Alchemy: A Blemish on Isaac Newton’s Reputation

July 18, 2018

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!