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World Famous Pioneer in Science Burned Midnight Oil as Alchemist

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 14, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sir Isaac Newton, long regarded as one of the most influential individuals in history, who formulated the universal laws of motion and gravity, discovered the spectral properties of light and invented calculus, was also a dedicated alchemist.

In a New York Times story "Moonlighting as a Conjurer in Chemistry," Natlie Angier outlines surprising details of Newton's life and work. HisPrincipia Mathematica, first published in 1687, which presented a new world view and laid the foundation for classical mechanics, is widely viewed as the most important book of the Scientific Revolution. But Angier points out that in Newton's time-his life spanned 85 years from 1642 to 1727-most scientists believed in alchemy. That may sound like Medieval madness from today's perspective, but alchemy was serious business in the seventeenth century. Miners had found root-like veins of metal ore in the ground, suggesting to Newton and his peers that metal could be grown like a plant if one only knew how. If inanimate substances could change and grow, it wasn't a stretch to think there must be some way base metals could be transmuted into precious metals, and that an elixir of life awaited discovery.

William Newman is a professor of the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University who has studied Newton's extensive writings on alchemy, which historians have only recently began to explore. Angier quotes him as saying Newton's work in alchemy-then synonymous with chemistry-paved the way for his discovery that light is a mixture of colored rays, and that the visual rainbow can be passed through a lens and turned back into white light. Newman calls it a "technology transfer from chemistry to physics." Newton divided a color wheel into seven colors, and that system is alive today through the mnemonic Roy G. Biv.

James Gleick, in his biography Isaac Newtondescribes a genius with a passion for the arcane. He studied theology intensely and explored mysticism. He had a difficult personality with contradictory traits. He was combative, a prolific writer, and at the same time secretive. A review of the biography quotes Gleick as noting that Newton combined humility-as exemplified by his famous remark "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants" with "self righteous hatred" of anyone who criticized him. He never married, and by many accounts, was not a nice guy. When he became London's Master of the Mint, it was a capital offense to scrape precious metal off coins, and Newton sentenced people to death for doing it. Read Angier's story here. For more analysis of Newton's scientific achievements and beliefs read a lecture by University of Virginia Physics Professor Michael Fowler here.

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