Isaac Newton and Alchemy – the last of the Magicians

For two centuries after his death in 1727, Isaac Newton was hailed as the supreme scientist, a Monarch of the Age of Reason and the initiator of the scientific and the industrial revolutions, of modernity itself. On one popular list of the hundred most influential people in history, Newton placed No. 2, behind Mohammed but ahead of Jesus Christ. But In 1936 an interesting lot came on the block at Sotheby’s in London containing a cache of writings by Newton — journals and personal notebooks deemed to be “of no scientific value.” The winning bidder was the economist John Maynard Keynes. After perusing his purchase, Keynes delivered a somewhat shocking lecture to the Royal Society Club in 1942, on the tercentenary of Newton’s birth. “Newton was not the first of the age of reason,” Keynes announced. “He was the last of the magicians.”

This was meant quite literally, as was a statement expressed by the poet Wordsworth that Newton had a mind “forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.” For the “secret writings” made it clear that during the crucial part of Newton’s scientific career — the two decades between his discovery of the law of gravity and the publication of his masterwork, the “Principia Mathematica” — his consuming passion was alchemy. Bunkered in his solitary live-in lab at the edge of the fens near Cambridge, Newton indulged in occult literature and strove to cook up the legendary “philosopher’s stone” that would convert base metals into gold.

  • “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” — Isaac Newton

And a penchant for the occult was not Newton’s only quirk. He is reported to have laughed just once in his life-when someone asked him what use he saw in Euclid. He took to decorating his rooms in crimson. He stuck a knife behind his eyeball to induce optical effects, nearly blinding himself. He was a Catholic-hating Puritan who secretly subscribed to the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. Newton was also given to endless feuding. He seems to have had only two romantic attachments, both with younger males, and suffered a paranoic breakdown after the second came to rupture.

The key to Newton’s theory of gravity was the idea that one body could attract another across empty space. To Newton’s great contemporaries, Descartes and Leibniz, this notion was medieval and magical; they subscribed exclusively to “mechanical” explanations, in which bodies influenced one another only by a direct series of pushes and pulls.

Grand as it was, Newton’s “Principia” left a few loose ends in the celestial scheme. These loose ends though were soon knit together by the so-called Newton of France, Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827). In fact, it took Laplace five thick volumes of “Celestial Mechanics” to show that the mutual gravitational tugging among the planets would not cause the solar system to crack up, as Newton feared. When he gave a couple of these volumes to his friend Napoleon shortly before the latter’s coup d’etat, the future emperor promised to read them “in the first six months I have free.”

Historian of science Bill Newman says that Isaac Newton’s alchemical notebooks are like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. But as you’ll see as you peruse the 300-year-old manuscript bellow, this puzzle is no child’s play—more like an enigma wrapped in a mystery riddled with a number of misleading clues. With Bill Newman’s help, we’ve “decoded” a page from one of these manuscripts. To orient yourself to the bewildering world of 17th-century alchemy, is recommended to read the interview with Bill Newman which is bellow the manuscript.

Interactive Newton’s manuscript:



Magic or Mainstream Science?
An interview on Newton’s alchemy with historian Bill Newman

NOVA: Why are people surprised when they hear that Isaac Newton—the grand patriarch of physics—was an alchemist?

NEWMAN: Well, I think it’s because alchemy has been portrayed as the epitome of irrationality and a sort of avaricious folly.

NOVA: Sinister, dark-robed sorcerers trying to turn lead into gold. Is that an accurate picture of alchemists in Newton’s time?

NEWMAN: It’s accurate for some alchemists. But we now know that most of the great minds of the period were involved in alchemy, including Robert Boyle, John Locke, Leibniz, any number of others.

NOVA: Given that so many great minds were interested in it, why was alchemy illegal?

NEWMAN: Well, first of all, it became legal during Newton’s time. But why was it illegal? There’s a long association, for good reasons, between alchemy and counterfeiting. It’s quite likely, actually, that medieval and early modern rulers were consciously employing alchemists to debase their own coinage.

NOVA: But they didn’t want other people doing it?

NEWMAN: [laughter] Yeah, right; exactly, exactly.

“He really thought that alchemy provided a sort of limitless power over nature.”

NOVA: So what were these “legitimate” alchemists in the 17th century trying to do?

NEWMAN: Alchemy really encompassed all chemical technology—everything ranging from the manufacture of pigments for paint to making artificial precious stones. It included the manufacture of so-called “chemical medicines.” And, of course, it also included the attempt to make the “philosophers’ stone.”

NOVA: Tell me about the philosophers’ stone. I think of it vaguely as some magical substance that could turn ordinary metals into gold.

NEWMAN: The philosophers’ stone was thought to be an agent of universal transmutation. It also was viewed as a curative agent that could “cure” metals of their impurities and cure human beings of their illnesses. So it was a sort of universal panacea.

Continue reading:

Bellow you can have a look at Newman’s speech and/or enjoy the movie about Isaac Newton as Dark Heretic:


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