spirits. Thus Irish and then Scotch whiskies came about. The issue remains as to how monks were involved.

Monks, like John Cor, were frequently apothecaries and had installations in their monasteries to produce potions and elixirs. That is, as monks they were working as healers. Whisky was one such elixir. Cor was producing it not to be drunk as a beverage, but as a medicine. Consumption of distilled beverages rose dramatically in Europe in and after the mid-14th century, when distilled liquors were commonly used as remedies for the Black Death. Liquors were used to cure a number of ailments because their consumption made patients feel better! Hence they were generally known under the term aqua vitae, the water of life. Scots Gaelic for “water of life” is uisge beatha, pronounced ooshki bahah. From ooshki it is one small step to “whisky.”

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The kind of whisky that John Cor produced probably did not taste very pleasant although it did the trick physically (roughly 40% alcohol).  The problem lay in the materials used to make alembics. Recent archeological evidence suggests that early Scottish alembics were made either of glass or pottery. They give you the desired alcoholic content, but distilling beer into whisky also concentrates sulfurous compounds, especially dimethyl trisulfide (DMTS), found in the original drink. DMTS in high concentrations is extremely foul tasting. I suppose people did not mind having their elixirs taste bad because medicine is supposed to be nasty. But, if you want to use whisky as a drink you have to get rid of the DMTS, or at least enough of it that it becomes one among many notes. After all, it is present in a large number of vegetable products we eat every day and we don’t mind because the concentrations are so low. The solution to the problem is to make your alembic/still out of copper. Copper eliminates a large percentage of the DMTS and leaves a much more pleasant liquor as a result. I am not sure when copper stills were first used in Scotland, but when they were, the transformation of aqua vitae to whisky was complete. Slàinte !

I gather from my researches that cooking with whisky has become something of a vogue these days. Chefs describe it as a flavor enhancer as if it were salt or MSG. There’s something inherently blasphemous to me about stirring a dram of single malt into a sauce. Yet various single malt distilleries are promoting the idea, presumably to boost sales. Pass. Whisky has long been used in cake baking and steamed puddings, but I’ll pass there too. My objections here are less about the morality of the act, and more about the fact that I don’t like the taste; I prefer to use brandy in fruit cake and Christmas pudding. I do, however, find the use of whisky in dishes that are uncooked quite acceptable. I give you two, one savory and one sweet.

Auld Alliance is a spread made by blending Scotch whisky with Roquefort. The name refers to the fact that there were numerous treaties between Scotland and France dating back to the 13th century against their common enemy – England. There have also been a number of cultural exchanges between the two partners over the years.

Take whatever quantity of Roquefort you need and let it come fully to room temperature. Then pound, mash, and stir it until you have a creamy paste. Then, drop by drop, blend in whisky until the Roquefort has absorbed all that it can. Pot it up and refrigerate for 3 hours or so. Serve it spread on water biscuits or oatcakes, or you can use it as a dip for crudités.

I’ve only made this once and I will warn you that it has a bite to it. You’ll want to spread it sparingly.

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Cranachan is a traditional dessert that has become very popular in recent years with people making all manner of changes to it. The traditional version is oatmeal that has been toasted, soaked in whisky, folded in with whipped cream, and served with raspberries. As far as I am concerned this needs no improvement.

Using a heavy skillet, toast 3 ounces of pinhead oatmeal over medium heat. Shake the pan often to make sure the oatmeal does not scorch, which it easily can if you are not vigilant. Let it cool and then place it in a bowl. Pour over 2 to 3 tablespoons of whisky and let it soak overnight. Whip 1 cup of whipping cream until it forms soft peaks. Do not overbeat. Gently fold in the oatmeal. Put a few raspberries in the bottom of chilled glasses. Fill up the glasses with the cream mix. Alternatively you may fold raspberries directly into the cream and then garnish the top.