The modern world as we know it simply would not have existed without the mind of Sir Isaac Newton. His synthesis of calculus and pioneering research on the nature of gravity and light are cornerstones of the scientific method. However, in his later years, Newton’s interests were certainly drawn to an unscientific subject, chemistry. Does this investigation invalidate Newton’s earlier achievement, physicist and theoretical philosopher Carlo Rovelli asks in the excerpt below. His new book on Correspondence and Meditations, There are places in the world where rules are less important than kindness: and other ideas in physics, philosophy, and the worldRovelli explores topics ranging from science to history to politics and philosophy.
From There are places in the world where rules are less important than kindness: and other ideas in physics, philosophy, and the world By Carlo Rovelli Published May 10, 2022 by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 Carlo Rovelli.
In 1936, Sotheby’s auctioned a collection of the unpublished writings of Sir Isaac Newton. The price is as low as 9000 GBP. Not much compared to the £140,000 raised that season from the sale of Rubens and Rembrandt. Among the buyers was John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, who was a huge fan of Newton. Keynes soon realized that a large part of the manuscript’s writing dealt with a subject few would have expected Newton to be interested in. It is chemistry. Keynes proceeded to acquire all of Newton’s unpublished writings on the subject, and soon realized that alchemy was not something that the great scientist was marginally or briefly curious about: his interest in it had continued throughout his life. Keynes concludes that “Newton was not the first in the age of reason, he was the last of the wizards.”
In 1946, Keynes donated his unpublished Newtoniana to the University of Cambridge. Newton’s eccentricity in chemical appearance, apparently at odds with his traditional image as the father of science, has caused the majority of historians to give the subject wide leeway. It is only recently that his interest in chemistry has grown. Today, a great deal of Newton’s chemical texts have been put online by researchers at Indiana University and Now within everyone’s reach. Their presence still manages to spark debate and shed a tantalizing light on his legacy.
Newton is considered a center of modern science. He occupies this prominent place due to his exceptional scientific results: mechanics, the theory of universal gravitation, optics, the discovery that white light is a mixture of colors, calculus. Even today, engineers, physicists, astronomers, and chemists work with the equations he wrote, and use the concepts he first introduced. But most of all, Newton was the founder of the method of seeking knowledge that we today call modern science. He built on the works and ideas of others – Descartes, Galileo, Kepler, etc. – extending a tradition going back to antiquity; But in his books what we now call the scientific method found its modern form, and at once produced a mass of extraordinary results. It is not an exaggeration to think of Newton as the father of modern science. So, what does alchemy have to do with any of this?
There are those who see these abnormal chemical activities as evidence of mental impairment resulting from premature aging. There are others who have served their own ends by trying to recruit the great Englishman among critics of the limits of scientific rationality.
I think things are much simpler than this.
The key lies in the fact that Newton never published anything about alchemy. Papers showing his interest in the subject are extensive, but they are all unpublished. This lack of publication has been interpreted as a consequence of the fact that alchemy had been illegal in England since the 14th century. But the law banning alchemy was lifted in 1689. And besides, if Newton was so concerned about breaking laws and conventions, he wouldn’t be Newton. There are those who portrayed him as a demonic figure trying to extract extraordinary and ultimate knowledge that he wanted to keep exclusively for himself, to enhance his power. But Newton really made extraordinary discoveries, and he did not seek to keep them to himself: he published them in his great books, including the Principia, with equations of mechanics still used today by engineers to build planes and edifices. Newton was famous and highly respected during his adult life; He was president of the Royal Society, the world’s leading scientific body. The intellectual world was thirsty for its results. Why hasn’t he published anything based on all those chemical activities?
The answer is very simple, and I think it dispels the whole mystery: he never published anything because he never came up with any results that he found compelling. It is easy today to rely on the well-digested historical judgment that alchemy had very weak theoretical and empirical foundations. It was not very easy to come to this conclusion in the seventeenth century. Alchemy was widely practiced and studied by many, and Newton honestly tried to understand whether it contained a valid form of knowledge. If he had found in chemistry something that would have withstood the method of rational and empirical investigation which he himself was promoting, there is no doubt that Newton would have published his results. If he had succeeded in extracting something from the disorderly swamp of the chemical world something that could become a science, surely we have inherited Newton’s book on the subject, just as we have books on optics, mechanics, and general gravitation. It didn’t work, and so he didn’t post anything.
Was Raja in vain in the first place? Was it a project that had to be scrapped before it even started? On the contrary: many of the main problems posed by alchemy, and very few of the methods developed by it, especially in relation to the transformation of one chemical substance into another, are precisely the problems which will soon give rise to the new system. Chemistry. Newton did not succeed in making the decisive step between alchemy and chemistry. This will be the responsibility of the next generation of scientists, such as Lavoisier, to achieve.
The texts put online by Indiana University clearly show this. It is true that the language used is usually alchemical: metaphors, allusions, veiled phrases, strange symbols. But many of the described procedures are nothing more than simple chemical processes. For example, he describes the production of “oil vitriol” (sulfuric acid), aqua fortis (nitric acid) and “salt spirit” (hydrochloric acid). Following Newton’s instructions, it is possible to manufacture this material. The very name Newton used to refer to his attempts to do so is suggestive: “chemistry”. Post-Renaissance chemistry strongly insisted on empirical verification of ideas. I have already begun to confront the trend of modern chemistry. Newton realizes that somewhere within the muddled alchemical recipes there is modern science (in the “Newtonian sense”) hidden, and tries to encourage its emergence. It spends a long time immersed in it, but it does not manage to find the thread that will unpack the package, so it does not post anything.
Alchemy was not only Newton’s curious pursuit and passion. There is another one that emerges from his papers and is perhaps even more interesting: Newton made tremendous efforts to reconstruct biblical chronology, trying to establish accurate dates for events written in the Bible. Again, from the evidence of his papers, the results are not great: the father of science estimates that the beginning of the world occurred a few thousand years ago. Why did Newton lose himself in this endeavor?
History is an old topic. Born in Miletus with Hecateus, he had already fully grown up with Herodotus and Thucydides. There is continuity between the work of historians of today and that of historians of antiquity: mainly in that critical spirit necessary when collecting and evaluating antiquities of the past. (Hecateus’ book begins like this: “I write things that seem to me to be true. For the tales of the Greeks are as many and funny as they seem to me.”) But contemporary historiography has a quantitative aspect connected with a decisive effort to establish exact dates of past events. Moreover, the critical work of the modern historian must take into account all sources, assess their reliability and assess the significance of the information presented. The most reasonable reconstruction emerges from the exercise of weighted evaluation and integration of the sources. Well, this quantitative way of writing history begins with Newton’s work on biblical chronology. In this case, too, Newton is on the path of something very modern: to find a way to rationally reconstruct the historiography of ancient history based on the multiple, incomplete, and reliable sources we have at our disposal. Newton was the first to introduce concepts and methods that would later become important, but he did not reach sufficiently satisfactory results, and again he published nothing on the subject.
Either way, we’re not dealing with something that should make us deviate from our traditional view of Newtonian rationalism. On the contrary, the great scientist has real scientific problems. There is no trace of Newton confusing good science with magic, or with untested lore or authority. The opposite is true. It is the visionary modern world that faces new fields of scientific research with a clear vision, which is published when it succeeds in reaching clear and important results, and is not published when it does not reach such results. He was brilliant, the most intelligent – but he also had his limits, like everyone else.
I think that Newton’s genius lies precisely in his realization of these limits: the limits of what he has done Not I know. This is the basis of the science that helped his birth.
All products recommended by Engadget are handpicked by our editorial team, independently of the parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.