Natalie Angier has written an excellent introduction to the work of Sir Isaac Newton in the tradition of alchemy, which is generally downplayed in the history books but was a major part of Newton’s research, for the New York Times:
…Sir Isaac had a whole other full-time career, a parallel intellectual passion that he kept largely hidden from view but that rivaled and sometimes surpassed in intensity his devotion to celestial mechanics. Newton was a serious alchemist, who spent night upon dawn for three decades of his life slaving over a stygian furnace in search of the power to transmute one chemical element into another.
Newton’s interest in alchemy has long been known in broad outline, but the scope and details of that moonlighting enterprise are only now becoming clear, as science historians gradually analyze and publish Newton’s extensive writings on alchemy — a million-plus words from the Newtonian archives that had previously been largely ignored.
Speaking last week at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, William Newman, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University in Bloomington, described his studies of Newton’s alchemical oeuvre, and offered insight into the central mystery that often baffles contemporary Newton fans. How could the man who vies in surveys with Albert Einstein for the title of “greatest physicist ever,” the man whom James Gleick has aptly designated “chief architect of the modern world,” have been so swept up in what looks to modern eyes like a medieval delusion? How could the ultimate scientist have been seemingly hornswoggled by a totemic psuedoscience like alchemy, which in its commonest rendering is described as the desire to transform lead into gold? Was Newton mad — perhaps made mad by exposure to mercury, as some have proposed? Was he greedy, or gullible, or stubbornly blind to the truth?
In Dr. Newman’s view, none of the above. Sir Isaac the Alchemist, he said, 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…
[continues in the New York Times]