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Mysterious forces

17 June 2016

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TO THOSE of us who still regard wireless telephony as a kind of benign voodoo, the response of late-19th-century spiritualists to technological advance seems perfectly appropriate. As reported on Wednesday in The Unseen: A history of the invisible (Radio 4, weekdays last week), psychics of every kind found in the wonders of the telegraph and the radio clear affirmation of their beliefs in the connections between physical and metaphysical realms.

As the presenter, Philip Ball, explained, people of great intellectual discernment were making these connections. Take Cromwell Varley, a pioneer of the Transatlantic telegraph, who had a keen interest in telekinesis; so, too, William Crookes, who is credited with discovering thalium and the peculiar properties of cathode rays. This cross-fertilisation of what we now distinguish as science and magic provided a strong thread in Ball’s excellent series, and began with no less than Sir Isaac Newton himself, whose theory of the invisible force of gravity attracted criticism from Gottfried Leibniz on the grounds of occultism.

In fact, Leibniz was closer to the truth than we might imagine: Newton was an energetic alchemist, for instance, and one might interpret the achievement of the Principia Mathematica as in part residing in an attempt to understand the relationship between observation and verifiable “laws of nature”. Hence, “the scientific method” — one that is invoked in any number of disciplines today.

There are, for instance, the social “sciences” — the territory of Thinking Allowed (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week). We heard from a team who had gathered an impressive data-set from researching the lives of 4000 violent extremists — in particular, their educational backgrounds.

I am going to avoid the temptation to create a Mail Online-style headline from this research and declare that, if you study engineering at university, you are x per cent more likely to become a jihadist. But the way the BBC set it up for us, I might almost be forgiven for doing so. Let’s put it this way: of the minuscule number of university graduates who turn to violent extremism, 45 per cent have studied engineering. Why might that be? Apparently, not for their bomb-making skills. It is to do with the fact that engineering is, in most parts of the world, regarded as the degree most likely to bring wealth and status. When these ambitions are frustrated, a young person’s thoughts naturally turn to violence.

It is unlikely that Kirsty Young will achieve her dream of having the Queen on Desert Island Discs; so Our Queen: 90 musical years (Radio 2, Sunday) is about as close as we are going to get to a royal play-list. “She knows what she likes,” we are told: normally that is short for “She detests anything she can’t tap her foot to.” Revealing, though, is the story that she and Princess Margaret were capable of dictating by heart the descant of the hymn-tune Crimond to the organist before the Queen’s wedding. As a royal musical feat, it is perhaps not up there with composing “Greensleeves”, but it will do.

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