My recent post on alchemy was originally going to be a post on Sir Isaac Newton. If you’re surprised that Newton and alchemy could go together, well, this post is definitely for you! Instead of covering Newton’s best-known scientific discoveries, I’m going to spend a few minutes on aspects of his work that aren’t as widely known.
The truth is that everyone has their personal oddities, and scientists are definitely no exception. Some of us collect dolls, some of us dress up for historic re-enactments, and some of us pursue occult studies in our free time.
That last one refers to Newton, if you couldn’t tell. His career in science and mathematics is impressive enough—being known for (among other things) advances in optics, the law of gravitation, and the long-running dispute with Leibniz over calculus seems a little greedy already. Adding more interesting stuff on top of it is just getting ridiculous, but what can I say? Newton was a pretty ridiculous guy in some ways.
He was also a pretty strange guy, even without considering his non-scientific studies. He didn’t seem to make friends easily, and he had something of a habit of starting professional fights. As an example, when Robert Hooke of the Royal Society criticized some of Newton’s work on optics, it ignited a feud that led to Newton’s famous quote (far from original, by the way) about “standing on the shoulders of giants,” which many scholars think was a dig at Hooke’s height. When Newton became president of the Royal Society soon after Hooke’s death, Hooke’s portrait was somehow mysteriously destroyed and his reputation suffered somewhat.
(To be fair to Newton, Hooke was difficult to get along with himself, but it seems pretty clear neither of them did themselves any favors in their relationship. It makes for entertaining reading, though!)
Like I said, Newton would be memorable enough even without the alchemy, but there was definitely alchemy too. In fact, of the roughly ten million of Newton’s words that survive, about one million of them are on alchemical subjects.
Of course, we know that in some ways alchemy was just the precursor of chemistry, but Newton’s interest wasn’t only in the type of empirical observations that made it through into modern science. What we have of his writings suggests that he was very interested in the Philosopher’s Stone and perhaps the Elixir of Life as well, placing his alchemical work on the mystical side. Like many alchemists, he was dedicated to both theory and experiment—some biological evidence suggests that Newton’s alchemy/chemistry experiments may have resulted in mercury poisoning, which might explain his nervous breakdown in 1693 and some of his other…eccentricities.
(Fun side note: In later life Newton was the Master of the Royal Mint and introduced a set of policies that resulted in England moving from a silver standard toward a gold standard. Some speculate that his actions here were deliberate and continuing the theme of his alchemical work, moving toward nobler metals.)
In addition to alchemical studies, Newton was fascinated by the idea of extracting scientific knowledge from the Judeo-Christian scriptures. Among other things, he focused on the Temple of Solomon, convinced that the description of its proportions hid all sorts of information. Not only did he see evidence of numerous geometric principles like conic sections and the golden ratio, he believed that the design was divinely inspired to incorporate wisdom about the relative proportions of human beings and the earth itself.
The Temple also played a role in Newton’s fascination with chronology, which extended into the past and future. He believed the Temple’s proportions held information on Israel’s historical chronology, which is still far from settled today. Newton also interpreted the prophecies of the book of Revelation to mean that the year 2060 was the earliest date that could be expected for Christ’s second coming. (This didn’t reflect a belief that the world would actually end then, but a desire to stick it to people who were embarrassing everyone by predicting much closer apocalyptic dates and being proven wrong.)
Clearly, it’s not possible to separate Newton’s strong religious and occult beliefs from his intellectual work, and he wouldn’t have wanted to. That sort of separation is a relatively new idea, and it’s a mistake to impose it on thinkers of the past to make them fit our current model of scientists. I think it also makes things much less interesting, but that’s just me!
To some extent, I’m inclined to agree with the celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes, who was something of a collector of Newton’s alchemical writings and amassed about half of his alchemy-related papers. He said on one occasion, “Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians.”
This assessment may be biased in its own way, but it certainly gives a different view of the man who helped to usher in so much of our modern understanding of the world. It’s hard to know what Newton would think of where his work has taken us, but it seems likely his vision of the future of science was somewhat different from where we are today.
At least we have the comfort of knowing that, according to his calculations, we have no reason to expect the world to end anytime before 2060.
[I’d like to do more quick explorations of famous scientists’ lesser-known work, because it’s so interesting and it usually isn’t covered in the brief discussion that we get in classes. There’s no shortage of historical figures with quirks in their personal and professional lives!
In talking about the weirder sides of Newton and others, I have a few hopes. One (of course) is that you’ll be entertained, learn something new, and keep reading my blog. The most important thing, though, is that we recognize the quirkiness, fallibility, and yes, occasionally even crackpottery of some of our greatest scientific minds. No human is a purely rational being, and we shouldn’t hide or apologize for that.
Also, no extremely brief exploration of Isaac Newton’s oddities is complete without a mention of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle! The trilogy begins with Quicksilver and views Newton through the eyes of Daniel Waterhouse, a friend who has to deal with his bizarre brilliance. If you have trouble getting into it, try reading something like Anathem first and coming back to it once you’re used to Stephenson’s style. It’s a great trilogy that combines historical fiction and science!]