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Sir Isaac Newton, Alchemist 330

Posted by samzenpus
from the philosopher's-stone dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Natalie Angier writes in The Hindu that it is now becoming clear that Newton spent thirty years of his life slaving over a furnace in search of the power to transmute one chemical element into another. Angier writes, 'How could the ultimate scientist have been seemingly hornswoggled by a totemic pseudoscience like alchemy, which in its commonest rendering is described as the desire to transform lead into gold?' Now new historical research describes how alchemy yielded a bounty of valuable spinoffs, including new drugs, brighter paints, stronger soaps and better booze. 'Alchemy was synonymous with chemistry,' says Dr. William Newman, 'and chemistry was much bigger than transmutation.' Newman adds that Newton's alchemical investigations helped yield one of his fundamental breakthroughs in physics: his discovery that white light is a mixture of colored rays that can be recombined with a lens. 'I would go so far as to say that alchemy was crucial to Newton's breakthroughs in optics,' says Newman. 'He's not just passing light through a prism — he's resynthesizing it.'"
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Sir Isaac Newton, Alchemist

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  • Re:Science (Score:5, Informative)

    by radicalskeptic (644346) <tritone@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:26PM (#33889244)
    For a fairly entertaining examination of this idea, someone might want to check out out Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle books. I've only gotten through the first (Quicksilver) but it takes place during Newton's lifetime and Newton himself is one of the more major characters, along with Leibnitz and other less famous "natural philosophers."
  • Not news... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:35PM (#33889308)
    PBS did an episode of NOVA on this several years ago [pbs.org].
  • Re: The Alchemists (Score:5, Informative)

    by pmc (40532) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:37PM (#33889318) Homepage

    No they didn't - they started off with the four elements of air, earth, fire and water. Then they realised that there were maybe a score of "elements" (even the concept was vague), and there was no systematic organisation or predictive value from it. This took a few hundred years. Most importantly they did not realise the that properties of the elements repeat themselves (which is where the concept of the periodic part of the name comes from).

    The comment that they created a "fairly accurate periodic chart" is risible.

  • by spads (1095039) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:41PM (#33889352)
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/newton/about.html [pbs.org] He seemed by no means to be the sort of founding fathers-esque square-head, as he is often depicted (eg. portrait in linked article). Not only did it describe his alchemical endeavors, but also that he was seeking physical proofs for things written in the bible. Interesting how true geniuses are frequently true eccentrics.
  • by JoeRobe (207552) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:43PM (#33889366) Homepage

    If I recall, according to his assistant's writings, the night that Newton gave his final edition of The Principia to the messenger to go out for printing, he immediately went back into his lab and fired up his alchemy furnace. Alchemy was one of his passions, and he was sincerely attempting to discover the philosopher's stone, and even an "elixir of life". Sounds silly now, but chemistry was so young at that time, nobody knew its potential. He was also passionate about biblical passages. He thought that one could extract important scientific information from the bible, ancient texts and architecture, allowing him to predict the apocalypse and other "insights". Supposedly he wrote more about this than science (in fact I remember hearing 90% was on the occult, 10% "scientific. No reference for that, though).

    The wikipedia page [wikipedia.org] is actually pretty insightful.

    If you ever have a chance to read even a chapter or two of The Principia, you should. It's an amazingly different perspective on what we now know as "Newtonian Mechanics". Geometry was clearly the tool of scientists as the time...

  • by MaskedSlacker (911878) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:48PM (#33889400)

    It is widely known, but everyone except the /. editors.

  • Re:Science (Score:5, Informative)

    by MichaelSmith (789609) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:53PM (#33889430) Homepage Journal

    Yes, to put it mildly [wikipedia.org]

    The core concept of chiropractic, vertebral subluxation, is not based on sound science. Research has not demonstrated that spinal manipulation, the main treatment method employed by all chiropractors, is effective for any medical condition, with the possible exception of treatment for back pain

  • Re:Science (Score:5, Informative)

    by rgmoore (133276) <glandauer@charter.net> on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:56PM (#33889442) Homepage

    Is there some mystical part to the field being pushed that I am not aware of?

    Yes. Chiropractic was originally a semi-mystical practice like a lot of pre-scientific medicine. The founders claimed that all sickness was caused by misalignment of the joints, so they could cure any disease by correcting the misalignments. A minority of chiropractors today still make those claims. They also oppose a lot of other modern scientific medicine, including vaccination.

  • Re:Science (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:58PM (#33889460)

    Depending on the chiropractic school, a large percentage of chiropractors claim that many non-back ailments are caused by "subluxations" and, rather than simply popping the back into place, will try to sign the patient up for a continuing treatment (usually accompanied by NOT popping the back into place to prevent the patient from cancelling), claiming that the root cause of the back misalignment is an underlying muscle asymmetry which requires recurring office visits.

    The honest/non-cultish ones just pop you into place and send you on your way.

  • Re: The Alchemists (Score:2, Informative)

    by whitesea (1811570) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:59PM (#33889466)
    Mendeleev, who came up with a periodic table (the story goes that he saw it in his sleep) was not an alchemist. He is a bona fide chemist. Besides periodic table, he has two more claims to fame. He invented vodka and he was able to pour liquids from a pail into a test-tube without losing a single drop.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @09:25PM (#33889586)

    here are some references for other perspectives on alchemy

    Masquerade of the dream walkers: prophetic theology from the Cartesians to Hegel
      By Peter A. Redpath
    http://www.rodopi.nl/senj.asp?BookId=VIBS+73
    Chapter 1 talks about Newton and alchemy

    Restoring Paradise: Western Esotericism, Literature, Art, and Consciousness
      By Arthur Versluis
    http://www.sunypress.edu/p-3958-restoring-paradise.aspx
    Alchemy and more

  • Re:Science (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mateorabi (108522) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @09:30PM (#33889610) Homepage
    Yes, and it's actually a major motivator that drives the plot, even if the argument itself only gets a bit of ink. It's the whole reason Waterhouse is called back from the colonies to England.
  • by DesScorp (410532) <DesScorp&Gmail,com> on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @10:15PM (#33889794) Homepage Journal

    More than mathematics or alchemy or anything else, he greatest love was theology. He spend more time writing about religion than any other subject. He was a non-Trinitarian Christian, probably Arian [wikipedia.org] in his theology, a position I'm somewhat sympathetic to. He had to keep this quiet during his life... there were serious consequences in Britain at the time for dissenting from Anglican doctrine... but he wrote effusively on religion and professed his deep love and awe for God and his works. Newton wouldn't be very sympathetic to Stephen Hawking's "no need for a God" reasoning:

    "

    Although the laws of motion and universal gravitation became Newton's best-known discoveries, he warned against using them to view the Universe as a mere machine, as if akin to a great clock. He said, "Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done."

    Modern scientists would largely consider his beliefs an embarrassment, but I admire the man a great deal. He was the very picture of a full life, mentally, physically, and spiritually. He accomplished more and blazed more trails than most of us will ever dream of doing. He was a polymath that did everything from improving the state of telescopes to serving in Parliament.

  • Yellow journalism (Score:4, Informative)

    by Angst Badger (8636) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @10:31PM (#33889872)

    How could the ultimate scientist have been seemingly hornswoggled by a totemic pseudoscience like alchemy [...]

    There's an amazing amount of sensationalism and cluelessness tightly packed in that one clause.

    First of all, Newton was hardly "the ultimate scientist". He was a very good scientist and a brilliant mathematician, but his achievements and fame have a lot to do with being one of the first modern scientists. He wasn't the only early scientist working on the problems of optics or, for that matter, gravity, and Leibniz developed calculus independently around the same time. Had Newton decided to go into alchemy full-time, someone else would have discovered the same things before long. Calling him the ultimate scientist is just pseudo-journalistic puffery.

    And secondly, alchemy wasn't obvious bullshit when Newton was working on it. It's only obviously bullshit now that we have an understanding of real chemistry and -- even more recently -- nuclear physics. More to the point, one of the most important bullshit detectors in the arsenal of science is modern statistics, which rests upon a foundation of calculus, which Newton (along with Leibniz) invented! To stand today on the shoulders of Newton and complain about his lack of perspective pushes the outer limits of irony.

  • Re:Science (Score:3, Informative)

    by AJWM (19027) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @11:54PM (#33890268) Homepage

    If you've read Anathem by Neal Stephenson, you'll find many ideas of science and math that are informed by this tradition.

    Never, ever take a science fiction story or novel (let alone technothriller or any other genre) as the sole source for something technical or historical. Fiction writers make stuff up, and while some of us try to lean toward more technically accurate than not (and Stephenson's usually pretty good at this, although he'll occasionally slip in a howler), we're not above tweaking something for the sake of a good story. Others just make it up wholesale.

  • Re:Science (Score:2, Informative)

    by mcornelius (1007881) on Thursday October 14, 2010 @01:52AM (#33890662)

    In them, test subjects were given real opiate pain meds, and/or placebo opiates, in various combinations. After about a week of getting used to the drugs, then either a chemical which blocks opiate uptake in the brain was administered, or a placebo version of it.

    What, pray tell, is a placebo opiate?

    No one is really sure why, but the real blocker blocked either the real opiates or the placebos from relieving the pain equally well, and the placebo version of the blocker most often didn't work on either, but where it did, it was about equally likely to block real opiates and let the placebo versions still work, or vice versa. Various versions of this experiment have gotten many rather quirky results, but never ones that really make sense by any known theory of how placebos work.

    Actually, no. Pain cannot be measured or quantified on any absolute scale, and clinical trials require (subjective) self-reported approximations of pain, and that leads to non-uniformity of results. (There are many other reasons, but this one of the simplest. Placebo effects are fairly well understood.)

  • Re:Science (Score:3, Informative)

    by tehcyder (746570) on Thursday October 14, 2010 @05:03AM (#33891248) Journal
    Try googling "Simon Singh chiropractor libel", they tried to ruin him by suing for libel when he made some informed criticisms of the chiropractic discipline. Luckily they backed down in the end, making their questionable scientific status even more obvious.
  • Re:Science (Score:3, Informative)

    by tehcyder (746570) on Thursday October 14, 2010 @05:19AM (#33891316) Journal

    Don't forget that there's a strong thread in most forms of Christianity that being a generally good, charitable person who helps do God's work makes you more likely to be accepted into heaven rather than being damned to a rather unpleasant eternity spent in hell. This turns "just asking for charity" into "extracting money with (vague, ill-defined) menaces" in my book.

    The Middle Ages called and want their sterotype back.

    Seriously, I'm not even religious, but that is a pretty inaccurate view of most modern Christianity.

  • Re:Science (Score:3, Informative)

    by PopeRatzo (965947) * on Thursday October 14, 2010 @08:07AM (#33891952) Homepage Journal

    Never, ever take a science fiction story or novel (let alone technothriller or any other genre) as the sole source for something technical or historical.

    But, you'll find that fiction is among the best sources when it comes to ideas and that was what I was talking about.

    In Anathem, Stephenson captures very well the essence of what alchemy does, which is apply scientific principles to human spirituality (and vice versa). He covered some of the same ground in The Baroque Cycle.

    Alchemists realized that science is an occult practice, in that the truth is hidden and has to be coaxed out by the dedicated seeker with contemplation and experiment. They took the same approach with their inner lives as with their outer. As above, so below. If you think about it, it's not a bad approach to life.

    we're not above tweaking something for the sake of a good story

    That is a trait of all human endeavor. We're also not above "tweaking something" for the sake of good science.

  • Re:Science (Score:3, Informative)

    by Johnny5000 (451029) on Thursday October 14, 2010 @11:55AM (#33895400) Homepage Journal

    Don't forget that there's a strong thread in most forms of Christianity that being a generally good, charitable person who helps do God's work makes you more likely to be accepted into heaven rather than being damned to a rather unpleasant eternity spent in hell. This turns "just asking for charity" into "extracting money with (vague, ill-defined) menaces" in my book.

    Disclaimer: I'm an atheist.

    Most forms of Christianity teach that faith in Jesus is the way to salvation, not charitable works.
    However, if you're truly faithful and a follower of Jesus, then you're going to love your fellow humans and want to do good works for them. It just shows that you really got the message about loving your fellow man and whatnot.

    What's the saying, works without faith are empty and that faith without works is dead?

Remember: Silly is a state of Mind, Stupid is a way of Life. -- Dave Butler

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