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Newton the Alchemist

You may know that Issac Newton is a contender for the greatest physicist of all time. You may know that he invented calculus to amuse himself. But did you know he was a serious alchemist? Natalie Angier discusses Newton's fascination with alchemy in The Hindu.

How did one of the greatest scientists of all time get caught up in what is usually thought of today as superstition? She cites William Newman, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University in Bloomington, who has extensively studied Newton's alchemical work. "Alchemy was synonymous with chemistry," says Newman, "and chemistry was much bigger than transmutation."

Newman thinks that Newton's alchemical studies might have helped lead to his discovery that white light is a mixture of colors, that a ray of sunlight can be split into a spectrum and then recombined -- he says "alchemy was crucial to Newton's breakthroughs in optics...He's not just passing light through a prism -- he's resynthesising it."

This is just speculation on my part, but something else that Newton is known for is a complete absence of romantic entanglements. It's believed by many that he died a virgin. He didn't socialize, didn't enjoy the arts, and was in general a complete git. Was he just being a natural geek? Or, I wonder, could alchemical texts have influenced his attitudes -- which then might have gone on to set the model for geeks for generations to come? Take a look at some of the advice in the alchemical text Poemander, which shows a certain amount of hatred of the body and of the material world:

And let Him that is endued with Mind, know Himself to be Immortal; and that the cause of Death is the Love of the Body, and let Him Learn all Things that are.

When he had thus said, Providence by Fate and Harmony, made the mixtures, and established the Generations, and all things were multiplied according to their kind, and he that knew himself, came at length to the Superstantial of every way substantial good.

But he that through the Error of Love, loved the Body, abideth wandering in darkness, sensible, suffering the things of death.


Take heed what thou sayest, for I the Mind come unto men that are holy and good, pure and merciful, and that live piously and religiously; and my presence is a help unto them. And forthwith they know all things, and lovingly they supplicate and propitiate the Father; and blessing him, they give him thanks, and sing hymns unto him, being ordered and directed by filial Affection, and natural Love: And before they give up their Bodies to the death of them, they hate their Senses, knowing their Works and Operations.


First of all, in the resolution of the material Body, the Body itself is given up to alteration, and the form which it had, becometh invisible; and the idle manners are permitted, and left to the Demon, and the Senses of the Body return into their Fountains, being parts, and again made up into Operations.

And Anger and Concupiscence go into the brutish or unreasonable Nature; and the rest striveth upward by Harmony.

These alchemical texts, by the way, became an object of fascination for 19th century British occultists, leading to the formation of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia and the Hermetic Society in Britain, and then eventually the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the group into which Aleister Crowley was initiated in the 1890s and which gave him his training in the art of magic(k). Through him, modern occultism and Neopaganism have a significant link to these alchemical teachings -- though obviously, if my assumption about their influence on the virginal Newton is true, with a rather different interpretation!

(The history of these occult societies is discussed briefly in my forthcoming book Why Buddha Touched the Earth, by the way.)

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