William R. Newman

Professor William R. Newman
Dept. of History & Philosophy of Science, Indiana University

Theology in the Laboratory?
New Light on Isaac Newton's Alchemy

History Corner, Building 200, Room 307, Stanford University
Wednesday, May 5, 2004, 12:00 pm-1:30 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: Sir Isaac Newton is one of my scientific heroes when I was doing graduate research in physical chemistry at Cornell. I remember Alexander Pope's epitaph “Nature and Nature's law lay hid in night: / God said, "Let Newton be!" and all was light.” But my favorite Newton quote shows him in a more humble attitude: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” I also attended Frank E. Manuel's "Newton" lecture at MIT (1975) while doing protein prediction research at Brandeis. My fascination with Newton stems from the fact that not only did he revolutionized physics with his Principia, but he also explored religion (Commentaries on the Book of Daniel) as well as conducting alchemical studies as a spiritual discipline. So I came here to learn more about Newton & alchemy in today's Stanford lecture. Professor Michael Friedman of the Philosophy Department introduced William Newman, saying that they met as colleagues while teaching at Indiana University. He showed two of Newman's books on alchemy: Gehennical Fire: the Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution (1994), and another written with Lawrence M. Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (2002). Newman's latest book Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Art-Nature Debate will be published next month by University of Chicago Press. The building lights went out at 12:15 pm and didn't come on until 12:42 pm. Professor Newman couldn't show any slides until the electricity returned. He read his paper by the window where there was light. It seemed as if Newton's spirit came in to hear a topic that is so sacred and secret to his heart.

Newton wrote 131 manuscripts on alchemy, mostly undated.
He spelled it as Chymistry.
John Maynard Keynes, the economist, said in 1946:
"Newton was not the first of the age of reason,
he was the last of the magicians."

Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thoughts
said that Newton had no claims on alchemy.
Westfall wrote about Newton's "Clovis"
Newman went by the window to continue reading his paper.]
George Starkey (Harvard)— 1651 letter to Robert Boyle
von Helmont— conservation of mass in chemical reactions
the gross weight of the reactants to remain constant.
Late 1660's— Newton his alchemical studies
1st period: Newton's adolescence
2nd period: 1664-1673 Opticks
3rd period: 1670's
Newton was born on Christmas Day 1634.

Q & A Session:
Q: Did Newton go into a mine. I ask this since you mentioned the dripping liquid in mines?
A: Not that I know of.
[PYC Note: I recall reading one of Newton's early biographies at the Cornell library sometime in 1968. At the end of the book, in a letter Newton advised a travelling friend to visit mines and make careful observations. I forgot the book's author and title and wasn't sure of the details, so I kept quiet. Afterwards, I searched the Stanford Library catalog and found the book I had read— Sir David Brewster's Memoirs of the life, writings, & discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, T. Constable & Co., Edinburgh (1860). Stanford didn't have a copy of this book except on microfilm (MFILM N.S.10765). Typing "Isaac Newton + mines" in Google, I found Newton's letter: Written at Trinity College, Cambridge on May 18, 1669, Newton's Advice #9: “Observe the products of nature in several places, especially in mines, with the circumstances of mining, and of extracting metals or minerals out of their oare, and of refining them; and if you meet with any transmutations out of their own species into another, as out of iron into copper, out of any metal into quicksilver, out of one salt into another, or into an insipid body, etc., those above all will be worth your noting, being the most luciferous, and many times luciferous experiments too in philosophy.” Since Goethe was multi-talented, the Duke of Weimar appointed Goethe as the Director of the Theatre as well as Meteorology and Mining. Goethe's writings on rehabilitating the silver mines at Ilmenau was featured at Yale's 1999 exhibition Goethe the Scientist.
Q: You referred quite often to sulphur and mercury, their combination to form metals.
Avicenna talked about this in his edition of Aristotle.
A: Geber's Meteorology discusses this. Geber and Avicenna.
corpusular theory— small and large particles combination
tiny particles of the four elements— form sulphur & mercury
Geber— combination rather than mixtures
Q: Boyle says elements are destroyed when mixed
A: Aristotle says that you can't get elements back after mixing.
In the 16th century, Scaliger talks about separating wine & water with sea lettuce.
re-asserting Aristotle. The Jesuits adopted Aquinas in the 16th century
so the viewpoints became more homogeneous. In the 13th-14th century,
there were more heterogeneous viewpoints.
Q: The quintessence was an intermediary between heaven & earth.
A: Ficino in his Vita talks about the Platonic spirit of life on earth.
a reworking of the quintessence.
Q: Can you elaborate on the term "vulgar" which Newton applied to chemists
and the term "This is the work. This is the labor."
A: Dobbs' anachronism (?) The "vulgar" is the mechanical method.
There is a more profound level which is more subtle.
Geber's Summa Perfectionis says there is a more sophistical way:
Mercury & Sulphur to make vermillion (can get Hg & S back afterwards)
silver & gold
Q: Can you show the transparencies which you couldn't during the blackout?
A: Sure! This one mentions the seed solution with amalgam
Q: What was the French attitude toward alchemy?
A: Larry [Principe] and I wrote on this in Alchemy Tried in the Fire.
In the last couple of decades of the 17th century and early 18th century,
the French disconnected themselves on transmutation with alchemy.
They adopted chemistry which rejected alchemy.
Q: I'm impressed by Westfall's Newton's alchemical studies.
Newton's Cartesian style of approach & Newton's action at a distance.
Newton goes underground for a while. Hooke (?)
Where do you stand?
Dobbs & Westfall's theological take
through deeper engagement with alchemical literature
A: Gravitational attraction can be seen in Newton (1685)
when he rejected mechanical ether of alchemy as cause of gravitation
John Henry (20 years ago, 1984?) says everyone talked
of attraction in the 17th century
Q: Not just Descartes, but Leibniz and Huygens too.
A: This was a wildly-held view, except for Descartes
Ted Maguire said you could get the same idea from Henry More
Q: What did Boyle say about light particles?
A: I haven't read all of Boyle.
Boyle was reticent on particles of light.
He didn't use the terms associating & dissociating
Newton used these terms.
Q: Elaborate more on Newton's use of "light"
A: I wish there was a smoking gun. It's heuristic.
Here is a slide of Newton's prism of red & blue
Here is a slide showing a beam of light through a pinhole
It's 21 feet away projected on a wall
Q: Did Newton include chemistry in Natural Philosophy?
A: He's not going to do that?
Chemistry was not included in Natural Philosophy
in the university curricula back then.
Q: Action at a distance quote from Newton's Principia?
Ockham's razor.
A: Can't give you a satisfactory answer.
Q: (PYC): Did Newton publish his alchemical studies during his lifetime, or did he keep it secret?
I ask this because Goethe tried to keep his alchemical studies secret from his friend Herder.
A: Newton had published some of his studies in Opticks.
Newton had an alchemical name—
Goethe had studied alchemy with a woman mentor—
Q: I work in the laboratory and wonder how much of Newton's
alchemical procedures will be available on the web?
A: The Newton Project will be putting online protocols.
Q: Do you discount Newton's religious veil—
spirits washing the earth?
A: You can never discount Newton's religious works.
Carl Jung used alchemy as a psychic process.
Mircae Eliade also compare alchemy to shamanism.
Q: (PYC): Michael Maier's Emblema engravings are spiritual in nature.
The slide which you showed Emblema XII with the lame Saturn
seems to associate Saturn with melancholia that Dürer
did in his engraving Melencolia [1514] where the
Magic Square of Jupiter will offset Saturn's malefic influence.
A: Dürer didn't study alchemy. He had the Magic Square,
the hourglass, a polyhedron, tools of all sorts scattered
on the floor in Melencolia. But it's not an alchemical laboratory.
Q: (PYC): Except the bellows under the angel's skirt.


Books by William R. Newman: (at Amazon.com)

William R. Newman
Promethean Ambitions:
Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature

University of Chicago Press (June 2004)

William R. Newman & Lawrence M. Principe,
Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle,
and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry

University of Chicago Press (2002) [QD18 .G7 N48 2002]

William R. Newman
Gehennical Fire: the Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution
University of Chicago Press (1994) [QD24.S73 N49 1994]

William R. Newman
The Summa Perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber:
a Critical Edition, Translation and Study

Brill, Leiden (1991) [QD25 .G36713 1991]

William R. Newman & Anthony Grafton (Editors)
Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy
in Early Modern Europe

MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (2001) [BF1676 .S43 2001]

Christoph Lüthy, John E. Murdoch, William R. Newman
Late Medieval and Early Modern Corpuscular Matter Theories, Brill, Leiden (2001) [QC173.38 .L38 2001]

Web Links to William R. Newman
Indiana University, History & Philosophy of Science: William Newman (Ph.D. Harvard, 1986)
  (Research interests focus on early modern "chymistry" and late medieval "alchemy"
  exemplifed by Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Daniel Sennert, & George Starkey)
Newton's Alchemy, recreated
  (William Newman's webpage at Indiana University)
William R. Newman's CV
  (Indiana University, 1996-present)
A Bibliography of William R. Newman
  (Books & Journal Articles— compiled 5-27-2003)
William R. Newman: "Alchemy, the Visual Arts and the Replication of Nature"
  (Conference: Art as Science & Science as Art, MD-Berlin, Sept. 15, 2001)
William R. Newman: "Alchemy, Domination, and Gender"
  (Noretta Koertge, Ed., A House Built on Sand:
  exposing postmodernist myths about science
, 1998)
Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey
  (University of Chicago Press: 1994 book by Newman reprinted 2002)
Alchemy Tried in the Fire
  (University of Chicago Press: 2002 book by Newman & Principe)
Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature
  (University of Chicago Press: 2004 book by Newman)
Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe
  (MIT Press: 2001 book edited by Newman & Grafton)
The Summa Perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber
  (Brill Academic Publishers: 1991 book translated & edited by Newman)
Late Medieval and Early Modern Corpuscular Matter Theories
  (Brill Academic Publishers: 2001 book edited by Newman et. al)

Web Links to Isaac Newton & Alchemy
The Newton Project (Imperial College, London)
  (Electronic edition of all of Isaac Newton's works)
Newton the Alchemist
  (By D.W. Hauck, Alchemy Lab)
Isaac Newton's Hidden Agenda of Mysticism and Alchemy
  (The Wall Street Journal Bookshelf, February 19, 1998 pg. A20)
Newton's Vice: Some say alchemy inspired our greatest scientist
  (Smithsonian Magazine, December 2000)
BOOK REVIEW: James Gleick's Isaac Newton: Do Sit Under the Apple Tree
  (By Owen Gingerich, NY Times, June 15, 2003)
Who Were the Alchemists?
  (By Joseph Caezza, The Alchemy Web Site)
Alchemy texts archives: Newton and Alchemy
  (Alchemy Web Site: www.levity.com)
At the Fulcrum of Time [Newton & Alchemy]
  (By Joseph M. Reagle Jr., University of Maryland, Baltimore County)
Isaac Newton (Wikipedia)
  (Biography, Optics, Writings, Reading, External Links)
Isaac Newton: Alchemist [#967]
  (By John H. Lienhard, Engines of Our Ingenuity)
Magic and Science in Early Modern Europe: Newton
  (Trinity College, Cambridge, UK)
Newton— His Life, His Books
  (Trinity College, Cambridge, UK)
Isaac Newton (1642-1727): Historiographical Review
  (Alchemical Interests, Religious & Theological Views)
Isaac Newton and Astrology: Witness for the Defence or for the Prosecution?
  (By Robert H. van Gent, Correlation: J. Research Astrology, 12 (1993) 33-37)
Sir Isaac Newton: The Gravity of Genius
  (A&E telecast on June 8, 2004
Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
  (Brief biography & a beautiful portrait of Newton)

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