Almost Zero

Ian Hacking

  • The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature by Pierre Hadot, translated by Michael Chase
    Harvard, 399 pp, £19.95, November 2006, ISBN 0 674 02316 1

‘The word “nature” is encountered everywhere,’ notably in the writing and talk of poets, scientists, ecologists and even politicians. ‘But though they frequently employ the word, they seem not to have much considered what notion ought to be framed of the thing, which they suppose and admire, and upon occasion celebrate, but do not call in question or discuss.’ Thus Robert Boyle, progenitor of English science, in A Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, 1686.

Boyle found eight meanings for the word, and pretty much suggested we scrap the lot. No one paid him any heed. Nature is too deeply entrenched in our awareness of the world. Nature is awesome. Nature is gentle tranquillity itself. Nature is terrifying. Nature is the Lake District. Nature is female. Nature is how things ought to be. Nature is crueller even than Man, so that from its very beginning, the human race has had to shield itself from the forces of nature. Nature, above all, is other than us – except that we are part of nature.

And nature has secrets. Most metaphors die in the course of a lifetime; their play is forgotten, and they become literal or lost. How long can a metaphor live? Pierre Hadot’s absorbing book is written around a single phrase: ‘Nature loves to hide.’ That is a translation, or mistranslation, of a fragment that Heraclitus inscribed some 2500 years ago. It is alive and well. Here is a physicist, Steve Chu, in 1994: ‘I’m betting on nature to hide Bose condensation from us. The last 15 years she has been doing a great job.’ Bose condensation is a weird phenomenon that takes place when atoms of the right kind get very cold, ultracold, almost to absolute zero. Einstein foresaw it in 1925, but no one could produce it until 1995. (Chu lost his bet.) Chu himself shared a Nobel Prize in 1997 for one of the tricks needed to make this strange condensate (using laser light to cool atoms). The people who first made the stuff got another Nobel, in 2001.

And what is on the back of the gold medals for physics and chemistry that they received? An engraving of Nature, whom the Swedish Academy describes as a goddess resembling Isis. She is being unveiled by an unclothed youth, the genius of science. He is revealing her secrets, not to mention her breasts. Hadot’s book has 18 plates reproducing such images – often less chaste than the Nobel one – from throughout the history of modern science. They include engravings in books by the likes of Leeuwenhoek, the pioneer of the microscope. Hadot oddly does not mention the Nobel medal, even though he had several prizewinners as colleagues at the Collège de France. But then some, and possibly most, physics and chemistry laureates are astonished, or even appalled, when told to look at what is on the back of their medal. They seem never to have noticed the woman being undressed.

Hadot, who is now 85, is a great scholar of Neoplatonism. He is working on a definitive edition of Marcus Aurelius. He is an extraordinary guide to the history of the idea of nature from Heraclitus to now. You will find yourself in the company of a wise Greek, a pagan, a philosopher who believes that a role of philosophy is to teach us how to live. (See, for example, the essays collected in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 1995.)

Pagan? Monotheism has been so triumphant that we have forgotten about pagans. Hadot recalls a pagan prefect, appalled that a Christian emperor wanted to remove the Altar of Victory from the Roman Senate: ‘We contemplate the same stars, the Heavens are common to us all, and the same world surrounds us. What matters the path of wisdom by which each person seeks the truth?’ Hadot imagines a world in which these words are inscribed in gold on the doors of all ‘churches, synagogues, mosques and temples’. He uses other pagan texts of the same period to argue that Heraclitus’ aphorism underlies this gentle plea for tolerance: for a pagan, the truth that is sought is the hidden truth of nature and the gods.

The Veil of Isis is an amazing source of other sayings, which Hadot drops like ripe peaches from a tree. Heraclitus’ phrase exemplifies Nietzsche’s dictum that ‘a good maxim is too hard for the teeth of time, and all the millennia cannot succeed in consuming it, though it always serves as nourishment; it is thereby the great paradox of literature: the imperishable in the midst of all that changes.’ Imperishable but not constant. This is a tale of mutation, of an inscrutable saying that is used to say many things. ‘To write the history of thought is sometimes to write the history of a series of misinterpretations.’

The ancients referred to Heraclitus as ‘the obscure one’. No one knows what he meant in the phrase that became ‘Nature loves to hide.’ Hadot tries out a few candidates, and favours the unimpressive thought that what causes birth tends to cause death, that what is born wants to die. Only much later do we get ‘Nature loves to hide.’ The Greek word we translate as ‘nature’ – physis (the root of our word ‘physics’) – evolved almost beyond comprehension. In Heraclitus’ day, Hadot says, it was nature of; the nature of a thing was, on the one hand, its process of genesis, appearance or growth, hence Hadot’s reading. On the other hand, it meant a thing’s ‘constitution, or proper nature’ – one of our meanings today, and out of which ancient philosophy constructed the idea of essence. But when the word became not of, but absolute, the secrets of nature were much talked about. Nature became personified, and she had secrets. She was addressed by Marcus Aurelius, ‘O Nature’; soon there was an Orphic hymn: ‘O Nature, mother goddess of all things, mother of innumerable ruses’. Dame Nature came on stage, though always in the role of a divinity.

In the midst of this rush of talk we get the first explicit attribution of ‘Nature loves to hide’ to Heraclitus, some five centuries after his death. It is in the biblical exegesis by Philo of Alexandria, in the first century after Christ. Philo, a Jew, is making sense of the Hebrew Bible with the eyes of a Neoplatonist, reading each story as bearing a secret whose truth is uncovered by explaining an underlying allegory. What Philo actually wrote is lost; we have only an Armenian mistranslation of his words. Philo is important in other contexts, because he helped the early Christians to figure out how to put the Old Testament and Plato together.

Physis had not yet settled down to anything like what we call physics, although that was one way it was going. Aristotle’s book called Physics is discernibly on that road. But as long as Nature was not only a dame but also a goddess, her secrets could be elicited in many ways, including myth and allegory. We no longer hold these to be ways to find out the truth, but they were exactly that, styles of thinking that tried as intensely to find out about nature as the experimenter who cools atoms down to nearly zero.

Who’s who in the images of Nature? Isis is an Egyptian goddess. She becomes identified with Artemis of Ephesus, Diana to the Romans, but not the huntress. Nature is the progenitor, and the Ephesians endowed their statues of Artemis with many breasts so that she might suckle her creatures. Thus equipped she enters the modern world. But thanks to Heraclitus’ maxim, she is veiled. As the ambitions of science take hold, she is represented as unveiling, or being unveiled. It was one of these images that got Pierre Hadot going many years ago, an unintelligible frontispiece to a book published in 1807.

The great German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt came back from South America to produce a timeless masterpiece, The Geography of Plants; he had it prefaced with an engraving, a dedication to Goethe, in which a naked man with a lyre is lifting the veil off a many-breasted Artemis, at whose feet is a volume of Goethe’s botanical tract, The Metamorphosis of Plants. Goethe was much pleased when he got the book from the scientist. He wrote in a letter that it was ‘a flattering illustration that implies that Poetry too might lift the veil of Nature’. In those days, Hadot asserts, any educated person could read the engraving, and see exactly why the poet said what he said. But for us it is just one big decoding exercise.

Is it worth the candle? This strange history is a history of the present. It helps us to understand why nature has all those manifold connotations that I mentioned. Nature is as politically alive now as she has ever been, precisely as we begin to worry that technology has irrevocably destroyed her, as we argue about genetically modified organisms, the climate that we have changed at our peril, or simply how much land we want to consign to what we call ‘nature reserves’. Nature works her rhetoric as much as she ever did. Hadot tells us some of the reasons why.

There are two overarching attitudes to nature, Promethean and Orphic. Zeus was disturbed that people were becoming too uppity, and hid fire away from their knowledge. Prometheus by trickery stole it, thus exposing one of the secrets of nature for us all to use. There is a raft of metaphors at work here. Secrets must be extracted from nature. The initial model is not the laboratory but the law. Nature must be brought to court and tried. In a trial, informants were tested by torture. Nature’s secrets must be wrung from her. One book that Hadot praises, in certain respects as a precursor of his own, is Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature (1980). In the original French version of his book he does not give her subtitle, Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, and does not point to its importance as a major feminist statement about science. Merchant emphasised that modern science was founded on the idea of torturing nature. She was much vilified for this. There is a retrospective discussion of these debates, a quarter-century long, in last autumn’s Isis (not the goddess but the history of science journal).

The great prophet of the 17th century was Francis Bacon, who proposed, as parable, that Prometheus invented experimental science. Merchant argued that Bacon too subscribed to the torture model, and passionately defended her position in the same issue of Isis. He certainly praised dominance. As well as the passages cited by Hadot, Bacon wrote in a long letter (which he did not publish): ‘I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children, to bind her to your service and make her your slave.’ Since he never printed this, he cannot be held fully responsible – someone could even have inserted the line – but the idea is to be read in his well-known works, passim.

Our present civilisation is founded on the use of ‘technical procedures to tear Nature’s “secrets” from her in order to dominate and exploit her’, Hadot writes, but he also insists that Bacon’s programme was foreseen in ancient times, even around the end of the third century BCE. He quotes a long passage including two clear statements: that everything produced contrary to nature is made by human technology or technique (techne¯); and that the aspect of technology needed to overcome difficulties is trickery.

The Greek words that he translates as ‘trickery’ are none other than ancestors of our word ‘mechanics’. Hadot argues that there was a lot of technological innovation, engineering and mechanics in the ancient world. I’ve been too brainwashed with the idea of a scientific revolution in the 17th century wholly to agree with him; it is the old metallurgists that impress me. Their god was Hephaestus, whose temple in the agora at Athens was respectfully repaired with Pittsburgh steel money, and whose work was neither mechanics nor what I would call trickery. But it is right to think that a lot of laboratory science is trickery, cunning. More than eighteen centuries after that ancient talk of trickery, mechanics came into its own, not only with machines but also with what the physicists still call Galilean mechanics, Newtonian mechanics, classical mechanics.

Twentieth-century physis is quantum mechanics. Those Nobel Prizes I mentioned earlier are for new techniques for tricking nature (no other word will do): quantum tricks that cool atoms to almost zero in an almost vacuum. Prometheus stole fire to warm us and to cook by, and we end by stealing the ultracold. Recall those Nobel medals. Underneath Isis being unveiled is a line adapted from Virgil. Rendered by Dryden, it speaks of a gathering ‘beneath a laurel shade’ of patriots, poets and ‘searching wits, of more mechanic parts,/ who grac’d their age with new-invented arts’.

Then there is the other attitude to nature, which Hadot calls Orphic: the poets, if you will, who are also in the laurel grove. The Orphic ‘penetrates the secrets of Nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm and harmony . . . inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness’. Hadot singles out Leonardo as both Promethean and Orphic, but I would say the same of many of the living scientists whom I most respect, including those who are the most cunning tricksters. Hadot also mentions his contemporary and colleague François Jacob. Jacob said – in a remark that Hadot loves – that whereas Jacques Monod wanted life as produced by natural selection to be logical, Cartesian, rational, Jacob, in his own charmingly sexist words, ‘saw Nature as a rather nice girl who was generous but a bit sloppy, a bit muddleheaded, working at one thing at a time, and doing her best with what she found handy’.

The heyday of the Orphic attitude in Europe was the Romantic era. Wordsworth and company gambolling by the Lakes, and their heirs fighting to keep wind turbines and other Promethean tools away from fell and moor. But for Hadot, its epitome is Goethe, the Orphic scientist. ‘Poetry too might lift the veil of Nature,’ Goethe said when he received Humboldt’s tribute, but we tend to forget that Goethe expressed very strong views in prose about most of the sciences: plants, the origin of the earth, light. He was an obsessive collector of geological specimens – if you want to please the old man, it was said, take him a new rock for a present. I knew something about his theory of the nature of light and the colours, which still retains interest, but before I read Hadot I did not realise how intensely he hated Newton. Newton had done the unspeakable; he had tortured light by splitting it into colours with his damn prism. (It seems to have been OK for nature to do it with raindrops.)

Goethe published The Metamorphosis of Plants, so admired by Humboldt, in 1790. It is the culmination of a line of observation and marvelling that began on his Italian journey, when he speculated that there had to be one original plant, which he called the Ur-plant. Darwin adored Humboldt and his works, but did not share his enthusiasm for Goethe on plants. Other readers praise it, along with Erasmus Darwin, as prefiguring evolutionary thinking. Well, that seems confused: Goethe would have detested natural selection as much as he detested Newton’s torturing of light. Yet The Metamorphosis of Plants has an extraordinary ‘feeling for the organism’ – a phrase I take from Evelyn Fox Keller’s study of Barbara McClintock, a stand-alone plant geneticist who thought in terms of organisms as collaborative wholes at a time when everyone else saw them as masterminded by genetic codes, and who won a Nobel Prize in 1983. That was when the ultimate secrets of life were being unveiled as DNA, or so it was said, but McClintock did not agree.

Goethe thought Nature has secrets, but not that she is veiled. The shutters are on our eyes for not seeing what she shows us outright. Everything inside is also outside: inner and outer are one for those who will see, or so he said in a short poem, ‘Epirrhema’. In about 1798 he wrote a marvellous love poem of two pages, ‘The Metamorphosis of Plants’, which joyously conveys the emotion behind his botanical tract. A long passage from the poem was translated into French prose in Hadot’s book, and is here further translated into numbing English. It could put you off the poem for life. Seek out Michael Hamburger’s version, in Christopher Middleton’s Goethe: Selected Poems. It begins, incidentally, by making fun not only of the search for a secret inside, but also of Linnaean nomenclature. Don’t classify, it says: look!

‘Nature, it seems, must always clash with Art,/And yet, before we know it, both are one’ – another of Goethe’s poems, about 1800. Hadot has a good deal to say about the visual arts as ways of unveiling nature, especially in the Romantic era. That is right, but I suspect it is an anomaly. Throughout the ages, visual and tactile art have focused on the human body and the human face, not nature – with the obvious exceptions of the Inuit, and the peoples of the north-west coastline of North America, where animals dominate the art forms. Hadot’s idea is that the arts unveil nature by imitation, rediscovery and reportrayal. But that instinct is not specifically Orphic. Galilean science was prefigured in the high middle ages by the image of God the architect; the secrets of nature would be revealed by figuring out the machinery by which he made the world. Leibniz called that architectonic reason, and it is the essential obverse of Promethean intervention in nature, for you can mess with her successfully only if you have some idea how she is put together.

Hadot sums up the Goethean stage in the evolution of the Heraclitan adage as ‘Isis has no veils.’ But she still has secrets. Another of Keller’s books is Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death (1992); it is about, among other things, codes. And here is one thing Hadot gets wrong. He says that we no longer talk about the secrets of nature. Well, we do. Witness both the Orphic Keller and the Promethean Chu with whom I began. The metaphor is thriving today.

That antique phrase, ‘Nature loves to hide,’ could be an emblem for life itself, constantly mutating, evolving, changing its meaning. Perfect: because mutations, so we are taught, are often just misinterpretations, mistranscriptions, of code. Hadot takes us as far as an ultimate Orphic misreading: Heidegger and dread. The anxiety is caught by two of Sartre’s titles, Being and Nothingness, on the one hand, and Nausea, on the other. (Both works figure at the end of Hadot’s book.) How can there be being? Some schoolmen said God had to create everything, every instant, to keep things going. Existentialism turns such thoughts into fear and trembling, but also a kind of self-loathing.

Yet even here there is a strange play between the Promethean and the Orphic. There may be a physicist’s response to the wonder (or dread) of existence, and I do not mean the much touted idea of a Big Bang when everything came into being. The closest to nothingness that can be imagined is a vacuum at zero degrees Kelvin. In classical mechanics, that is where nothing happens. Here lies one of the most marvellous paradoxes of quantum mechanics: an absolutely cold vacuum is a buzz of quantum activity. There is talk, at present, that when the almost empty, almost zero, is probed by amazing tricks, it may reveal core truths about the fundamental forces of nature. That in turn would tell us more about being and nothingness than has yet been dreamt of in our philosophies. What a wonderful place for nature to hide some of her deeper secrets: an absolutely cold total vacuum.