History and Philosophy of Science

“Sir Isaac the Alchemist”

jacket imageIsaac Newton’s influence on modern science is immeasurable. But Newton was also profoundly invested in the study of alchemy, a notorious pseudoscience that has been often dismissed as either a delusion or a scam. However, this view of alchemy has been under revision in recent years, a process driven by the work of scholar William R. Newman, who has led the investigation into the links between alchemy and the scientific revolution.
In a New York Times article exploring Isaac Newton’s interest in and experiences with alchemy, Natalie Angier draws heavily on Newman’s insights into the history of what should be more properly understood as a kind of protochemistry. While the famous quest to turn lead into gold didn’t pan out, Angier notes that the alchemists’ “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.'”
Far from the puzzling pursuit of an otherwise brilliant scientist, alchemy proves to have played an important part in Newton’s legacy as a physicist:

Dr. Newman argues that Sir Isaac’s alchemical investigations helped yield one of his fundamental breakthroughs in physics: his discovery that white light is a mixture of colored rays, and that a sunbeam prismatically fractured into the familiar rainbow suite called Roy G. Biv can with a lens be resolved to tidy white sunbeam once again. “I would go so far as to say that alchemy was crucial to Newton’s breakthroughs in optics,” said Dr. Newman. “He’s not just passing light through a prism—he’s resynthesizing it.” Consider this a case of “technology transfer,” said Dr. Newman, “from chemistry to physics.”

If this look at Newton’s secret passion has your interest in alchemy piqued, be sure to look at all of Newman’s books; you can start with an excerpt from Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature on our site here.