Episode 10: The Newton You Didn't Know

Newton with Initial Conditions artwork

Apart from his publications on gravity and optics, Newton was also a biblical scholar, religious mystic, and alchemist. In fact, a great deal of his work focuses on subjects that modern audiences might not consider to be scientific. You might be surprised to know how important the study of alchemy was to Newton. More than a pet interest, alchemy was an important part of Newton’s attempt to understand the nature of the divine. This episode uses the story of Newton’s alchemy to ask basic questions about the Scientific Revolution and the history of science in the seventeenth century. How scientific was the Scientific Revolution? If Newton was motivated by religious inclinations can we still call him a scientist? How does knowledge about the beginning of the Scientific Revolution shape how we understand the practice of science today?

Blog Post: Ex LIbris Universum

Speakers: Justin Shapiro, Maura Shapiro, Allison Rein, David Scott

Initial Conditions Episode 10 – The Newton You Didn’t Know     

Date: 9-13-22

ALLISON: We are on the fourth floor of the library. We're going to the rare books cages, which is just a fancy way of saying our locked-up rare books. They do look like they're in prison, but they're not in trouble. This is where the original Newtons are.

MAURA: Oh, I love Fig Newtons. Oh wait, do you mean songs by Olivia Newton-John?

JUSTIN: Or Edwin Tolley Newton, the British paleontologist who did some amazing studies of cockroach brains.

MAURA: Or my close personal friend, Eunice Newton Foote, who invented climate change.

JUSTIN: Allison, which Newton?

ALLISON: Yeah, Isaac Newton. Yes, Isaac Newton, the sort of godfather of physics and modern physics, even though he was not modern. I don't know that much about Newton. So, not a physicist, not a historian.

MAURA: Allison, admit it. You're much more than that.

ALLISON: Hey, I thought we agreed not to tell anyone that I'm just three raccoons in a trench coat pretending to be a librarian. Oh, wait. You meant, like, for this podcast, right? Right. OK. I'm Allison Ryan, your tour guide through the Niels Bohr Library and Archives, with two people who know a lot about physics and history.

MAURA: I'm Maura Shapiro.

JUSTIN: And I'm Justin Shapiro.

ALLISON: You all aren't related at all? Like, not even third cousins? Have you looked at a family tree recently?


JUSTIN: Every physics problem begins with a set of initial conditions that provide the context for physics to happen.

MAURA: Likewise, in Initial Conditions, we'll provide the context in which physics discoveries happen. We'll dive into the history behind the science of people, places and events that have been overlooked and largely forgotten. And today we're going to talk about the side of Sir Isaac Newton that most people don't hear much about.

ALLISON: We have the good fortune to be holding these really beautiful books written by Newton hundreds of years ago, here in the library, and it's amazing to be able to connect with history and Newton's work in this way. So, Justin, what's the deal with Newton?

JUSTIN: I think a lot of people like to think of Newton as the first modern scientist, right? I mean, that's sort of how you learn about him and the work that he did. But John Maynard Keynes, the economist of the early 20th century, referred to him, I'm going to paraphrase here, not as the first modern scientist, but perhaps the last magician. There's a lot about Newton that you may not know. But what's the oldest Newton that you have, Allison?

ALLISON: I don't know. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking 1720s, 1740s. My eye is right now drawn by one that I see is bound in vellum. I'm a sucker for a nice vellum binding.

JUSTIN: What is vellum?

ALLISON: Vellum is just a different way of treating animal skin. It looks more skin-like than leather. This is Optis. That's from 1743, so it's his optics and it's in Latin.

MAURA: It's also a pretty big deal that it has the red ink as well as the black.

ALLISON: Yeah, being printed in more than one color made it much more difficult, made it much more expensive to purchase. This would have been a book that was bought by someone wealthy, and they probably would have intended to bind it in their library binding, and the vellum binding tells us that it was never actually bound that way. This is sort of like how a printer would sell it, and then normally people would bind it in leather according to their own style, and this hasn't been done in this work.

JUSTIN: That's really remarkable. And you said it was 1743, which means that this book was made just about 20 years after Newton died, so in New York, contemporary of Newton. But when you open it, it still sounds crisp.

ALLISON: That is partially because the paper of this era was made with cloth rags rather than wood pulp. It actually holds up a lot better than our modern paper. You can hear. This is in good shape. Still very usable.

JUSTIN: If you can read Latin.

ALLISON: If you can read Latin.

JUSTIN: This is Newton's work on optics, how light moves through different media. I'm looking at Maura to make sure I'm getting this right. She's the authority here. It demonstrates his attention to how natural phenomena actually work, right? This is him coming down to Earth and actually seeing the different properties of materials and testing them and seeing how they change. So, you know, in that way, we can consider it to be, you know, one of the foundational works of modern science. As we'll hear in the rest of the episode, a lot of Newton's work was not necessarily what we would consider to be scientific. It's just that most of the stuff that was published by him was scientific.

MAURA: Justin and I went back to the studio to do the math on Sir Isaac Newton.

JUSTIN: Today we're going to talk about Newton in a way that your physics professors might not have, though I'm going to need your help to understand and explain some of his basic contributions to physics. Instead, we're going to talk about Newton and some of the more mysterious and mystical studies he conducted throughout his life. That is, today we're going to talk about Newton's alchemy. Maura, what do you know about alchemy?

MAURA: I don't know a whole ton about alchemy, but my understanding of it is that it was the pursuit of turning things into gold chemically. I sort of think of it as alchemy is to chemistry what astrology is to astronomy. It has this mystical, magical element to it, but in the study of it, practitioners learned a lot about physics and chemistry. Actually, in the next episode we'll discuss how through astrology, past astronomers learned a lot about astronomy.

JUSTIN: So yeah, I'm glad you brought up astrology.

MAURA: No problem.

JUSTIN: Thank you. In Newton's time, people who paid attention in these sorts of things saw elements of alchemy and astrology as being kind of related. And speaking about astrology in particular, in the early modern period it was widely believed that the stars affected individuals, their temperament, their fates, and even people who would make suitable marriage partners. Why couldn't the stars, they thought, also shape other things on Earth, like minerals? Alchemy was closely tied to astrology. You mentioned turning things into gold, and that's what alchemists are really well known for generally today. But it was broader than that. Alchemists were really interested in the physical properties of minerals. They wanted to learn how they could change these properties, and their goal was to transmute matter, to change it from one thing to another. So that brings us to our first initial condition, alchemy, and mysticism, during the Scientific Revolution. When I say the Scientific Revolution, as we'll talk later in this episode, it was an uneven process that took place at different times in different places. But for the most part, today we'll be talking about the 17th century, the time during which Newton lived. We often like to think about the Scientific Revolution as this moment when the superstition of the previous all of history was dropped and suddenly these methodologies came about that helped us get closer to the truth about the natural world.

MAURA: That's not really the case. The development of modern science was an uneven process during which scientific practitioners discussed and critiqued different methods of scientific research. A fun fact that you may remember from a previous episode is that Mary Somerville was actually the first person to be called the scientist, and that was in 1834.

JUSTIN: And that brings us to our second initial condition, science during the Scientific Revolution. In this episode, we're going to explore what it meant to practice science during the scientific revolution in the 17th century. As we'll see, the boundaries between science, religion, and mysticism were sometimes fuzzy and unclear. At the time of the Scientific Revolution, we don't see every scientist being able to draw a sharp line between what we would consider rational and what we'd consider superstitious.

MAURA: So. Where does Newton come into this?

JUSTIN: Well, I think today we like to think about Newton as this paragon of scientific research, during a time that science, as we modern folks would recognize it, was just starting to emerge. This was reinforced by the way that earlier historians of science wrote about Newton. For decades, until relatively recently, in historical terms, the history of science was written from, as historians would say, the whiggish perspective. We don't have too much time for an etymology lesson here, Maura, but basically, whiggish history describes the past as leading towards an increasingly progressive future. Every generation overcomes the superstition and irrationality of the previous one, and so humanity constantly progresses. In the case of science, this means that humans have constantly refined and improved their knowledge to find evermore accuracy and truth.

MAURA: Well, that's all well and good if you're a white man who's relatively well-off living in the Western world, which is the typical narrative of science. The past is a much more complicated place than that.

JUSTIN: Right. Taking seriously Newton's alchemy, we have to ask what truth meant to Newton. This is our third initial condition, the relationship between science and the capital-T Truth. Newton did alchemy because it made sense in his early modern worldview. For Newton, he believed that it could bring him closer to some sort of truth about the natural world, and therefore closer to the divine.

MAURA: Our three initial conditions today are alchemy and mysticism during the Scientific Revolution, the practice of science during the Scientific Revolution, and the relationship between capital-T Truth and science.

JUSTIN: That's right. We're going to look at these initial conditions through the life and scientific work of Isaac Newton, who lived from 1643 until 1727. To understand Newton's more mystical endeavors, we'll first need to understand what people today know him for. After that, we'll talk a little bit about the context in which Newton's practice is science and alchemy. Then we'll talk about his alchemical work more specifically, and how it fits into his scientific mindset.

MAURA: Let's dive in.

JUSTIN: Ok, Maura, so I know it's an understatement, but you've taken a few physics courses, right?

MAURA: I've taken at least three.

JUSTIN: What do you think Newton is best remembered for?

MAURA: Well, the first thing that comes to mind are Newton's laws of motion, but he also crops up with his optics treatise. Oh, and you know, inventing calculus.

JUSTIN: He did a lot, and I think in general a lot of great scientists, Newton included, are remembered for their ability to unite different ideas together in convincing ways. Newton did so in the Principia Mathematica, or in its complete title, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. I've never taken Latin. The Principia contains Newton's laws of motion and his law of universal gravitation. We want to talk a little bit more about the context in which the Principia was written. One of our initial conditions, of course, is science during the Scientific Revolution, but it might be good to refresh ourselves on what Newton's three laws of motion were.

MAURA: The first law is a body at rest remains at rest or in motion at a constant speed in a straight line, unless acted upon by a force, which we know is the law of inertia.

JUSTIN: The second law is when a body is acted on by a force, the time rate of change of its momentum equals the force. This is summed up in the formula force equals mass times acceleration. Maura, you had a colorful title for that equation.

MAURA: FEMA. F equals MA.

JUSTIN: I hope you all remember the FEMA equation.

MAURA: The third law is if two bodies exert forces on each other, these forces have the same magnitude but in opposite directions. This is known as the law of action and reaction.

JUSTIN: Let's put these in more concrete terms. I'm picturing Newton's cradle. We all know this. It's the office toy, the five metal balls suspended by wires, which Newton did not invent, by the way. They start at rest. Then a force, my hand, for example, pulls one of the balls back and lets it drop in an arc. The potential energy the ball has at the moment of its suspension is transformed into kinetic energy as the ball falls, which is then transferred through all of the balls to the one at the other end, which pushes the ball in an arc in the opposite direction. As that ball falls, the whole process is repeated in the opposite direction. The amount of available energy decreases over time due to air resistance, which eventually brings the whole thing to a stop. The Principia also introduced Newton's Law of universal gravitation, and to explain that I'll turn it over to Maura.

MAURA: The law of universal gravitation is that gravitation is universal.

JUSTIN: It's a nice topological law.

MAURA: Yeah, what it means is that all objects attract in proportion to the product of their masses. All objects have gravity, have an attractive force.

JUSTIN: Newton's law of universal gravitation was a synthesis of more recent theories from his own time. For centuries since Aristotle, more or less, the prevailing understanding of gravity was that the weight of an object determined how quickly it fell. Indeed, this was intuitive. Aristotelian science taught that the heavier an object was, the quicker it fell. Now, this story is likely apocryphal, but it is a fun one. What Galileo did supposedly, was drop two balls made of the same material but different masses from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. When they hit the ground at the same time, it demonstrated that bodies were not attracted to one another based on weight, and this was verified during the Apollo 15 mission to the Moon. To tell that story, I'll turn it over to our lunar correspondent David Scott.

DAVID: In my right hand, the hammer. I guess one of the reasons we got here today was because of a gentleman named Galileo a long time ago, who made a rather significant discovery about falling objects and gravity fields. We thought that there would be a better place to confirm his findings than on the Moon. We thought we'd try it here for you. And the feather happens to be, appropriately, a falcon feather. For our falcon. And I'll drop the two of them here and hopefully, they'll hit the ground at the same time. How about that? Mr. Galileo was correct in his findings. Superb.

JUSTIN: Thanks, David. Get home safely.

MAURA: Of course, Galileo died the year before Newton was born, but what both Newton and Galileo accomplished was the sort of unity between theories of gravity and the cosmos, and here on Earth. We remember them for how well they resolved the apparent anomalies of the previous ways of doing science and synthesizing new models.

JUSTIN: That's right, and it should be noted that Newton's ideas about gravity, force, and energy did not develop independently. They didn't just spring from his genius, but they came about as he studied the work done by others, just as Galileo built on work done by Nicolas Copernicus, who died 21 years before Galileo was born. Science is a process, and while individuals can make great contributions, we should be wary of emphasizing individual genius and forgetting the social aspects of how scientific knowledge is made.

MAURA: Of course, there are so many people behind the scenes doing the math, carrying out the experiments who never get cited for their contributions.

JUSTIN: That's right, and we should acknowledge that, but we're going to focus on Newton for the rest of the episode now. Usually, when you study Newton, you come to learn about the Principia. You also learn about his treatise on optics, in which he focused on the reflection and the refraction of light. We should also remember that it was common for scientists in the early modern period, and even well into what we might call the modern age, to be jacks of many trades. In Newton's time, science wasn't yet professionalized, and the boundaries between scientific fields hadn't really emerged.

MAURA: For most of the three centuries following his death, historians of science emphasized Newton's contributions to classical mechanics and optics, but Newton was a restless scholar, and he wrote and studied far more than just those two subjects. A lot of his work ended up being pretty esoteric.

JUSTIN: Yeah, a good portion of Newton's scholarship does not fit neatly with his image as a founding figure in modern science. To tell that part of the story, we're going to turn to the work of historian Betty Joe Teeter Dobbs. Dobbs did a lot to correct the record and bring to light Newton's alchemical work, as well as his historical research and biblical studies. Some historians disagree with the extent to which she emphasizes Newton's alchemical pursuits, but historians, like scientists, like to argue with one another and challenge other historical interpretations. It's how the field grows and changes, and tries to capture the past more accurately. A thorough discussion of challenges to Dobbs would take up a whole episode, so I will offer that caveat before we get into it.

MAURA: Ok, so tell me some of this esoteric Newton that you mentioned.

JUSTIN: Well Maura, that's easier asked than answered. As it may be unsurprising to anyone who has read any Newton whatsoever, he was a very deep and complex thinker. Add to that the difficulty of reading early modern English. Speaking of, my pandemic project was to read all of Shakespeare's. I got through five plays, and you're in for some problems. Luckily, Dobbs was a coherent writer, and she translated a lot of Newton to modern audiences, including a lot of his writing in Latin and other languages. Let me simplify this. Let me start with a simple premise. Newton's more mystical research might seem very different than the science we usually credit him with. But if we think of both the science and the more mystical stuff, as different, as simply different means by which he wanted to study God's will as an act in the universe, we can start to understand how they all fit together in Newton's mind. Newton was very devout and he strengthened his faith through study and trying to understand how God worked in the world.

MAURA: We might be accustomed to thinking of science and religion as two distinct categories of knowledge that are opposed to one another. We can think of, for example, the Catholic Church and their fight against Galileo and heliocentrism, and we're often taught that that was a foundational step toward modern science. Newton understood his scientific, historical and biblical research all as ways to seek out God. But that's a lot. How did Newton even start looking at the natural world and the ways that he could find God?

JUSTIN: That's a good question, Maura. I guess to answer it, Newton believed that ancient civilizations didn't matter if they were Christian or Jewish or Pagan. He believed that ancient civilizations, in general, were closer to understanding how to properly worship and see God's will in the universe than modern civilizations. He believed that modern religion had been corrupted over hundreds of generations and that even Pagan societies had a closer understanding of true worship and religion than modern civilizations. This knowledge was called Prisca Sapientia.

MAURA: So that doesn't really match up with how most people today understand Newton as this figure who ushered in science as we know it.

JUSTIN: Yeah, it's a little odd that he spent so much time on this non-scientific stuff, given how we're taught about Newton. We'll get to that in a bit. Newton certainly did much to influence the development of modern science, but he was also a figure of his time. The 17th century was a period of massive upheaval and strife, especially over religion, as Catholics and Protestants, sometimes even neighbors were driven to violence in defense of their views. For the early modern Europeanist listening, I know that's a simplification. Newton was born during the English Civil War as Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans fought over both political and religious grievances. This moment in European history opened up new questions about the meaning of faith and dogma. Newton thought that it made the most sense to look backward, closer to the moment of creation, to find answers about faith.

MAURA: For Newton, history and science were complementary tools. They could both shed light on Prisca Sapientia. Earlier you were telling me about how Newton made detailed architectural diagrams of Solomon's temples and compared it to the knowledge that people in his time had about Greek and Roman temples. To Newton, it sounds like knowledge was like a tree, and by following the branches he could reach the trunk, which is the original, untainted knowledge passed down from God to God's creation.

JUSTIN: Yeah, and we don't have time for it. This idea led Newton to some very heterodox, maybe even heretical, conclusions about the nature of the divine presence. We'll save that because we're about to get into his alchemical ideas. Finally, thank you for sticking with us. I will say that some scholars speculate that Newton might have left his more esoteric work unpublished because he feared it would be received as heretical by his peers. Remember, science is a social process.

MAURA: Ok, so that's the background on Newton's worldview, that everything had this context of pursuing the higher truth and God's will. But what does alchemy have to do with this story?

JUSTIN: And I'm glad you said God's will, because as Betty Joe Teeter Dobbs points out, that's really the key to all this puzzle, is that all of Newton's pursuits, his traditional science, and his untraditional esoteric work were all about trying to understand the divine will, but you mentioned alchemy. Let's get back into the subject of this episode. We talked about how Newton believed that there was an original, pristine knowledge that had degraded over time, called the Prisca Sapientia, the pure knowledge. Ancient religions, he believed, were closer to this untainted knowledge of the divine. Even back then, there was an abundance of different religious practices. Alchemy, as Newton well knew, was an ancient practice that involved transmuting matter, turning it from one thing into another.

MAURA: Alchemy was more than just the search for gold, as we understand it. It was investigating changes in matter.

JUSTIN: Right, and this power of transmutation could be a very, very dangerous thing. Imagine if a bad actor got their hands on some secret wisdom like how to transform matter itself. What would prevent them from using it for evil? Newton believed that the alchemical works of the ancients and more recent practitioners used mystical language to obscure their observations of changing matter and keep it secret.

MAURA: That's actually pretty cool. You mentioned earlier that Newton lived during a time of religious and political strife. Did that have anything to do with his alchemy?

JUSTIN: Yeah, it was on the periphery of the Catholic Church, according to Dobbs, where alchemy most flourished during the 16th and 17th centuries. Newton lived in a country that went through its own reformation over a century before he was born. Polyglot that he was, Newton could converse with other alchemists through letters, which he often did.

MAURA: That actually sounds like the peer review process, which is how science is practiced today. Newton had a network of correspondents who he could check his work with, and they could offer suggestions or new lines of inquiry.

JUSTIN: Yes, but I have to emphasize again, this knowledge of alchemy was supposed to be secret and hidden through metaphor. God's divine plan and the powers of transmutation were too dangerous to be widely disseminated. Dobbs would agree with you. She understands Newton's alchemy, not as an aberration in his work; she argues that he approached alchemy and history and biblical studies the same way that he approached optics and gravity. He used all of them to understand the divine will.

MAURA: How did Newton practice alchemy?

JUSTIN: Well, that's a little complicated. We're going to have to skip a lot of the complex stuff about alchemy, things like its weird notations that it borrowed from astrological signs. As we mentioned before, astrology and alchemy were connected in some ways. We have to ignore how different celestial bodies were connected to different materials and elements, and we'll have to overlook the strange language and iconography that alchemists used to focus on two aspects of alchemy. Dobbs has a really helpful simplification of what alchemy entailed. It involved, on one hand, ancient texts and attempts to decipher their metaphors and secret meanings. And on the other hand, more practical labor at a furnace. Alchemists, unsurprisingly, spent a lot of time at the furnace and the workbench, combining materials, separating them, and sometimes feeding them for weeks or months on end, all while following secret instructions and recipes passed down through centuries-old texts.

MAURA: To me that sounds a little bit like National Treasure. Justin, have you ever seen that?

JUSTIN: No, I've never seen that movie.

MAURA: Ok, unsurprising. It's really good. Nicolas Cage. Basically, he like, hunts down secret truths, does some magical things, and leaps to conclusions. Anyway, that's what these secret codes kind of reminded me of. But it also sounds a little bit like chemistry, you know, using a furnace, combining material, separating them, heating them, using recipes.

JUSTIN: I can see how it does sound a little bit like chemistry. I want to emphasize, though again, that maybe one difference is that alchemists were searching for the key to transmutation. They were looking for some hidden secret about how to change materials. That's not quite like chemistry or modern science, which entailed more, as Sir Francis Bacon put it. Putting nature to the test in order to understand how it works. Chemists observe changes in the properties of matter rather than searching for some hidden gold. Newton took a slightly different approach to his alchemy. As we've talked about for a while so far, Newton wanted to interrogate the natural world in order to see God's plan in it. This meant recording and keeping track of his alchemical experiments and recipes in minute detail. That attention to detail is part of what makes Newton's alchemical work, even though modern scientists might consider it to be mystical or magical rather than scientific, a little bit closer to how scientists operate today. We collected and analyzed his data and reached conclusions based on it.

MAURA: Ok, I think I need you to be a little bit more specific. Can you describe why Newton thought that he could find God through alchemy?

JUSTIN: Yeah, I mean, you can see, it's a tricky thing to talk about this stuff because it's so different than the way that we see the world today. Let me reiterate first that Newton's alchemy was again about this search for unifying principles that could reveal God's will on Earth. One of those principles was something called the vegetative principle. The vegetative principle was an answer to the question, what is it that gives rise to life? What animates things? What gives diversity to the different metals and other natural objects in the world? For Newton, it was this vegetative principle. Sensibly, as someone seeking this unified truth between proto-science and religion and mysticism, this vegetative spirit correlated to the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son.

MAURA: Ah yes, religion, alchemy and, I know you'll get to this, science.

JUSTIN: Yeah, so bear with me because I know it gets complicated. Newton did not believe in the Christian Trinity that placed God and Jesus as equal divinities. Rather, Newton understood Jesus as more of God's viceroy or governor on earth. He hadn't existed the same amount of time as God the Father, who was himself unknowable to his creation. Jesus did assist, however, in creation through this vegetative spirit. This vegetative spirit, according to Newton, was present in all manner and was the force that drove creation. It's the thing that makes the diversity of forms of matter from one single material essence which alchemists sought. Once the vegetative spirit leaves, matter purifies and begins the process of returning to its original form.

MAURA: For Newton, alchemy wasn't totally detached from natural phenomena. Alchemy answered questions that one had about different qualities and characteristics of matter. Like you can see organic material decomposing, and it doesn't matter what creature or plant it once was, it all undergoes a similar process.

JUSTIN: Yeah. There were very mystical and esoteric elements of alchemy, and the vegetative spirit gets into that realm, but Newton believed there was an order in all this mystical stuff. He believed there was an order to the world that could be revealed by looking through or translating biblical knowledge and old alchemical texts. He understood alchemy. He understood his pursuit of the vegetative spirit. He understood these things in very rational terms, and this matches his approach to other, more traditionally scientific fields.

MAURA: If you wanted to, you could reproduce Newton's alchemic work.

JUSTIN: Yeah, his manuscripts are pretty well preserved, even though most are unpublished. I'll talk about a very famous owner of many of those manuscripts towards the end of the episode, but I think what you're asking is to ground all of this very esoteric stuff in what Newton actually did, which I think is. Helpful question to ask. Talking about Newton's religious motivation behind his alchemy can get complicated quite quickly. As I mentioned, Newton took copious notes on his alchemical research, and Dobbs did a lot to make it accessible to modern audiences. It is remarkable that so little was published on Newton's alchemy, considering how much time he spent on it. That's probably because it doesn't fit neatly with our understanding of Newton's contributions to modern science. But as Dobbs points out, Newton pursued alchemy with the same reasoning and attention to detail that guided his other research. Now, before I get into the basics of Newton's alchemy, I want to go over some terms. We know that there are substances called elements. Elements contain only atoms with the same number of protons in their nucleus. Gold, iodine, and hydrogen are all elements. Elements could be solids, liquids, or gases, and elements can combine to make different substances. But elements can't be broken down into simpler substances by any chemical reactions there is, broken down as they get.

MAURA: Of course, there is atomic decay, which is a nuclear reaction, and that may be the closest thing we have to transmutation.

JUSTIN: The secrets of transmutation we might have unlocked in fusion and fission.

MAURA: And that sort of confirms the fears that many alchemists had, it sounds like, for the dangers of alchemy getting into the wrong hands.

JUSTIN: But Newton didn't know what we know about elements. He believed that fundamentally all matter was composed of the same unified stuff and sometimes animated by this vegetative spirit. Newton wanted to figure out what that element was. And in doing so and figuring out what that element was, he believed he could get closer to God's divine plan.

MAURA: You mentioned that Dobb's argued that Newton's alchemy is best understood as part of his larger project studying God's presence in the world. In that way, it's complementary rather than opposed to his astronomical work and his work on optics.

JUSTIN: Newton used language that doesn't quite fit with our own when he wrote about alchemy and his experiments. Rather than being elements in their own right, to Newton, mercury and sulfur were somewhat like phases. Each metal had its own mercury form and its own sulfur form. There were in fact many different mercuries and sulfurs.

MAURA: Right. Today we know that mercury and sulfur are elements that can't be broken down by chemical reactions.

JUSTIN: That’s right. Newton was mostly interested in creating the various mercuries and sulfur forms of the metals he worked with. He often did this by using what alchemists called the Star Regulus of Antimony. If you heat antimony until it's molten, then cool it down, the resulting crystal formation often resembles a star with many points. This would obviously have some significance in a field that relied so heavily on analogy, metaphor, the appearance of substances, and the cosmos. What I really want to emphasize though, is that Newton treated his work at the furnace very seriously. He recorded all of his processes, which materials he worked with, the temperature of the furnace, and for how long and for how long he fired different substances. This record-keeping and attention to detail were related to the emerging field of experimental science that put nature to the test. Let me quote Dobbs here. She wrote “The theories of alchemy that underlaid their experiments have been extirpated from chemical thought”. The theories of alchemy that underlay their experiments have been extirpated from chemical thought and practice so thoroughly that now no one considers doing such an experiment, and one is inclined to reject the fact because he rejects the theory. That is, the relationship between alchemy and chemistry was once very close, but because they seem so distant now. We often ignore that intertwined history in the early modern.

MAURA: Newton's alchemy is actually what we might call scientific. He was meticulous in recording his data and trying to figure out the properties of different substances. On the other hand, Newton was performing alchemical research in order to understand God's will, which is something we might consider unscientific. On the third hand, Dobbs argues that Newton searched for the divine is also what drove some of his major contributions to science. The lines between science and religion here are really blurry.

JUSTIN: Exactly. I think what makes Newton interesting is that he helped to usher in modern science without being fully aware of that. To Newton, religion, and God could be understood in a scientific experimentalist manner.

MAURA: OK, another question though. Was Newton alone in these alchemical studies because we've talked about the importance of social networks and the practice of science? Pseudoscientists usually operated outside of scientific communities, right? Which is one reason among you know, the obvious ones, why they have trouble getting support for their ideas. Was Newton talking to other practitioners?

JUSTIN: Yeah, he was. Although as I mentioned earlier, the alchemists were usually quite secretive about their work. For one thing, they didn't want knowledge of the true nature of substances falling into the wrong hands. For another, practitioners in Catholic countries might be persecuted for their work, and some in non-Catholic places too. Newton certainly would have faced backlash for his beliefs about the relationship between Jesus and God, even in Protestant England, but he did find other practitioners of alchemy. Robert Boyle, who was a significant influence on Newton, was an alchemist. The size of the community was limited, but there were influential practitioners who sometimes corresponded with one another, usually secretly.

MAURA: There was a community of alchemists.

JUSTIN: The ways that alchemists operated were shaped by the societies in which they lived. As with science, alchemy was treated differently by different religions. In Newton's case, alchemy and his other occult pursuits led him to embrace ideas that were heretical to the Catholic, Protestant, and Puritan groups who held political power in England at different times. We've just summarized Newton's alchemical work. I just want to talk about the three initial conditions for this week.

MAURA: The first one is alchemy and mysticism during the Scientific Revolution.

JUSTIN: Right. Thanks, Maura.

MAURA: You're welcome.

JUSTIN: We tend to think of alchemy as a superstition, or something that was stamped out as anathema to modern science around the time of the Scientific Revolution. If we do that, we tend to forget that there were actually two sides to alchemy, the esoteric interpretation of symbols and the furnace. In the first one, alchemists used symbols that were connected to ancient practices, but they also feared the spread of alchemical knowledge, and so used strange symbols and descriptions, and metaphors to obscure that knowledge to all that they initiated. In the furnace work, if you squint you can see especially Newton's approach, some of the methods of chemistry in its infancy.

MAURA: Alchemy could be practiced in different ways and for different reasons. For Newton, it was one way of trying to find the divine in the everyday material world. Setting alchemy and treating it on its own terms in the 17th century also reveals how people like Newton understood the world around them. It's a way of getting inside their heads. The way that they thought about the world was different than the way that we do. Who's to say how people 400 years from now will write about our world?

JUSTIN: Precisely. Ok, so what was the second initial condition again?

MAURA: Science during the Scientific Revolution.

JUSTIN: Right. I think John Maynard Keynes, the mid-20th century British economist who also collected many of Newton's manuscripts, got to the heart of what makes Isaac Newton so compelling. He said, “Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians”. Newton's occult studies were deeply tied, according to Dobbs, to his more scientific work. Newton employed scientific methods, early and untested as they were, but not for the pursuit of pure scientific understanding. Newton, instead, desired to understand how God's will operated in the world. Alchemy, the study of transmutation, was one way that he sought to understand God.

MAURA: I guess when we talk about science during the Scientific Revolution, we should remember that it takes time for new scientific ideas, methods, and conclusions to be embraced. In Newton, we don't see a sudden, sharp departure from previous ways of looking at the world. Instead, we see a bit of a mix between the old and the new.

JUSTIN: Then the third initial condition, the relationship between science, nature, and the truth. What we learned about Newton is that he really wanted to understand the truth about God's will. For Newton, the truth could be found by looking back to earlier generations, both in terms of religious practice and alchemical work. He believed that the closer humanity was to creation, the more it understood divinity and how to properly worship God and understand God's plan. Newton also believed that God's will could be understood by studying nature. His alchemical work was related to his work on optics and gravity, in that way. His alchemy had elements of experimentation, observation, and other features that are comprehensible to modern scientists. In his pursuit of truth, Newton contributed to modern science in significant ways. Although our understanding of the purpose of scientific research is different than Newton's, we still use elements of his science to understand the nature of the universe in which we live.

ALLISON: Let me lock the pages. Goodbye, Newton.

MAURA: Thank you so much for joining us today.

JUSTIN: To learn more about our discussion and find related photographs, blog posts, and transcripts for this episode, check out our website at AIP.org/initialconditions or click the link in the episode description.

MAURA: Next week, we hear the fascinating story of an astronomer who is way ahead of his time, Claudius Ptolemy, who wrote one of the most influential scientific books in history, the Almagest.

CLAUDIUS: The Almagest was probably the most successful single scientific book ever written. It lasted hundreds and hundreds of years as the single best way to calculate planetary motion, the position of stars, and eclipses. Ptolemy is sort of looking at a model of the universe, trying to come up with some sort of causal structure for the reason things happen. Really, the Almagest is really a model of the heavens.

MAURA: A special shout-out today to our tour guide and the Associate Director of Library Collections and Services at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives, Allison Rein.

JUSTIN: This episode was created, researched, and written by Maura Shapiro and Justin Shapiro.

MAURA: Allison Rein is our executive producer with audio production and editing by Kerry Thompson.

JUSTIN: Special thanks to the wonderful staff of NBLA and CHP for supporting us in all our research needs.

MAURA: Initial Conditions is generously sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

JUSTIN: I'm Justin Shapiro.

MAURA: I'm Maura Shapiro.

JUSTIN: And you've been listening to Initial Conditions.

VOICEOVER: From the Niels Bohr Library and Archives at the American Institute of Physics.

Further Reading

Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter. The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy; or, "The Hunting of the Greene Lyon." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Dobbs was regarded as an excellent scholar of Newton's alchemical pursuits. Although this book is quite old, by historians' standards, it offers a solid introduction to Newton and his more mystical research. Dobbs should be read in light of more recent scholarship on Newton. The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy does, however, provide transcriptions of Newton's alchemical notes.

Iliffe, Robert. Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Iliffe provides a more recent analysis of Newton's religious views. This deeply researched manuscript places Newton's theology in the context of the religious debates and conflicts that dominated his age. It both builds on and challenges previous arguments about what Newton believed.

Indiana University-Bloomington, The Chymistry of Isaac Newton, available here.

This digital collection makes many of Newton's alchemical manuscripts available to visitors. It also provides visual examples of the sort of experiments Newton conducted, a helpful glossary of terms found in the manuscripts, a key that deciphers some of Newton's alchemical symbols, and commentary from Newton scholars. It is an excellent repository of primary and secondary sources pertaining to Newton's alchemy.

Show notes

Kerry Thomspon of Thompson House Productions produced this show. Allison Rein is executive producer. Initial Conditions: A Physics History Podcast is generously sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

About the Podcast Team