Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater’s Occult Chemistry (1908)

“Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” So wrote Virginia Woolf in her essay “Modern Fiction”, collected in The Common Reader (1925).

It is meant as advice to novelists, but this quotation may also be a squib directed at the prominent theosophists Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater who were doing exactly this. Their findings were presented in an illustrated book, Occult Chemistry, first published in 1908, although their investigative project continued for many more years, with subsequent editions appearing into the 1930s. “The atom can scarcely be said to be a ‘thing’, though it is the material out of which all things physical are composed”, they concluded. “It is formed by the flow of the life-force and vanishes with its ebb.” This is, to say the least, an unorthodox view of chemistry, which is in some ways the least mysterious of sciences.

Besant was born in 1847. Around 1871, she rejected her previously devout Christianity, separated from her clergyman husband, became a freethinker, matriculated for a science degree at London University, but did not take it, advocated for birth control, and then joined the Fabians. In 1888, she turned to theosophy, moved to India, translated the Bhagavad Gita, and joined the Indian National Congress and the campaign for Indian self-government. Theosophy began as a late Victorian spiritualist movement which held that the nature of things is deeper than can be discovered by empirical science. In Besant’s own definition, “It is the fact that man, being himself divine, can know the Divinity whose life he shares.”

Leadbeater, born in 1854, turned to theosophy having served as an Anglican priest and became a prolific author of the movement’s books and pamphlets. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes him as “an observant traveller on the astral plane”. He met Besant in 1894, and the two began their chemical observations almost immediately. Leadbeater used his clairvoyant talents, while Besant, with her scientific inclination, made sure that they followed a respectable methodology. Their first book together, though, was a psychological exploration called Thought-Forms (1901), which depicted experiences and feelings, such as varieties of love and anger, in coloured diagrams resembling abstract art.

Their chemical method was — conveniently perhaps — “unique and difficult to explain”. Its clairvoyant aspect was based on a Yoga principle that one can reduce one’s self-conception to minute proportions so that very small objects appear large. The observer then simply draws what he sees on paper and his commentary may be taken down by a stenographer. It is much like somebody using a microscope and, in the view of its adherents, no less objective. Transcripts of the dialogue between Leadbeater and their illustrator, Curuppumullage Jinarajadasa, which were included in Occult Chemistry, display admirable frankness during these observation sessions, but do not really explain much more.

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Besant and Leadbeater’s investigations in Occult Chemistry begin with “four gases in the air” — hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and “a fourth gas (atomic weight=3) so far not discovered by chemists.” These were the simplest elements. As the atomic number increased, so did their geometric complexity of the atoms. Sodium, for example, was “composed of an upper part, divisible into a globe and 12 funnels, a lower part, similarly divided; and a connecting rod.” The atoms were duly grouped, not as in the periodic table (which is organized according to atomic number and reveals different elements’ related chemical properties), but according to overall shapes: spikes, dumbbell, tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, crossed bases, and star. Thus, boron, nitrogen, and vanadium, for example — elements with little in common chemically — all “have six funnels opening on the six faces of a cube”.

Even the simplest element, hydrogen, was found to comprise eighteen units, which they called anu, in reference to the indivisible in Jain metaphysics. As the work progressed, Besant and Leadbeater “found” new elements, such as “meta-neon” and “platinum A” with positions intermediate between the established elements, and began to include simple compounds such as copper sulphate and benzene. In water, “The Oxygen double snake retains its individuality, as indeed it usually does, while the two Hydrogen atoms arrange themselves around it.”

Although Besant’s and Leadbeater’s science is clearly misguided, their interest was obviously sincere, and their labour fairly exhaustive. At a time when there was no other means of “seeing” atoms, what is truly remarkable is that their visualizations so closely resemble those developed later by chemists relying on Niels Bohr’s theory of atomic structure from 1913 and laws of quantum mechanics not worked out until the 1920s. The cloudlike volumes known as atomic orbitals within which the electrons of an atom may circulate around its nucleus are today visualized as fuzzy-edged spheres, dumbbells and doughnut rings.

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