What's up with Enoch Root? Part III: The System of the World

Well now, the Baroque Cycle is finished, and we know for sure that something very strange is going on with Enoch Root, but we still don't know what. Not a lot was revealed in the last volume, because Enoch Root stayed off-stage the entire novel, appearing only in letters. Herewith are some thoughts and questions, hypotheses and wild guesses, based on the complete Baroque Cycle.

Closed Questions

Still open questions

What follows are a few brief thoughts on these questions. Massive spoilers included. Please don't read unless you've finished Cryptonomicon and all three volumes of the Baroque Cycle, or you will regret it.

Societas Eruditorum

It now seems likely that the Societas Eruditorum (Society of the Learned) is not any formal group like the Royal Society or a secret society like the Freemasons. Rather it is simply a way of referring to savants who have gained their knowledge by stidy and research rather than divine revelation. A member of the Societas Eruditorum is an ordinary genius. A member of the Society of the Wise is an extraordinary genius. Possibly, members of the the Society of the Wise are angels or some other sort of supernatural beings, but Simon Kohan's willingness to consider that Isaac Newton might be a member of the Society of the Wise suggests otherwise, as Newton is almost certainly human, even if he does come back from the dead once. (Daniel also comes back from the dead in QuickSilver, a fact which is not revealed until about halfway through the System of the World, (pp. 472-473, p. 687); but Solomon explicitly classifies him as a member of the Societas Eruditorum, p. 608.)

How to reconcile this with Enoch's surprise when Rudi von Hackelheber brings up the Societas Eruditorum in Cryptonomicon? I suspect it's just that Rudy is using a term that would only be current among members of the Society of the Wise, and thereby reveals to Root that he knows about things he isn't supposed to know about.

Exactly what or who is Enoch Root?

Several people seem to think the Bible passage read to Jack on his hanging day means something. For instance, Jason Palmer writes:

In The System of the World, on pages 834-835, Jack Shaftoe asks the Ordinary to repeat the section of the Old Testament that refers to Enoch the son of Cain, and Enoch the father of Methuselah. Jack also asks the Ordinary to explain what was meant by the phrase "Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.". Surely Stephenson is telling us that these Enochs and Enoch the Red (Root) are all the same. Maybe.

I agree the Bible passage means something, but nothing that deep. I think it's just Eliza's (or Louis's or Enoch's, or all three's) way of sending a message to Jack that he will be rescued from death. Unlike a lot of other deaths and resurrections in this series, there's nothing especially miraculous about Jack's. He's simply saved at the last minute as befits his picaresque, swashbuckling, bad-boy character.

Josh Lake writes in:

I just finished reading Quicksilver for the second time, and I am now convinced that he is indeed a time traveler -- not just unstuck, but purposeful, perhaps even on a mission. I noted that he shows up when the main characters' lives are in the balance or at a crossroads. It was his drug that saved Eliza's life and her child's while in labor. He is also responsible for the successful removal of Daniel's stone, albeit indirectly. He his there at Goto Dengo's pivotal moment in Crypto, and he clearly made things happen for Bobby several times.

Although we don't know the end of the story (hopefully given in another 3 books set in the future, after Crypto), we can see the development of money throughout -- coinage under Newton, digitization through the data haven in Crypto, the path of the Solomonic Gold.

Perhaps Stephenson is laying the groundwork for his forward-thinking *next* phase of money, and with it power, politics, and intrigue. Perhaps Root is sent from the future by Societas Eruditorum to 'shepherd' (as commented on on the metaweb entry) the people (and hence their lineages) necessary to bring this change about.

And it IS hard to ignore the blatant reference to time travel in the Dramatis Personae at the end of Quicksilver, as well as Root's absence on the list.

What's up with the Gold?

This is the biggest question opened by the Baroque Cycle. In The Confusion it was possible to assume that all the alchemists were just crazy, fooled by bad instruments, hope, and outright lies. I don't think that point of view is feasible any longer after reading The System of the World. Too many different people have measured the gold too carefully. It really is heavy gold. And if that weren't enough, there's the scene where it's used to resurrect Isaac Newton from the dead. (I warned you there'd be spoilers.)

It's possible it's just a magic plot device that qualifies these books as science fiction, much like the cigar box in Cryptonomicon. Hard science fiction works within the limits of physical law. Soft SF is allowed one change to the laws of physics, very often warp drive or some form of faster than light travel. Bad science fiction changes anything it needs to change. This could be soft SF, but it's more entertaining to explore the real possibilities.

The first thought that occurred to me is that the gold could be some isotope, different from regular gold. However, a little googling revealed that there are about 50 known isotopes of gold, with atomic masses ranging from 171 to 205; but all of them except one are unstable and radioactive. Of these the one with the longest half life, 195, has a half life of about 180 days. Given that the gold is moved around over a period of 20 years in the Confusion and the System of the World, there's just no way this could still be recognizable as pure gold by the time of the trial of the Pyx, and it certainly wouldn't survive into modern times.

Is it remotely possible there is an as yet undiscovered stable isotope of gold that does not occur naturally in nature? Is there a nuclear physicist in the house?

Mike Lorrey writes in:

Regarding isotopes of gold, just because an isotope isn't stable isn't any reason to dismiss the idea. One must ask what isotopes decay into via what decay series. Note also that at the time of the Baroque cycle, science thought that gold was the heaviest element. They had no way to extract heavier elements from gold, if they were present.

The periodic table, however, shows that both Mercury and Lead are heavier than gold in atomic weight, which is likely a problem with NS's writing. Bismuth as well was known to the ancients and is heavier by atomic weight.

Also, your referenced list says not only is AU atomic weight 197 stable, which is heavier than the one you reference as lasting for 186 days. Solomonic gold is slightly less than 4% heavier than 197, which would be just under 205. Thallium is 204.4 (though 30% is 202.9, 70% is 204.9)

He also suggests that "The use of solomonic gold to treat Isaac Newton and Daniel Waterhouse may also have been an early use of radiation treatment for either cancer or infection." I don't believe that, though. These people were dead, not merely diseased.

Bernhard Rupp suggests:

There is remote possibility: once you pass the remote actinides (which so far are all unstable) you reach again an island of stability entering the hitherto partly unsynthesized VI-b metals. So 111 roentgenium, under Gold, or an even more remote neighbor could have been obtained (rather erudite) in a stable isotope form, which is not yet (re?-) discovered but was in tiny amounts in Solomon's gold. Of course, due to its presumably extremely high density, small amounts beyond 18th century chemical detection could have been enough to make Solomon's Gold heavy..

Still, soft fiction...

Sean Terrill comments

As regards nuclear physics, the odds of finding a stable isotope drop off dramatically the further you get from the so-called "line of stability", which is actually an arc. Looking at the chart of the nuclides graphically makes this pretty clear; see: http://atom.kaeri.re.kr/cgi-bin/tonmap9?1609,3 Additionally, nuclear stability is a pretty well-understood (I should say well-modeled!) phenomenon and it's highly unlikely that another stable isotope could exist.

At any rate, my personal conclusion is that Enoch is simply a man, possibly even a contemporary of Solomon himself, who discovered the secret of Solomon's Gold and/or the Philosophic Mercury and ingests it from time to time in order to effectively live forever, and, as we see in the Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon, uses his gift to nudge people in the right direction at crucial points in history - or, somewhat less nobly, to preserve the lives of his friends (Daniel Waterhouse, America Shaftoe, etc.) This is within the realm of science, even if it is far-fetched, and makes more sense to me than any hypothesis suggesting that Enoch is not human.

Bill Fahle writes:

Hi. I’ve just re-read Cryptonomicon after finishing Baroque Cycle and I happened across your page. My thoughts about the “heavy” gold is that it is not really heavy, the assayers just think it is heavy because when the “base metals” are burned off, it still comes out weighing as much as it would if it had started out pure gold, a state they know to be impossible (there is always some impurity). Gold is the heaviest element they are aware of at the time, so no base metal can weigh more; but faced with this contradiction they assume the gold is heavier than 24k gold.

My theory is that this Solomonic Gold has the philosophic mercury in it (an ingredient of the life-elixir or whatever that Hooke, Waterhouse, and Root mix up). As such, this gold transmutes the base metals that were mixed with the Solomonic Gold into gold, which is another property that philosophic mercury is meant to have; indeed it is one of the key goals of an alchemist to transmute base metals into gold; thus the end product weighs what pure gold should, even with the base metals “burned off”. Instead of burning off, they were transmuted. Reread the passage of the assay (trial of the pyx) for further reinforcement of this idea.

Something that bothers me about this idea, though, is that the money scrivener bites the coin for solidity, even after measuring size and weight. The explanation of this test implies that the gold does in fact weigh more to make up for the lower weight of the liquid in the center of the coin.

Andrew Thompson writes:

I did the same search as you on gold isotopes, but it just "feels wrong" as an explanation for the heavy gold. However, pedantically, a half life of 180 days simply means the gold tends to decay to half of it's previous level of radioactivity every 180 days. So in 20 years it would only have halved 40 times, which would likely still be detectable. Depends what it decays *into* also, which is likely some other isotope.

Still, on a multi-thousand year time scale, such as the time since Solomon was around, it just doesn't fit. And isn't Gold-195 lighter than regular Gold-197 anyway?

More interestingly, my take on the Trial of the Pyx is that the gold actually performs both of the miracles attributed to the philosophic mercury:

Specifically, the goldsmiths find pure 24 carat gold when they are expecting 22 carat. We could at a stretch assume Isaac was minting 24 carat guineas instead of the 22 carat alloy he was allowed to use, but we know the Pyx was adulterated with fake coins by Jack.

Thus the heavy gold must have transmuted the base metal in the coins, plus potentially some of the lead surrounding it, to make perfect 24 carat gold. Clearly that's no isotope!

Solomon Kohan

Several people commented that Enoch does not appear to be the only immortal running around. Is Solomon the biblical King? My suspicion is not, though perhaps he takes his name from the Bible for the same reason Enoch does.

Left Field

A few random notes that I think are totally out to sea, but who knows.

Matthew Haag

It should be mentioned that the the contents of the Cigar Box, and the heavy gold are most certainly the same element. Considering Shaftoe's Description of the box's content Enoch in his times on the Solomons must have panning for gold.

Also regarding Rudy's Mention of the "Societas Eruditorum" I believe Root was more surprised that He would refer to it so openly. Considering the "odd" family connections between Root and Rudy, and what i would assume as a conspiracy between them to ensure the removal of the heavy gold from german hands, (nearly an indiana jones type story knowing what we as the reader know) It would not seem that surprising that Rudy is knowledgeable of the Societas Eruditorum, but rather that he would mention it.

Toby Weston

Here are my thoughts on Enoch and therefore, in my opinion, the entire Baroque Cycle -> Cryptonomicon -> XX body of work.

1st up: Bee cufflinks. I seem to remember in the holy blood and the Holy Grail (or maybe Focults Pendulum, the 2 books although one is fiction and the other purportedly not, form a single set in my brain) that Charlamange was coronated in a robe with hundreds of golden bees sewn into it. These bees seem to have some occult significance.


- I remember reading an interview where NS is asked about his thoughts on the Vinge Singularity (http://www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~phoenix/vinge/vinge-sing.html), he replies something like "The Singularity smacks too much of the Revelation of St. John."

- A recurrent theme of NS's books is the concept of deities and their relationship to mankind. At times he asserts that they are metaphysic archetypes manifested from our cultural subconscious (Snow Crash).

- Enoch is immortal or at least is in possession of technology/magic able to renew life with no reported side affects. (I think this has been established on your "What's Up With Enoch Root" page.)

- Andrew Lobe talks a lot about hive minds... lets assume this is going somewhere.

- Leibnitz wants to build a thinking machine... his final showdown with Newton will come when Newton, or Newton's legacy faces the running program on those cards, or the descendant of that program.

- The Baroque Cycle has the word cycle in it.

- NS has tried, very successfully in my opinion, to write a biography of technology. We now have the childhood and adolescence (maybe adult hood too). We are missing senescence. But try and look a few decades or more into the future, which is where NS seems to have implied the next chapter will take place and you get quite close to something that looks like the singularity. Hive Minds, Strong AI etc.

Implications: My Take.

Root is an avatar of the omega point of human enlightenment. This is probably a Gestalt consciousness of post human entities but may be an AI. This entity is "full on" - "indistinguishable from magic" and the phrase "cycle" implies that it has a hand in its own creation.

Interesting Links

Comments to elharo@metalab.unc.edu are appreciated. If you'd like your thoughts to be added here, please make sure your e-mail states that it's OK for me to post it. Please note that I tend to work on this page in bursts, every few months to a year, so it may be a while before I add your comments. Thanks!

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Last Modified October 23, 2006
Copyright 2004, 2006 Elliotte Rusty Harold