Newton’s Vice

Some say alchemy inspired our greatest scientist

We are taught in school that Isaac Newton was our greatest scientist. And he was. He not only came up with the laws of motion that bear his name, he split white light into the colors of the spectrum, invented calculus and built a telescope whose design is still in use today. Most important, he defined and quantified gravity.

What they didn't tell us is that for 30 of the most productive years of his life, Newton worked passionately in the field of alchemy, most simply defined as the search for ways to turn one material into another and, more ambitiously, as the search for the forces that run the world. Newton put together one of the finest libraries of alchemical literature ever assembled, and he wrote more than a million words on alchemy in his own laboratory notebooks. Most of all, he spent untold hours hunched over bubbling retorts of mercury, lead, antimony and sulfur (a practice that may have damaged his health). The results were noted in a kind of code. One entry in Newton's notebooks, for example, reports, "I made Jupiter fly on the wings of the eagle!" which apparently had something to do with vaporizing tin. Some of the ideas of alchemy may have spilled over into the work for which Newton is famous. The legendary philosophers' stone, for instance, was characterized by its mysterious power of attraction, a force not completely dissimilar to the gravitational forces that bind one celestial body to another. Alchemical theories of how one material could be transmuted into another involved working with what we today would call subatomic particles. "Any body can be transformed into another, of whatever kind," he wrote.

Such ideas were no more popular in his day than alchemy is today. After his death, Newton's work in alchemy was ignored or worse. Today, however, transmutation of one element into another is a fact, whether occurring naturally in radioactive substances or in the laboratory. Historians of science are poring over Newton's notebooks, finding links between his alchemical dreams and the foundations of modern science.