In the medical sciences building of the University of St Andrews stands a glass display case cradling a mace. The mace, a symbol of smiting authority that goes all the way back to Old Kingdom pharaohs, has a long tradition in academia as well. In all the pomp and glitter of an academic processional, a dean, provost, or chancellor carries a symbolic mace, as if to keep an unruly faculty in order. (I am sure that most of them have wanted to use that mace a time or two in reality, but have been constrained by both convention and the rule of law.) Medical science is among the fields of research quickly moving away from the spiritual mumbo-jumbo of medieval superstition. We are, after all, simply soft machines, doing as nature has programmed us. What more could there be to it?
Looking more closely at the mace, I see on its ornate base, a flanking ring of winged oxen. Perhaps obscure to medical students, the winged ox is the symbol of the putative Gospel writer, Luke. Each of the Gospels emphasizes different aspects of Jesus, and the symbol assigned to Luke has been the ox. If the wings didn’t give it away, the explanatory placard on the wall nearby confirms my analysis. Eyes traveling up the silver shaft, the crown of the mace houses yet another saint, this one an apostle. St Andrew (of course) tops the mace, holding his X-winged cross. Underneath is an amorphous structure for which I need to turn to the placard to have explained. The fountain of healing waters, it tells me.
From tip to tale, then, the mace of medical science is inherently religious. My reading of late has been from scientists claiming that, in the words of the old commercial, “parts is parts.” There is no underlying life-force or animating principle. Life is biological robotics, so I’m told. So as I stood in St Andrews last week, considering this metallic mace, I was poised on the edge of science and symbol. There is no biological need for such symbols—indeed, the mace was originally a weapon to inflict grievous bodily harm. Now, chased with silver, intricately ornate, it begins and ends with religious implications. I can’t help wonder what the robots make of that.