Recently there was an article in the New York Times, which, surprisingly enough, reported reasonably accurately and interestingly on the work of an historian of science, William Newman (who I mentioned in my previous post on 19th-century views of alchemy). In the article Newman says, of course, that it is not surprising that Newton should have been interested in alchemy; that alchemical work was not diametrically opposed to the ‘scientific’ work Newton did in mathematics, optics and astronomy; and that, altogether, “It was perfectly reasonable for Isaac Newton to believe in alchemy”. Yet the title of the article bugged me: “Moonlighting as Conjuror of Chemicals”. In what way, unless referring to his paid work at Cambridge and the Mint, can we say that Newton was moonlighting? And in what way conjuring?
I appreciate the fact that headlines need to sell but it is galling that in this case the headline goes for the old, discarded view when it is directly contradicted by the content of the article and the quotes from Newman. The real news is not that Newton was involved in alchemy, but the on-going efforts at transcribing Newton’s archive, which demonstrates just how much and for how long alchemy/chymistry was among Newton’s major activities, and the scholarship of Newman and others, which has shown jthat it was part of the intellectual scenery of the time. The news is that although Newton is a familiar name and a hero of modern science, the world he lived in and the ways he – and his contemporaries – thought are, by and large, very unfamiliar to us today.
However, the thing that bugs me most is the fact that Newton has been ‘revealed’ as an alchemist, or as a magician, over and over again. In recent years the major popular interest in Newton has related to alchemy and prophecy, and such presentations tend to be accompanied by the suggestion that this is a surprising and novel revelation. This process goes back at least as far as John Maynard Keynes and his 1946 essay, ‘Newton the Man’, which presented Newton as ‘the last of the magicians’. Keynes had acquired a significant portion of the ‘non-scientific’ part of Newton’s archive (as judged by the scientists who catalogued and divided them in the late 19th century), and he was undoubtedly struck by what he found. But, as I have said in my book, he shouldn’t have been as surprised as he evidently was.
The trouble was, Newton’s early biographers tended to be coy about what they found. Rumours about the extent of both Newton’s alchemical and (unorthodox) religious manuscripts had long circulated. In my previous post I quoted Brewster’s reaction on discovering the truth of this century-old rumour when (on writing his *second* biography of Newton) he finally got some idea of what Newton’s archive contained. His admission was, perhaps, enough. It certainly prompted one reviewer to paint an image of Newton the alchemist that would appeal to modern TV researchers, journalists and pop-histsci writers (if I may coin a term) publishing lightly-researched books:
Engaged in such an engrossing pursuit he threw aside fluxions, optics, and gravitation; and, with the glowing vision of the philosopher’s stone before his eyes, was blind to all prospects of sublunary fame or distinction, and desired nothing in life but the peaceful seclusion of his laboratory and the uninterrupted enjoyment of the pursuit of the grand arcanum.
The review from which this quote is taken was by Baden Powell, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford (and father of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scouting movement). Powell’s ability to accept Newton’s interest in alchemy, and his various character flaws, was part and parcel of the liberal outlook that saw him support evolution and broad-church theology (see his contribution to the famous Essays and Reviews of 1860 and Pietro Corsi’s excellent book Science and Religion: Baden Powell and the Anglican Debate 1800-1860, 1988).
I don’t blame Newman and other scholars for using the media to their advantage. But what does our apparent inability to take on board Newton’s so-called ‘dark secrets’ – and to move on from the apparently constant need to re-reveal Newton’s interest in alchemy - say about us?