Isaac Newton: Moonlighting as a Conjurer of Chemicals
Natalie Angier - Oct. 11, 2010
Sir Isaac the Alchemist … was no less the fierce and uncompromising scientist than was Sir Isaac, author of the magisterial Principia Mathematica. There were plenty of theoretical and empirical reasons at the time to take the principles of alchemy seriously, to believe that compounds could be broken down into their basic constituents and those constituents then reconfigured into other, more desirable substances.
Miners were pulling up from the ground twisted bundles of copper and silver that were shaped like the stalks of a plant, suggesting that veins of metals and minerals were proliferating underground with almost florid zeal.
Pools found around other mines seemed to have extraordinary properties. Dip an iron bar into the cerulean waters of the vitriol springs of modern-day Slovakia, for example, and the artifact will emerge agleam with copper, as though the dull, dark particles of the original had been elementally reinvented. “It was perfectly reasonable for Isaac Newton to believe in alchemy,” said Dr. Newman. “Most of the experimental scientists of the 17th century did.”
Moreover, while the alchemists of the day may not have mastered the art of transmuting one element into another — an ordeal that we have since learned requires serious equipment like a particle accelerator, or the belly of a star — their work yielded a bounty of valuable spinoffs, including new drugs, brighter paints, stronger soaps and better booze. “Alchemy was synonymous with chemistry,” said Dr. Newman, “and chemistry was much bigger than transmutation.”
Books of interest, by Newman:
- Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe
- Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry
- Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature