Alchemy: A Blemish on Isaac Newton’s Reputation

I’ve been thinking a lot about Isaac Newton lately. That’s because of this article from the Washington Post, which fellow writer and all around awesome person Jennifer Shelby recently shared on her blog.  The article wasn’t actually about Newton.  It was about alchemy.

The thing is, Newton happened to be a famous and highly accomplished alchemist (no, that’s the wrong way to say it).

The thing is, Newton happened to be a secret but highly skilled alchemist (no, that’s not quite right either).

The thing is, Newton tried really, really hard to be an alchemist.  That’s right. Newton was searching for the magical philosopher’s stone many centuries before Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter came along.  Obviously Newton never found it… unless there are more of Newton’s waste books out there that have yet to be uncovered and decoded (feel free to use that as a writing prompt, if you like).

Newton is famous for many things.  He used prisms to figure out how light works, and he was half right when he asserted that light is composed of tiny particles rather than waves.  Newton applied math to the mysteries of gravitation, and he showed that moons and falling apples have something important in common.  He also invented calculus (unless he stole the idea from someone else).

This alchemy stuff is generally seen as a blemish on Newton’s reputation as a scientist.  But the way I see it, the fact that Newton tried his hand at alchemy—along with many, many other things that never panned out for him—is one of the reasons Newton was such an admirable human being.

He tried stuff.  All sorts of stuff.  Anything and everything that caught his interest.  Most of it turned out to be a waste of his time, but a handful of Newton’s curious ideas led him to the scientific breakthroughs that made his reputation and his career, and ultimately secured his legacy as a great scientist.

So at the risk of repeating myself from Monday’s post, the lesson for today is: go try stuff.  Find out what doesn’t work, and figure out what does, and then… well, see where your discoveries might lead you.

P.S.: And speaking of Harry Potter, stay tuned for a special Harry Potter themed episode of Sciency Words this coming Friday!

8 Responses to Alchemy: A Blemish on Isaac Newton’s Reputation

  1. I’m definitely inspired to go and try stuff today. Newton sounds like he would have been a fascinating person to know and talk to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Glad to hear it! This has been turning into “try new stuff” week for me, though I’m not sure my schedule for today will allow me to do too much new stuff.

      Newton is one of the top historical figures that I wish I could meet. Unfortunately he had a reputation for being extremely rude to just about everyone, so maybe that meeting wouldn’t go so well.


  2. chemistken says:

    I never had a problem with Newton’s dabbling in Alchemy. Heck, I even had an idea once about writing a book based on him having discovered the Philosopher’s Stone.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s also worth noting that in Newton’s time, the delineation we have between science and other pursuits didn’t exist yet. He was also a theologian, who speculated about God’s hand in the parts of the solar system’s motions he couldn’t explain with mathematics. (Leading to Laplace’s famous quip, “I have no need of that hypothesis,” once he had filled in many of Newton’s gaps.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      You’re right, and I probably should have said more about that. Pretty much anyone who was educated at that time would have been educated about a broad spectrum of things. I know Thomas Jefferson, for example, was much the same way.

      I hadn’t heard that story about Laplace. That’s a really great quote. Thanks for that!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. gymnosperm says:

    Isaak Newton was not aware of atoms, much less fermions. The universe was the solar system. The Aether and Caloric misconceptions were not even even invented. Yet he somehow divined three term equations that will still get you to the moon. Folks totally expected apples to fall from trees back then. It took Newton to realize that the same force (which we still don’t understand) causes the planets to orbit the sun.

    Alchemy? We can make Au today if we wanted to. Just isn’t cost effective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Sounds like we’re on the same page, I think. Given what was known at the time, alchemy seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to learn about. It didn’t have the occult connotations it has today. Newton was smart to study it and see where his studies might lead.


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