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Sir Isaac Newton, Alchemist 330

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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  • Science (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:19PM (#33889180) Journal

    Even in Newton's time, science hadn't really fully evolved. Certainly the methodological underpinnings were well on the way, but it was really another 50-100 years after Newton that we saw science blossom. Guys like Galileo and Newton stand on the threshold, and Newton took some big steps in the right direction, but there was still a lot of mumbo-jumbo out there, some of which persisted in some sciences into the late Victorian era (take Victorian racial "theory", for instance).

  • The Alchemists (Score:2, Interesting)

    by b4upoo ( 166390 ) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:19PM (#33889186)

    Most people are unaware that the alchemists created a fairly accurate periodic chart of the elements before the science of chemistry took over. Obviously they did not know about the more exotic nuclear elements which are still being discovered from time to time.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:24PM (#33889228)

    This has literally been known .. well, since Newton. Hardly a secret he spent more time on alchemy than on what's subsequently been regarded as real science.
    Many 'scientists' before science-as-we-know it dabbled in pseudoscience and nonsense, e.g. Kepler did astrology as well as astronomy.

    Newton heralded the modern age of science, but he _wasn't_ the first scientist in the modern sense, he was 'the last magician', as James Gleick put it.

  • His Alchemist Title (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Monkey_Genius ( 669908 ) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:28PM (#33889258)
    Falling Apple Alchemist.
  • Re:Science (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @08:29PM (#33889268) Journal

    The chief difference is that we have developed ways of at least separating legitimate areas of research from quackery. Homeopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists and the whole long litany of frauds and whackos certainly can gain some traction with the general public, but you won't exactly find them publishing in peer-reviewed journals. And even when you get the odd crackpot like Andrew Wakefield (well, more than likely he's a con-artist, but you get the point) who does manage to get past the gates, it doesn't last forever. In the case of the MMR-autism scam, the fault seems to have been in having the balls to just come out and declare the whole thing a fraud, but maybe in Britain, with its nutty libel laws, the Lancet had to be a bit more careful.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @09:00PM (#33889470)
    Uh oh! One of the keystones of modern science was also a bible thumper? That must set some Slashdorks on edge!
  • Re: The Alchemists (Score:5, Interesting)

    by je ne sais quoi ( 987177 ) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @09:05PM (#33889496)
    I think this is still off. My impression is that they considered that different elements and different substances like air, earth, fire, water, gold, lead, etc. were all composed of differing amounts of a single substance. This is what's known as the "ether []", i.e. some sort of form of matter that everything existed in and moved through. The odd thing about it is that Lorentz and Abraham in the 1890s were trying to come up with a theory of the electron in part to discover why efforts to detect the Earth's movement through this ether failed (reference []). It wasn't until Einstein & Co. came up with the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics was discovered that the nature of atomic elements really begun to be understood.

    The point is that while the alchemists' conception of the element was not very good, a truly better concept didn't really arise until the 20th century. Nobody seriously challenges quantum mechanics now, but it's easy to forget just how recent this understanding was really arrived at.
  • by fractoid ( 1076465 ) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @09:07PM (#33889508) Homepage
    Exactly. And most importantly, science is about testing your assumptions in order to verify them. If Newton made a systematic, scientific study of alchemy, then he was practicing science, not "a totemic pseudoscience". He may not have managed to turn lead into gold but I'd bet he learned a lot.
  • by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) * on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @09:14PM (#33889532) Journal
    He was an odd character that crammed a lot into his life, some were great scientific/mathematical achivements, some were great social achievments (gold standard) and some were just batshit crazy by our current standards. For example; he wrote almost a million words on the numerology of 666, stuck pins in his eyes to investigate the nature of light, claimed jesus was sent to earth to "operate the levers of gravity", and sucked down mecury fumes from the alchemist's bowl. But by shear volume his most prolific work was not as a scientist or alchemist but as a theologan.

    I found it kinda sad when I went to see his grave at Wesminster Abbey, I asked one of the attendents where Newton's grave was and he said "Ahhh, a Davinci code fan, eh?", I replied a little indignantly - "No, I'm a Newton fan".
  • Re:Science (Score:2, Interesting)

    by drawlight ( 1494543 ) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @09:39PM (#33889646)
    A while back (June 5 2009) Tom Levenson was talking about his book, "Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist," on Science Friday []. A caller asked the Levenson about Stephenson's work. Levenson said that the Newton's voice was so plausible that he had stopped reading them until he had finished his own book.

    Also, don't give up reading the trilogy! It gets better and a lot of the pieces don't come together until the final book.
  • by excelsior_gr ( 969383 ) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @10:02PM (#33889740)

    Geometry was clearly the tool of scientists as the time...

    You nailed it just there... Even relatively modern works, such as those of Gibbs on thermodynamics, much derivation and calculation is based on geometry.

  • by Angst Badger ( 8636 ) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @10:20PM (#33889824)

    Alchemy has little to do with chemistry. It's about the purification of the soul through repeated heatings and coolings, and as Newton was learning Hebrew, I'd guess he'd probably figured out some of the fundamentals in play re Gnostic Christianity and similar. "Lead into Gold" is a metaphor, as was much else about alchemy.

    That is indeed one branch of traditional alchemy, but a lot of alchemists were very serious about transmuting literal lead into literal gold. Once you get used to the jargon, it's fairly easy to separate the texts of one branch from those of the other. (There's a third strand in alchemical writings: lofty-sounding gobbledygook cranked out and sold to turn an easy profit, much like the get-rich-quick TV infomercials and spam of the present day. Theophrastus Paracelsus was one of those, complete with miracle cures for all that ails you and an extra helping of the-Lord-works-in-mysterious-ways if it didn't work.) It's worth noting that the less-than-noble physical alchemists, denounced as "puffers" by the spiritual alchemists, were the ones that stumbled their way into the beginnings of modern chemistry.

    As for the Gnostics, they were largely unknown in Newton's time, having been completely suppressed more than a thousand years before his time. The rediscovery of the Gnostics by the lay public came later. In any case, Hebrew would not have helped Newton understand the Gnostics: all their writings were in Greek, just like the rest of early Christian writings before the rise of the church in Rome. Newton may have been influenced by Christianized versions of the Kabbalah that were much admired by alchemists and other occultists in the early modern period, but that's just speculation, as documentary evidence is lacking.

  • Re:Science (Score:5, Interesting)

    by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) * on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @10:31PM (#33889876) Journal

    It is obvious now after hundreds of years of rigorous theory and testing. In Newton's time, it wasn't clear whether some new, unknown chemical would turn lead into gold.

    Alchemy was only partially about the transmutation of actual metals. When it talks about turning "lead" into "gold" it is usually talking about a spiritual refinement, a transformation of the base animal aspects of humanity (lead) to a higher, more platonically pure state (gold). If you've read Anathem by Neal Stephenson, you'll find many ideas of science and math that are informed by this tradition. The notion that alchemy was about making gold misses the entire point. The transmutation of metals was as much about misdirecting the Grand Inquisitors as it was about making gold.

    For a very interesting discussion of alchemy, I highly recommend the book Stairway to Heaven: Chinese Alchemists, Jewish Kabbalists, and the Art of Spiritual Transformation by the great historian Peter Levenda. It's also worth reading Manly P. Hall's The Secret Teachings of All Ages as an entertaining overview to the philosophical aspects of alchemy.

  • by shawb ( 16347 ) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @10:41PM (#33889924)
    I have heard a tale from times long ago, about an alchemist and the philosopher's stone.

    This alchemist, he sought the truth, with an inkling that experiment would lead to proof. To get support from nobles and kings the alchemist spoke of untrue things. "I seek a way to form base lead into gold and an elixer that will keep you from every growing old." Popes and priests said truth comes from the bible, that silly games played in labs are just not reliable. The alchemist just smiled and gave them a nod, and told them that gold represents heaven and God. Upon hearing this the alchemist was found without guilt, for churches look so much better when covered with gilt.

    What of the claims that life could be extended? And that the infirm would swiftly be mended? What of the claims of untold power? And of wealth unknown to all at that early hour? The philosopher's stone became much like an orange, for difficult to rhyme is the scientific method.
  • Covered before... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by NotQuiteReal ( 608241 ) on Wednesday October 13, 2010 @11:05PM (#33890032) Journal
    I am sure Neal Stephenson did all the same research.

    Only he presented his findings in a far more entertaining way via The Baroque Cycle books.
  • Re:Science (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Artifakt ( 700173 ) on Thursday October 14, 2010 @12:02AM (#33890294)

    The Placebo effect doesn't work the way most doctors think it does. It's an area where modern medicine is toting around a strange idea, as odd in its own way as bleeding to release humors was back 300 years ago, just not as dangerous to retain.
    I say this because there were some research studies on the Placebo effect that make no sense at all if it works like most people think it does. 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. 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.

  • Re:Science (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Artifakt ( 700173 ) on Thursday October 14, 2010 @12:36AM (#33890398)

    That's easy, Galileo first submitted his papers to a non-peer reviewed journal (The only 'peer' review available at the time being within the Roman Catholic church, which was going through a stuffy phase at the time). Galileo self published in the popular press ahead of such review (A definite no-no for a working scientist). Darwin went through a (admittedly a bit rudimentary by modern standards) peer-review process (that correspondence with Wallace and others).
            I'm only half being tongue in cheek with this. Darwin used parts of the scientific method that were simply unknown in Galileo's time. For example, Darwin described a number of ways to falsify his theory, one of them being: "It being admitted that, if it were ever shown that the mechanisms of heredity allow unlimited blending, the entire proposal would become of no account". Darwin was more fully a scientist simply in the sense that he thought more about identifying what alternate explanations he considered and their implications, and how to test them. His work sustained more modern science (Crick and Watson's Noble for the discovery of the DNA coding mechanism was awarded in part because they had demonstrated that the genetic code the way it was implemented in real organisms didn't allow unlimited blending and so their research led inexorably to testing a never fully verified consequence of the theory of natural selection. Showing that a specific code that didn't support blending was the one nature actually used finished the process of putting Natural Selection on a solid footing that Mendel only started.). I'm not sure if there are any predictions made by Galileo that were unverifiable at the time but eventually proved to be more and more testable, so that generations of other scientists kept coming back to them, but I can't think of any.

  • Re:Science (Score:3, Interesting)

    by fusiongyro ( 55524 ) <faxfreemosquito AT yahoo DOT com> on Thursday October 14, 2010 @12:56AM (#33890474) Homepage

    The chiropractor in the small town I live in used to have pamphlets around the office explaining how depression, the flu, and acne are caused by spinal misalignment. I'm guessing they aren't printed just for him.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 14, 2010 @01:43AM (#33890636)

    Looking for meaning in astrology is similar to looking for meaning in mathematics. Maths is only useful insofar as we can construct a concrete model for an axiomatic system.

    This is not useless. Let me explain. We could describe a mathematics about almost anything. Suppose we describe one based on the interactions between tables, chairs, and beer mugs. We could postulate certain attributes, or "axioms," of these "undefined terms." These "axioms" interact to "prove" "theorems." None of this exists in reality, though.

    Or we could postulate the existence of certain "planets" and "houses" in the sky. These "planets" each have rules, or "axioms" which describe how they interact with "houses" based on their position in the sky. These rules interact to give insight into themselves.

    Astrology is a primitive form of axiomatics. It has some small predictive power if we don't look too closely, and it's easy to find counterexamples to all of its axioms. But, like axiomatics, what we see in the contradictions is as meaningful as what we see in the confirmations. Both reveal the world to us through what they are not. Sure, it's not as rigidly codified, nor even remotely scientific, but it forms a backdrop of order against which we can evaluate the chaos in our lives.

  • Re:Science (Score:4, Interesting)

    by pjt33 ( 739471 ) on Thursday October 14, 2010 @02:25AM (#33890780)

    Newton was Master of the Mint for a quarter of a century.

  • Re:Science (Score:2, Interesting)

    by julesh ( 229690 ) on Thursday October 14, 2010 @04:03AM (#33891038)

    Most churches don't claim that giving money to them will bring you health or good fortune. They are asking for money for running costs and charity without any promise of a return

    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.

  • Re:Science (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 14, 2010 @04:49AM (#33891192)

    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.

    Absolutely. There are people who can teach you to do this today if you can find them...

    There were 2 forms of alchemy - internal and external. The internal alchemists learnt how to transmute energies within their bodies to produce the elixir. However, the practices were couched in language that to the uninitiated would make it seem like they were creating physical substances, transmuting the physical element of lead into gold. So the external alchemists thought that they had to make a physical substance. As it happens this seems to have sparked off modern chemistry.

    But the important point is not to blindly believe, but to seek for oneself. I speak from experience.

Help! I'm trapped in a PDP 11/70!