Help a Library Transcribe Magical Manuscripts & Recover the Charms, Potions & Witchcraft That Flourished in Early Modern Europe and America

Magic is real—hear me out. No, you can’t solve life’s problems with a wand and made-up Latin. But there are academic departments of magic, only they go by different names now. A few hundred years ago the difference between chemistry and alchemy was nil. Witchcraft involved as much botany as spellwork. A lot of fun bits of magic got weeded out when gentlemen in powdered wigs purged weird sisters and gnostic heretics from the field. Did the old spells work? Maybe, maybe not. Science has become pretty reliable, I guess. Standardized classification systems and measurements are okay, but yawn… don’t we long for some witching and wizarding? A well-placed hex might work wonders.

Say no more, we’ve got you covered: you, yes you, can learn charms and potions, demonology and other assorted dark arts. How? For a onetime fee of absolutely nothing, you can enter magical books from the Early Modern Period.




T’was a veritable golden age of magic, when wizarding scientists like John Dee—Queen Elizabeth's soothsaying astrologer and revealer of the language of the angels—burned brightly just before they were extinguished, or run underground, by orthodoxies of all sorts. The Newberry, “Chicago’s Independent Research Library Since 1887,” has reached out to the crowds to help “unlock the mysteries” of rare manuscripts and bring the diversity of the time alive.

The library’s Transcribing Faith initiative gives users a chance to connect with texts like The Book of Magical Charms (above), by transcribing and/or translating the contents therein. Like software engineer Joseph Peterson—founder of the Esoteric Archives, which contains a large collection of John Dee’s work—you can volunteer to help the Newberry’s project “Religious Change, 1450-1700." The Newberry aims to educate the general public on a period of immense upheaval. "The Reformation and the Scientific Revolution are very big, capital letter concepts," project coordinator Christopher Fletcher tells Smithsonian.com, "we lose sight of the fact that these were real events that happened to real people."

By aiming to return these texts to "real people" on the internet, the Newberry hopes to demystify, so to speak, key moments in European history. "You don't need a Ph.D. to transcribe," Fletcher points out. Atlas Obscura describes the process as “much like updating a Wikipedia page,” only “anyone can start transcribing and translating and they don’t need to sign up to do so.” Check out some transcriptions of The Book of Magical Charms—written by various anonymous authors in the seventeenth century—here. The book, writes the Newberry, describes “everything from speaking with spirits to cheating at dice to curing a toothache.”

Need to call up a spirit for some dirty work? Just follow the instructions below:

Call their names Orimoth, Belmoth Limoc and Say thus. I conjure you by the neims of the Angels + Sator and Azamor that yee intend to me in this Aore, and Send unto me a Spirite called Sagrigid that doe fullfill my comandng and desire and that can also undarstand my words for one or 2 yuares; or as long as I will.

Seems simple enough, but of course this business did not sit well with some powerful people, including one Increase Mather, father of Cotton, president of Harvard, best known from his work on the Salem Witch Trials. Increase defended the prosecutions in a manuscript titled Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, a page from which you can see further up. The text reads, in part:

an Evidence Supposed to be in the Testimony
which is throwly to be Weighed, & if it doe
not infallibly prove the Crime against the
person accused, it ought not to determine
him Guilty of it for So righteous may
be condemned unjustly.

Mather did not consider these to be show trials or “witchhunts” but rather the fair and judicious application of due process, for whatever that’s worth. Elsewhere in the text he famously wrote, “It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned.” Cold comfort to those condemned as guilty for likely practicing some mix of religion and early science.

These texts are written in English and concern themselves with magical and spiritual matters expressly. Other manuscripts in the project’s archive roam more broadly across topics and languages, and “shed light on the entwined practices of religion and reading.” One “commonplace book,” for example (above), from sometime between 1590 and 1620, contains sermons by John Donne as well as “religious, political, and practical texts, including a Middle English lyric,” all carefully written out by an English scribe named Henry Feilde in order to practice his calligraphy.

Another such text, largely in Latin, “may have been started as early as the 16th century, but continued to be used and added to well into the 19th century. Its compilers expressed interest in a wide range of topics, from religious and moral questions to the liberal arts to strange events.” Books like these “reflected the reading habits of early modern people, who tended not to read books from beginning to end, but instead to dip in and out of them,” extracting bits and bobs of wisdom, quotations, recipes, prayers, and even the odd spell or two.

The final work in need of transcription/translation is also the only printed text, or texts, rather, a collection of Italian religious broadsides, advertising “public celebrations and commemorations of Catholic feast days and other religious occasions.” Hardly summoning spirits, though some may beg to differ. If you’re so inclined to take part in opening the secrets of these rare books for lay readers everywhere, visit Transcribing Faith here and get to work.

via SmithsonianAtlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear Albert Einstein Read “The Common Language of Science” (1941)

Albert Einstein, 1921, by Ferdinand Schmutzer via Wikimedia Commons

Here's an extraordinary recording of Albert Einstein from the fall of 1941, reading a full-length essay in English:

The essay is called "The Common Language of Science." It was recorded in September of 1941 as a radio address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The recording was apparently made in America, as Einstein never returned to Europe after emigrating from Germany in 1933.

Einstein begins by sketching a brief outline of the development of language, before exploring the connection between language and thinking. "Is there no thinking without the use of language," asks Einstein, "namely in concepts and concept-combinations for which words need not necessarily come to mind? Has not every one of us struggled for words although the connection between 'things' was already clear?"




Despite this evident separation between language and thinking, Einstein quickly points out that it would be a gross mistake to conclude that the two are entirely independent. In fact, he says, "the mental development of the individual and his way of forming concepts depend to a high degree upon language." Thus a shared language implies a shared mentality. For this reason Einstein sees the language of science, with its mathematical signs, as having a truly global role in influencing the way people think:

The supernational character of scientific concepts and scientific language is due to the fact that they have been set up by the best brains of all countries and all times. In solitude, and yet in cooperative effort as regards the final effect, they created the spiritual tools for the technical revolutions which have transformed the life of mankind in the last centuries. Their system of concepts has served as a guide in the bewildering chaos of perceptions so that we learned to grasp general truths from particular observations.

Einstein concludes with a cautionary reminder that the scientific method is only a means toward an end, and that the welfare of humanity depends ultimately on shared goals.

Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem--in my opinion--to characterize our age. If we desire sincerely and passionately for the safety, the welfare, and the free development of the talents of all men, we shall not be in want of the means to approach such a state. Even if only a small part of mankind strives for such goals, their superiority will prove itself in the long run.

The immediate context of Einstein's message was, of course, World War II. The air force of Einstein's native country had only recently called off its bombing campaign against England. A year before, London weathered 57 straight nights of bombing by the Luftwaffe. Einstein had always felt a deep sense of gratitude to the British scientific community for its efforts during World War I to test the General Theory of Relativity, despite the fact that its author was from an enemy nation.

"The Common Language of Science" was first published a year after the radio address, in Advancement of Science 2, no. 5. It is currently available in the Einstein anthologies Out of My Later Years and Ideas and Opinions.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in March 2013.

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A Shazam for Nature: A New Free App Helps You Identify Plants, Animals & Other Denizens of the Natural World

Do you ever long for those not-so-long-ago days when you skipped through the world, breathless with the anticipation of catching Pokémon on your phone screen?

If so, you might enjoy bagging some of the Pokeverse’s real world counterparts using Seek, iNaturalist’s new photo-identification app. It does for the natural world what Shazam does for music.

Aim your phone’s camera at a nondescript leaf or the grasshopper-ish-looking creature who’s camped on your porch light. With a bit of luck, Seek will pull up the relevant Wikipedia entry to help the two of you get better acquainted.




Registered users can pin their finds to their personal collections, provided the app’s recognition technology produces a match.

(Several early adopters suggest it’s still a few houseplants shy of true functionality…)

Seek’s protective stance with regard to privacy settings is well suited to junior specimen collectors, as are the virtual badges with which it rewards energetic uploaders.

While it doesn’t hang onto user data, Seek is building a photo library, composed in part of user submissions.

(Your cat is ready for her close up, Mr. DeMille…)

(Ditto your Portobello Mushroom burger…)

Download Seek for free on iTunes or Google Play.

via Earther/My Modern Met

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

What Happened When Stephen Hawking Threw a Cocktail Party for Time Travelers (2009)

Who among us has never fantasized about traveling through time? But then, who among us hasn't traveled through time? Every single one of us is a time traveler, technically speaking, moving as we do through one second per second, one hour per hour, one day per day. Though I never personally heard the late Stephen Hawking point out that fact, I feel almost certain that he did, especially in light of one particular piece of scientific performance art he pulled off in 2009: throwing a cocktail party for time travelers — the proper kind, who come from the future.

"Hawking’s party was actually an experiment on the possibility of time travel," writes Atlas Obscura's Anne Ewbank. "Along with many physicists, Hawking had mused about whether going forward and back in time was possible. And what time traveler could resist sipping champagne with Stephen Hawking himself?" "




By publishing the party invitation in his mini-series Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking, Hawking hoped to lure futuristic time travelers. You are cordially invited to a reception for Time Travellers, the invitation read, along with the the date, time, and coordinates for the event. The theory, Hawking explained, was that only someone from the future would be able to attend."

Alas, no time travelers turned up. Since someone possessed of that technology at any point in the future would theoretically be able to attend, does Hawking's lonely party, which you can see in the clip above, prove that time travel will never become possible? Maybe — or maybe the potential time-travelers of the future know something about the space-time-continuum-threatening risks of the practice that we don't. As for Dr. Hawking, I have to imagine that he came away satisfied from the shindig, even though his hoped-for Ms. Universe from the future never walked through the door. “I like simple experiments… and champagne,” he said, and this champagne-laden simple experiment will continue to remind the rest of us to enjoy our time on Earth, wherever in that time we may find ourselves.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch Stephen Hawking’s Interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Recorded 10 Days Before His Death: A Last Conversation about Black Holes, Time Travel & More

Ten days before Stephen Hawking’s death, Neil DeGrasse Tyson sat down with the world-famous physicist for an interview on Tyson’s StarTalk podcast. “I picked his legendary brain,” says Tyson in his introduction, “on everything, from the big bang to the origins of the universe.” He starts off, however, with some softballs. Hawking’s favorite food? He likes oysters. Favorite drink? Pimms.

Your appreciation for Tyson’s earnestly awkward small talk may vary. He’s prone to making himself laugh, which doesn’t elicit laughs from Hawking, whose communication was, of course, extraordinarily constrained. And yet, when it came to matters most of consequence to him, he was eloquent, witty, profound into his final days.




Though we cannot detect any tonal inflection in Hawking’s computer voice, we know him as a sensitive, compassionate person as well as a brilliant mind. It doesn’t sound like he’s bragging when—in answer to Tyson’s question about his favorite equation (at 4:10)—he replies, “the equation I discovered relating the entropy of black hole to the area of its horizon.” "How many people," Tyson replies, chuckling, "get to say that their favorite equation is one they came up with? That’s badass.”

Cutaway segments with Tyson, theoretical physicist Janna Levin, and comedian Matt Kirshen surround the short interview, with Levin offering her professional expertise as a cosmologist to explain Hawking’s ideas in lay terms. His favorite equation, she says, demonstrates that black holes actually radiate energy, returning information, though in a highly disordered form, that was previously thought lost forever.

At 8:05, hear Hawking’s answer to the question of what he would ask Isaac Newton if he could go back in time. Whether we understand his reply or not, we learn how “badass” it is in the cutaway commentary (which begins to seem a little ESPN-like, with Levin as the seasoned player on the panel). Rather than asking Newton a question Hawking himself didn’t know the answer to, which Newton likely couldn’t answer either, Hawking would ask him to solve a problem at the limit of Newton’s own studies, thereby testing the Enlightenment giant’s abilities.

Offered ad-free in Hawking’s memory, the podcast interview also tackles the question of whether it might ever be possible to actually travel back in time, at 24:00 (the answer may disappoint you). Michio Kaku joins the panel in the studio to clarify and sticks around for the remainder of the discussion. The panel also answers fan-submitted questions, and Bill Nye makes an appearance at 42:16. Hawking’s interview makes up a comparatively small portion of the show.

His answers, by necessity, were very brief and to the point. His final theories, by contrast, are mind-expandingly vast, opening us up to the secrets of black holes and the existence of the multiverse. While Hawking's theoretical work may have been too speculative for the Nobel committee, who need hard evidence to make a call, his legacy as “one of our greatest minds, of our generation, of the century, or maybe, ever,” as Tyson says, seems secure.

via Laughing Squid

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Periodic Table of David Bowie: A Visualization of the Seminal Artist’s Influence and Influences

Mick Jagger ...

Dada poet Tristan Tzara

Chairman Mao…

What do these 20th-century icons have in common?

Correct! They’re also all elements on artist Paul Robertson's Periodic Table of Bowie.




The late musician David Bowie was a skin-shedding chameleon, and a remarkably stable isotope. His creative influences were varied.

Robertson's table debuted in 2013 as part of the Victoria & Albert David Bowie is exhibition, three years before rock's seminal Starman exited the planet. Following a 12-city tour, it's taking its final bow at the Brooklyn Museum.

“I’m not an idiot,” the artist confided in an interview. “I know that people are mostly interested in it because it’s David Bowie. But I think it’s still a valid artwork.”

In addition to positioning such influences as collaborator John Lennon, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, and former roommate Iggy Pop as atomic numbers, Robertson's table allows for artists who came after.

"Fly My Pretties Fly (Thank You. We'll Take It From Here)" includes Lady Gaga, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, and fellow dandy, Morrissey, while Bowie's 90s-era costumer, designer Alexander McQueen and artist Jeff Koons hold down "History Is a Choice the Future Decides Upon."

Fittingly, author Oscar Wilde appears in the Hydrogen slot.

Buy a print of the Periodic Table of Bowie here.

Explore David Bowie is in person at the Brooklyn Museum through July 15.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on March 20 for the second installment of Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit”: A Toolkit That Can Help You Scientifically Separate Sense from Nonsense

It's probably no stretch to say that mass disinformation campaigns and rampant anti-intellectualism will constitute an increasing amount of our political reality both today and in the future. As Hannah Arendt wrote, the political lie has always been with us. But its global reach, particular vehemence, and blatant contempt for verifiable reality seem like innovations of the present.

Given the embarrassing wealth of access to information and educational tools, maybe it’s fair to say that the first and last line of defense should be our own critical reasoning. When we fail to verify news—using resources we all have in hand (I assume, since you’re reading this), the fault for believing bad information may lie with us.




But we so often don't know what it is that we don’t know. Individuals can't be blamed for an inadequate educational system, and one should not underestimate the near-impossibility of conducting time-consuming inquiries into the truth of every single claim that comes our way, like trying to identify individual droplets while getting hit in the face with a pressurized blast of targeted, contradictory info, sometimes coming from shadowy, unreliable sources.

Carl Sagan understood the difficulty, and he also understood that a lack of critical thinking did not make people totally irrational and deserving of contempt. “It’s not hard to understand," for example, why people would think their relatives are still alive in some other form after death. As he writes of this common phenomenon in “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection," most supernatural beliefs are just “humans being human.”

In the essay, a chapter from his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan proposes a rigorous but comprehensible “baloney detection kit” to separate sense from nonsense.

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  • If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations.
  • If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  • Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified…. You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

Calling his recommendations “tools for skeptical thinking,” he lays out a means of compensating for the strong emotional pulls that “promise something like old-time religion" and recognizing "a fallacious or fraudulent argument.” At the top of the post, in a video produced by Big Think, you can hear science writer and educator Michael Shermer explain the “baloney detection kit” that he himself adapted from Sagan, and just above, read Sagan’s own version, abridged into a short list (read it in full at Brain Pickings).

Like many a science communicator after him, Sagan was very much concerned with the influence of superstitious religious beliefs. He also foresaw a time in the near future much like our own. Elsewhere in The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan writes of “America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time…. when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” The loss of control over media and education renders people “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.”

This state involves, he says a “slide… back into superstition” of the religious variety and also a general "celebration of ignorance," such that well-supported scientific theories carry the same weight or less than explanations made up on the spot by authorities whom people have lost the ability to “knowledgeably question.” It’s a scary scenario that may not have completely come to pass... just yet, but Sagan knew as well or better than anyone of his time how to address such a potential social epidemic.

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Carl Sagan’s Last Interview

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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