The Cambridge Companion to Newton

By I. Bernard Cohen; George E. Smith | Go to book overview

11
The background to Newton's
chymistry
WILLIAM NEWMAN

To those who are unfamiliar with the history of alchemy, the image of Isaac Newton poring over manuscripts illuminated strangely with dragons, sceptered gods, and couples copulating within flasks cannot fail to educe a strikingly discordant tone. How could such a great mathematical mind, the father of modern physics, concern himself with such seemingly unintelligible gibberish? Must we simply throw up our hands at the “superstitious” Zeitgeist of the age, as Newton's nineteenth-century biographers did, and conclude that he was deluded by the work of “a fool and a knave”? 1 Should we conclude, with more recent scholars of Newton's alchemy, that he was engaged in a fundamentally religious quest in which alchemy would provide the key by which God's immaterial activity could be linked to the phenomenal world of matter? 2 Or is there yet another answerthat Newton's alchemical research was primarily an investigation of the microstructure of matter, the forces of chemical affinity, and the ability of material substances to undergo radical transformation in the laboratory? 3 Needless to say, the matter is not easy to decide, given that Newton copied, abstracted, commented upon, and composed about a million words of manuscript material on the subject of alchemy, over a period spanning more than thirty years. 4 One thing, however, is sure: in order to understand Newton's fascination with alchemy, we must not consider the enterprise from an anachronistic viewpoint that equates alchemy with the irrational, the mystical, or the anti-mechanical. If we wish to comprehend Newton's deep involvement in this subject, we must have a firm grounding in the subject of alchemy as it existed in the seventeenth century.

Despite the image of gold-making and charlatanry that alchemy may conjure up in the minds of modern readers, the term “alchemy”

-358-

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The Cambridge Companion to Newton
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Figures vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Preface xiii
  • Introduction 1
  • Notes *
  • 1 - Newton's Philosophical Analysis of Space and Time 33
  • Notes *
  • 2 - Newton's Concepts of Force and Mass, with Notes on the Laws of Motion 57
  • Notes *
  • 3 - Curvature in Newton's Dynamics 85
  • Notes *
  • 4 - The Methodology of the Principia 138
  • Notes *
  • 5 - Newton's Argument for Universal Gravitation 174
  • Notes *
  • 6 - Newton and Celestial Mechanics 202
  • Notes *
  • 7 - Newton's Optics and Atomism 227
  • Notes *
  • 8 - Newton's Metaphysics 256
  • Notes *
  • 9 - Analysis and Synthesis in Newton's Mathematical Work 308
  • Notes *
  • 10 - Newton, Active Powers, and the Mechanical Philosophy 329
  • Notes *
  • 11 - The Background to Newton's Chymistry 358
  • Notes *
  • 12 - Newton's Alchemy 370
  • Notes *
  • 13 - Newton on Prophecy and the Apocalypse 387
  • Notes *
  • 14 - Newton and Eighteenth-Century Christianity 409
  • Notes *
  • 15 - Newton Versus Leibniz: from Geometry to Metaphysics 431
  • Notes *
  • 16 - Newton and the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence 455
  • Notes *
  • Bibliography 465
  • Index 481
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