Newton’s Obsessive Hobby

Gold and Silver are considered valuable commodities more so in the middle ages when these precious metals were not as commonly found. This led to the formation of a pseudoscience which was a precursor to chemistry called alchemy. The idea was that any of the elements could be converted to another and hence you could produce gold or silver from relatively less expensive metals.

Alchemy was a popular practice in medieval times across all civilizations (Wikimedia Commons CC-PD-Mark)
Alchemy was a popular practice in medieval times across all civilizations (Wikimedia Commons CC-PD-Mark)

There was no understanding of the theory of atoms at the time. The ancient Greek philosophers believed that all the physical objects were made of fire, water earth and wind. Democritus proposed the atomic theory of the universe however none of this was experimental based therefore there was a lot of room for other theories to come forward. Therefore alchemist believed that elements could be broken down into its constituent materials and then reformed into other elements. This is certainly a throw back to a age where the boundaries of what is science and what it pseudoscience were not clearly drawn.

One of the scientists that broke this trend of philosophical and theological approach to science was Sir Isaac Newton. His work on gravity, calculus and thermodynamics were all backed by meticulous experimentation, logical reasoning and mathematical calculations. His work dawned a new era of science based on evidence. It is mostly for that reason that I find it interesting that Newton was a closet alchemist.

The evidence of Newton the alchemist has only come up within the last few years. Newton always documented all of his work although he only published few of his work. This was mostly due to the fact that his superior’s were very critical of his work early on in his career. He had to be persuaded to publish his novel work on gravity as well. His work on alchemy seems to be his darkest and most well guarded secret but his compulsive note taking has given it away.

An 1874 painting of the fire in Newton's room which destroyed papers that took him 20 years to write, which may have included some of his work on alchemy. (Wikimedia Commons PD-ART)
An 1874 painting of the fire in Newton’s room which destroyed papers that took him 20 years to write, which may have included some of his work on alchemy. (Wikimedia Commons PD-ART)

What made Newton pursue alchemy? Many scientist are very stubborn and have their believes deeply engraved into them. Although this may have contributed to his passion it may not have been the full story. Newton a man of logic and reason may have been persuaded by the evidence available at the time and good old scientific curiosity. Although it seems obvious now that it was a pseudoscience alchemy was considered a serious science at the time.

This was mainly because they didn’t have the technology to have an experimental explanation for many of the chemistry occurring at a molecular level. Many experimental scientists at the time believed in alchemy.

Newton’s extracurricular pursuits may have even led to his discoveries in optics that white light is composed of seven colors and the optical properties of prisms.

Personally however being a big fan of Newton and his works I’m not at all disappointed when I found out of Newton’s dark secret. I was actually happy. He was acting based on the evidence available at the time and he let his curiosity take over and performed his experiments. Not all scientific work leads to positive results, but what keeps science moving forward is that scientist observe, hypothesize and experiment to prove their hypothesis. Newton’s work on alchemy although later proved wrong has reinforced in my mind at least that he was one of the greatest scientist that ever lived and probably the greatest experimenters of his time.