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Sir Isaac Newton, Alchemist

samzenpus posted more than 3 years ago | from the philosopher's-stone dept.

United Kingdom 330

Hugh Pickens writes "Natalie Angier writes in The Hindu that it is now becoming clear that Newton spent thirty years of his life slaving over a furnace in search of the power to transmute one chemical element into another. Angier writes, 'How could the ultimate scientist have been seemingly hornswoggled by a totemic pseudoscience like alchemy, which in its commonest rendering is described as the desire to transform lead into gold?' Now new historical research describes how alchemy yielded a bounty of valuable spinoffs, including new drugs, brighter paints, stronger soaps and better booze. 'Alchemy was synonymous with chemistry,' says Dr. William Newman, 'and chemistry was much bigger than transmutation.' Newman adds that Newton's alchemical investigations helped yield one of his fundamental breakthroughs in physics: his discovery that white light is a mixture of colored rays that can be recombined with a lens. 'I would go so far as to say that alchemy was crucial to Newton's breakthroughs in optics,' says Newman. 'He's not just passing light through a prism — he's resynthesizing it.'"

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Science (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889178)

Science is not a field of study it is the approach.

And lead CAN be turned into gold... (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889284)

Also, it certainly isn't pseudoscience to turn elements into other elements. Nuclear reactions can do this, just not in large quantities. Their methods were incorrect, but the idea itself is not ridiculous.

Re:And lead CAN be turned into gold... (5, Interesting)

fractoid (1076465) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889508)

Exactly. And most importantly, science is about testing your assumptions in order to verify them. If Newton made a systematic, scientific study of alchemy, then he was practicing science, not "a totemic pseudoscience". He may not have managed to turn lead into gold but I'd bet he learned a lot.

Re:Science (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889340)

It's obvious because of the stability of lead that you won't be able to do it by chemical means (which is, I guess, often implied). However, with nuclear transmutation [wikipedia.org] is definitely possible to change bismuth into lead and lead into gold [doi.org] . For now, it will cost you more than the gold is worth, but once energy becomes almost free...

Re:Science (1)

zblack_eagle (971870) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889592)

For now, it will cost you more than the gold is worth, but once energy becomes almost free...

...then gold and lead will be worth the same. Likely the value of lead will go up and the value of gold will go down in proportion to supply and demand of the respective elements.

Re:Science (5, Insightful)

UnknowingFool (672806) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889622)

It's obvious because of the stability of lead that you won't be able to do it by chemical means (which is, I guess, often implied). However, with nuclear transmutation is definitely possible to change bismuth into lead and lead into gold. For now, it will cost you more than the gold is worth, but once energy becomes almost free..

It is obvious now after hundreds of years of rigorous theory and testing. In Newton's time, it wasn't clear whether some new, unknown chemical would turn lead into gold. We know now from atomic theory that lead and gold have different number of protons and simple chemical change would not convert one to another. Chemistry at the time was in its infancy. The law of conservation of matter wasn't stated by Antoine Lavoisier [wikipedia.org] , which many historians consider the father of modern chemistry, until 1789 (some 60 years after Newton died). Even then Lavoisier proposed that heat was caused by a weightless fluid called caloric so he wasn't right about everything.

Re:Science (5, Interesting)

PopeRatzo (965947) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889876)

It is obvious now after hundreds of years of rigorous theory and testing. In Newton's time, it wasn't clear whether some new, unknown chemical would turn lead into gold.

Alchemy was only partially about the transmutation of actual metals. When it talks about turning "lead" into "gold" it is usually talking about a spiritual refinement, a transformation of the base animal aspects of humanity (lead) to a higher, more platonically pure state (gold). If you've read Anathem by Neal Stephenson, you'll find many ideas of science and math that are informed by this tradition. The notion that alchemy was about making gold misses the entire point. The transmutation of metals was as much about misdirecting the Grand Inquisitors as it was about making gold.

For a very interesting discussion of alchemy, I highly recommend the book Stairway to Heaven: Chinese Alchemists, Jewish Kabbalists, and the Art of Spiritual Transformation by the great historian Peter Levenda. It's also worth reading Manly P. Hall's The Secret Teachings of All Ages as an entertaining overview to the philosophical aspects of alchemy.

Explain why Science ASSUMES Evolution as true. (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889482)

It is true, I collect evidence supporting Evolution is true, I have no conjecture other than religion is only Societal not Natural.

When did matter begin to molecularly associate, and when does matter become sentient, and what urge causes the matter to progress this way as though it was a timeless sequence of re-assembl then destroy?

Why are most scientists Catholic, and wherever there are no Catholics to spread those methods they are Freemasons in their place, and wherever the Freemasons have no standing then you see Jews importing muslims to induce the native population to join a club that eventually gets absorbed into Freemasonry?

Does that progression of Society to alienation remind you of Creation if not parasitic Recreation?

Re:Explain why Science ASSUMES Evolution as true. (2)

skelterjohn (1389343) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889492)

...

Re:Explain why Science ASSUMES Evolution as true. (4, Funny)

blackraven14250 (902843) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889494)

Why are most scientists Catholic

What the fuck are you smoking?

Re:Explain why Science ASSUMES Evolution as true. (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889514)

What the fuck are you smoking?

Some holy shit!

SCIENCE: Evidence directs Questions,not results. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889562)

When a Scientist observes a thing in motion, or even the EFFECTS of a thing in motion, then they only derive an answer as to it's existance.

What the parent was asserting is that the existance of something immeasurable will only allow a Science to perceive the effects and not the Origin.

Science can only trace the Origin of something, not ask any question greater than the knowledge of it's Existance.

Hence: we perceive Light, we can find the source, we can perceive the effects of the Light on our skin because that's all we can perceive it by when we are blind; therefore we can derive questions for further testing to slowly progress techniques to give more accurate measurements about the Light without assuming the existance and origin and decay and peek of it's source; we only can discern the present nature, not make conclusions because time is immeasurable to decide the full range of behaviour of a thing in motion.

Science is originally Cautious only by gentele people, never by inquisitors that want to cause Societal problems.

RELIGION:this Science is religion,not science. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889760)

When you use Science as a noun, then it derives itself the full-effect of a religion in it's self to progress it's techniques for determining the proof of a matter. Regardless of what people perceive, the science of a matter truly is unknown until there are tests to isolate existance of a matter.

The only difference between religion and science is that religion secures the full knowledge of the Original subject that conclusions can be made to direct the course of events that brought the Origin into existance.

It is a tactical disadvantage to publish the knowledge of the Origin, so often a religion of Science will re-create the Effects of that Existance so as to indirectly preserve the evidence of a matter without giving disclosure of the absolute procedures to measure the matter.

Where the preservation of such Societal body would aim to move the bodies in motion under it's guidance, it would implement proprietary tokens as the effects of it's evidence; some societies synthesize tokens by a scarce measure so as to regulate and assure their Society will progress without competition while retaining all it's motives in retinue.

Does this explain why Science, Religion, and Country are almost indistinguishable except when they are directed by Objectors to compete with one another on unrelated subject matter? The Token of Christianity is love in nature, of Science is cred-ability to subject things, and money to the rhyme of whose?

I know this. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889712)

He smokes Marlboro(tm),

You smoke Cock(sm).

Re:Explain why Science ASSUMES Evolution as true. (2, Funny)

pieisgood (841871) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889780)

From the contents of his post, I'd wager DMT.

Re:Science (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889636)

"You are not worthy of the name scientists! May the pox consume your shrivelled peterkins!"

Re:Science (4, Insightful)

blahplusplus (757119) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889738)

"Science is not a field of study it is the approach."

I think one forgets that human beings start at near ground zero as well, it's easy after the fact to know things are errors then it is to know them during the time one lives. How many errors in science today will look just as bad as alchemy in the future?

Science (4, Interesting)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889180)

Even in Newton's time, science hadn't really fully evolved. Certainly the methodological underpinnings were well on the way, but it was really another 50-100 years after Newton that we saw science blossom. Guys like Galileo and Newton stand on the threshold, and Newton took some big steps in the right direction, but there was still a lot of mumbo-jumbo out there, some of which persisted in some sciences into the late Victorian era (take Victorian racial "theory", for instance).

Re:Science (1)

itsybitsy (149808) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889230)

"... there was still a lot of mumbo-jumbo out there ..."

Still is, if not more so. I'm not just talking about homeopathy or magical crystals or other new age clapp trap, lots of wild claims and other mumbo jumbo are made in the name of other fields of science without the hard evidence to back it up.

Re:Science (3, Interesting)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889268)

The chief difference is that we have developed ways of at least separating legitimate areas of research from quackery. Homeopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists and the whole long litany of frauds and whackos certainly can gain some traction with the general public, but you won't exactly find them publishing in peer-reviewed journals. And even when you get the odd crackpot like Andrew Wakefield (well, more than likely he's a con-artist, but you get the point) who does manage to get past the gates, it doesn't last forever. In the case of the MMR-autism scam, the fault seems to have been in having the balls to just come out and declare the whole thing a fraud, but maybe in Britain, with its nutty libel laws, the Lancet had to be a bit more careful.

Re:Science (1)

jamesh (87723) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889388)

Careful. Chiropractors don't like being discredited.

Re:Science (4, Insightful)

Lotana (842533) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889398)

Offtopic:

You mentioned chiropractors in your list of frauds. I was always under the impression that all chiropractors do is pop your joins back to how they supposed to be after you been an idiot by sitting in that uncomfortable chair for several days. Nothing more.

Is there some mystical part to the field being pushed that I am not aware of? Do they claim to do more besides physical task of setting your bones straight?

Re:Science (4, Informative)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889430)

Yes, to put it mildly [wikipedia.org]

The core concept of chiropractic, vertebral subluxation, is not based on sound science. Research has not demonstrated that spinal manipulation, the main treatment method employed by all chiropractors, is effective for any medical condition, with the possible exception of treatment for back pain

Re:Science (5, Informative)

rgmoore (133276) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889442)

Is there some mystical part to the field being pushed that I am not aware of?

Yes. Chiropractic was originally a semi-mystical practice like a lot of pre-scientific medicine. The founders claimed that all sickness was caused by misalignment of the joints, so they could cure any disease by correcting the misalignments. A minority of chiropractors today still make those claims. They also oppose a lot of other modern scientific medicine, including vaccination.

Re:Science (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889460)

Depending on the chiropractic school, a large percentage of chiropractors claim that many non-back ailments are caused by "subluxations" and, rather than simply popping the back into place, will try to sign the patient up for a continuing treatment (usually accompanied by NOT popping the back into place to prevent the patient from cancelling), claiming that the root cause of the back misalignment is an underlying muscle asymmetry which requires recurring office visits.

The honest/non-cultish ones just pop you into place and send you on your way.

Re:Science (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889522)

Sometimes. There are 'hard' and 'soft' chiropractors. Hard ones claim that all disease can be treated by manipulating the spine (got diabetes? I can fix that by popping your back!), soft ones mostly just claim to treat some back problems with a good massage. The first group are absolute cranks that rank right up there with reflexologists and other horseshit peddlers, the second group, they might do some good, but still, I'd much rather go with some sort of physical therapist.

Re:Science (4, Funny)

Minwee (522556) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889344)

lots of wild claims and other mumbo jumbo are made in the name of other fields of science without the hard evidence to back it up.

We're talking about Newton here. Why did you have to go and bring Economists into it?

Re:Science (2, Insightful)

Kirijini (214824) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889512)

...homeopathy or magical crystals or other new age clapp trap...

Most homeopathy and new age healing methods don't actually make scientific claims (in part because they can't), they're spiritual endeavors that depend to a great degree on the belief of the "patient." If you put your "faith" in science and hard data, then, yeah, avoid new age healing. But there's nothing wrong with spiritual fulfillment and/or the placebo effect.

Yeah, there are frauds out there who claim they can cure cancer with magic charms, and that's dangerous. But most new agey healers deal with things like joint pain, chronic pain, headaches, and other ailments that are likely stress and/or posture related, and so really just need belief by the patient that they've been healed, or some kind of spiritual fulfillment. Sometimes there are things that pills or surgery can't fix.

The real mumbo jumbo is astrology, because it does make scientific claims.

Re:Science (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889564)

From what I can tell new age healing systems do indeed make claims, and if you're going to make claims about physical phenomena then those claims can be tested. This is why the Brits are gearing up to stop taxpayers paying for all the alternative therapies. Want to throw your money at a witchdoctor in a lab coat, be my guest, just don't do it on the public's dime.

Re:Science (3, Insightful)

c6gunner (950153) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889582)

Selling people lies is always wrong. You can dress it up in "spirituality" and "faith" and whatever other nonsense is currently popular in your society, but you can't change the fact that you're taking money from people by lying to them. The fact that you're also helping spread ignorance only adds insult to injury.

Re:Science (3, Insightful)

Kirijini (214824) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889632)

The new age healers I've known are 1) nice people who want to help you, and 2) honest about what they can and can't do.

Don't forget that many people voluntarily give money to their church every sunday, and are happy to do so, and feel that it's the right thing to do. You could call that "taking money from people by lying to them," but you're ignoring that people are getting spiritual fulfillment and moral satisfaction from it. It's the same thing with spiritual healing. A lot of people do feel better afterwords, and in fact feel better served by spiritual healing than from whatever treatment a doctor gives them. Bear in mind that I'm talking about treatment for things like chronic pain and headaches, not cancer or infectious diseases.

Re:Science (4, Insightful)

c6gunner (950153) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889700)

Don't forget that many people voluntarily give money to their church every sunday, and are happy to do so, and feel that it's the right thing to do. You could call that "taking money from people by lying to them," ....

And I do. Many people, likewise, voluntarily give their entire life savings to the Church of Scientology, or give their 13-year-old-daughters to the head of their cult. Saying that people do it "willingly" is meaningless when the problem at hand is that people are being manipulated and lied to.

An assumption based on lack of evidence (2, Insightful)

LongearedBat (1665481) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889852)

Some things may wrongly appear to be mumbo jumbo, because we have not researched them properly yet.

Re:Science (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889240)

Theres still a lot of mumbo-jumbo out there now, you just perceive it differently.

Re:Science (4, Informative)

radicalskeptic (644346) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889244)

For a fairly entertaining examination of this idea, someone might want to check out out Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle books. I've only gotten through the first (Quicksilver) but it takes place during Newton's lifetime and Newton himself is one of the more major characters, along with Leibnitz and other less famous "natural philosophers."

Re:Science (1)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889538)

it takes place during Newton's lifetime and Newton himself is one of the more major characters, along with Leibnitz and other less famous "natural philosophers."

Does it feature the infamous Newton vs Leibnitz Calculus Slap Fight?

Re:Science (0)

Boronx (228853) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889568)

Nobody knows

Re:Science (1)

zooblethorpe (686757) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889574)

Does it feature the infamous Newton vs Leibnitz Calculus Slap Fight?

It's been a while since I read it, but I think I remember that being mentioned. Also, it includes a rough recipe for distilling white and/or red phosphorous from vats-worth of fermented pee -- whoohoo!

Cheers,

Re:Science (4, Informative)

Mateorabi (108522) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889610)

Yes, and it's actually a major motivator that drives the plot, even if the argument itself only gets a bit of ink. It's the whole reason Waterhouse is called back from the colonies to England.

Re:Science (2, Interesting)

drawlight (1494543) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889646)

A while back (June 5 2009) Tom Levenson was talking about his book, "Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist," on Science Friday http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105012144 [npr.org] . A caller asked the Levenson about Stephenson's work. Levenson said that the Newton's voice was so plausible that he had stopped reading them until he had finished his own book.

Also, don't give up reading the trilogy! It gets better and a lot of the pieces don't come together until the final book.

Re:Science (1)

rycamor (194164) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889732)

A while back (June 5 2009) Tom Levenson was talking about his book, "Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist," on Science Friday http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105012144 [npr.org] . A caller asked the Levenson about Stephenson's work. Levenson said that the Newton's voice was so plausible that he had stopped reading them until he had finished his own book.

Very interesting to note. I had been wondering about that part of the story.

Also, don't give up reading the trilogy! It gets better and a lot of the pieces don't come together until the final book.

Absolutely!. I am at the last 100 pages right now and it surely does not lose steam. Nor punk. (OK, I'll stop now)

Re:Science (5, Insightful)

phantomfive (622387) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889446)

There likely is still a lot of mumbo-jumbo out there (string theory, perhaps?). Science doesn't mean being right. Science, in a single word, might be described as 'evidence-based.' Before science, people trusted people like Aristotle for no other reason than that he was Aristotle. Now when we trust scientists, we're not doing it because we think they have some god-given right, but because we trust that they've looked at the evidence, and we can look at that evidence too if we have the time/desire.

This is why Galileo and Newton are still scientists, even though there was a lot they didn't know. They ran experiments, and looked at what really happened, instead of debating based on what someone said a thousand years before. In Newton's alchemy, he was still experimenting to see what could be done, not writing long dissertations without ever turning on a burner. Seriously, that's what people did before science: before the idea of basing things on evidence.

Nullius in Verba, "On the words of no man," this is what science is; if a man is not backed up by evidence, his words are useless.

Re:Science (4, Insightful)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889534)

Except that even proponents of string theories admit that there's no evidence for it currently, and that it will be some time before we can even create the technology to indirectly test for these theories. As much as anything else, science is defined by how cautiously it approaches theories like super strings, brane theory, and so forth. They're intriguing ideas that physicists will be the first to state may explain the universe, or may just be delightful mathematical models that have nothing to do with reality.

The scientific method came into existence because of guys like Galileo and Newton, but the full genesis of methodological naturalism really wasn't until the end of the 18th century. I won't say that Newton weren't scientists within the framework of natural philosophy, but as far as being modern scientists like Darwin and Maxwell, they still weren't quite there.

Re:Science (1)

subk (551165) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889736)

About your sig: there is no such thing as I50.

Re:Science (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889868)

And there's no such thing as Moped Jesus, either.

The Alchemists (2, Interesting)

b4upoo (166390) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889186)

Most people are unaware that the alchemists created a fairly accurate periodic chart of the elements before the science of chemistry took over. Obviously they did not know about the more exotic nuclear elements which are still being discovered from time to time.

Re: The Alchemists (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889314)

Er, exotic nuclear elements?

Re: The Alchemists (0)

Minwee (522556) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889370)

Er, exotic nuclear elements?

Okay, okay. "Exotic Nookular Elements". Happier now?

No? How about Erotic Nookular Elephants? Neurotic Rookular El-mints? How would you pronounce it?

Re: The Alchemists (2, Funny)

Centurix (249778) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889436)

Ladyboyarium springs to mind, with its unexpected extra Boson.

Re: The Alchemists (5, Informative)

pmc (40532) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889318)

No they didn't - they started off with the four elements of air, earth, fire and water. Then they realised that there were maybe a score of "elements" (even the concept was vague), and there was no systematic organisation or predictive value from it. This took a few hundred years. Most importantly they did not realise the that properties of the elements repeat themselves (which is where the concept of the periodic part of the name comes from).

The comment that they created a "fairly accurate periodic chart" is risible.

Re: The Alchemists (4, Interesting)

je ne sais quoi (987177) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889496)

I think this is still off. My impression is that they considered that different elements and different substances like air, earth, fire, water, gold, lead, etc. were all composed of differing amounts of a single substance. This is what's known as the "ether [alchemylab.com] ", i.e. some sort of form of matter that everything existed in and moved through. The odd thing about it is that Lorentz and Abraham in the 1890s were trying to come up with a theory of the electron in part to discover why efforts to detect the Earth's movement through this ether failed (reference [nature.com] ). It wasn't until Einstein & Co. came up with the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics was discovered that the nature of atomic elements really begun to be understood.

The point is that while the alchemists' conception of the element was not very good, a truly better concept didn't really arise until the 20th century. Nobody seriously challenges quantum mechanics now, but it's easy to forget just how recent this understanding was really arrived at.

Re: The Alchemists (2, Informative)

whitesea (1811570) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889466)

Mendeleev, who came up with a periodic table (the story goes that he saw it in his sleep) was not an alchemist. He is a bona fide chemist. Besides periodic table, he has two more claims to fame. He invented vodka and he was able to pour liquids from a pail into a test-tube without losing a single drop.

Also a WASP (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889190)

And we all know how silly that is to-day.

slow news day (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889210)

if there ever was one.

there are exactly 10 kinds of people who don't know about newton's alchemy involvement -- those who never read a highschool physics book and have forgotten about it.

It is *now* becoming clear? (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889228)

This has literally been known .. well, since Newton. Hardly a secret he spent more time on alchemy than on what's subsequently been regarded as real science.
Many 'scientists' before science-as-we-know it dabbled in pseudoscience and nonsense, e.g. Kepler did astrology as well as astronomy.

Newton heralded the modern age of science, but he _wasn't_ the first scientist in the modern sense, he was 'the last magician', as James Gleick put it.

Re:It is *now* becoming clear? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889860)

Many 'scientists' before science-as-we-know it dabbled in pseudoscience and nonsense

"Science" is a collection of theories. "Pseudoscience" is merely a "theory" that contradicts science's established theories. Before those theories were established, there was nothing for that pseudoscientific "theory" to contradict, and therefore it was a valid scientific theory.

Today's pseudoscience is always yesterday's science.

Re:It is *now* becoming clear? (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889880)

Nope. Pseudo-science is basically claims that use science-like nomenclature to make BS sound like it's supported by science. Intelligent Design is an example of pseudoscience.

His Alchemist Title (3, Interesting)

Monkey_Genius (669908) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889258)

Falling Apple Alchemist.

Re:His Alchemist Title (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889702)

Not the Integral Alchemist?

Human experience is not quantized (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889266)

Why do people try to apply discrete epochs to human history? I guess its ok to define them, but to actually apply it as a discontinuity is dumb. Just look at current events. Hell, when Hubble was discovering galaxies some dude was writing papers about insect migrations on the moon.

Re:Human experience is not quantized (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889332)

It's true that things tend to happen in a continuum. Still, the Principia stands out even in a quick run through of recorded history as one of the greatest achievements of the human mind. Newton certainly stood on the shoulders of his own giants, but that is definitely a moment in time in which our entire view of the Universe changed in fundamental ways. Yes, Copernicus, Galileo and Leibniz, among others, pointed the way, but there's an incredible gravity (pun intended) to the publishing of the Principia. It remains one of the undisputed watershed moments in time.

Re:Human experience is not quantized (4, Interesting)

TapeCutter (624760) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889532)

He was an odd character that crammed a lot into his life, some were great scientific/mathematical achivements, some were great social achievments (gold standard) and some were just batshit crazy by our current standards. For example; he wrote almost a million words on the numerology of 666, stuck pins in his eyes to investigate the nature of light, claimed jesus was sent to earth to "operate the levers of gravity", and sucked down mecury fumes from the alchemist's bowl. But by shear volume his most prolific work was not as a scientist or alchemist but as a theologan.

I found it kinda sad when I went to see his grave at Wesminster Abbey, I asked one of the attendents where Newton's grave was and he said "Ahhh, a Davinci code fan, eh?", I replied a little indignantly - "No, I'm a Newton fan".

So what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889298)

Working with "totemic psuedoscience like alchemy" in the 17th century is completly different than doing the same thing today. He used the "knowledge" that was at his disposal at the time. Non story here, since Newton has done more work one the "mystical things" than Physics.

Didn't realise this wasn't widely known (5, Insightful)

Bertie (87778) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889304)

I mean, Bill Bryson talks about it at some length in his eminently readable Short History Of Nearly Everything. As well as being into alchemy, he "spent endless hours studying the floor plan of the lost temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem (teaching himself Hebrew in the process, the better to scan original texts) in the belief that it held mathematical clues to the second coming of Christ and the end of the world."

Bryson also reports that John Maynard Keynes bought a load of his papers at auction, only to find that the great majority of them were about alchemy, rather than optics or astronomy.

Re:Didn't realise this wasn't widely known (3, Informative)

MaskedSlacker (911878) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889400)

It is widely known, but everyone except the /. editors.

Re:Didn't realise this wasn't widely known (3, Informative)

DesScorp (410532) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889794)

More than mathematics or alchemy or anything else, he greatest love was theology. He spend more time writing about religion than any other subject. He was a non-Trinitarian Christian, probably Arian [wikipedia.org] in his theology, a position I'm somewhat sympathetic to. He had to keep this quiet during his life... there were serious consequences in Britain at the time for dissenting from Anglican doctrine... but he wrote effusively on religion and professed his deep love and awe for God and his works. Newton wouldn't be very sympathetic to Stephen Hawking's "no need for a God" reasoning:

"

Although the laws of motion and universal gravitation became Newton's best-known discoveries, he warned against using them to view the Universe as a mere machine, as if akin to a great clock. He said, "Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done."

Modern scientists would largely consider his beliefs an embarrassment, but I admire the man a great deal. He was the very picture of a full life, mentally, physically, and spiritually. He accomplished more and blazed more trails than most of us will ever dream of doing. He was a polymath that did everything from improving the state of telescopes to serving in Parliament.

Not news... (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889308)

PBS did an episode of NOVA on this several years ago [pbs.org] .

Re:Not news... (1)

aka1nas (607950) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889342)

One of the dead tree science mags did an article about this a month or two ago as well (I think it was American Scientist).

Re:Not news... (1)

mattack2 (1165421) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889648)

Yup, that was my first reaction too. I think people often say 'not news' too quickly... But maybe they're all right.

He was an early physicist (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889326)

They can convert atoms into other atoms in the right conditions. He was simply limited by the tools of his day.

Interesting biographical resource - (5, Informative)

spads (1095039) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889352)

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/newton/about.html [pbs.org] He seemed by no means to be the sort of founding fathers-esque square-head, as he is often depicted (eg. portrait in linked article). Not only did it describe his alchemical endeavors, but also that he was seeking physical proofs for things written in the bible. Interesting how true geniuses are frequently true eccentrics.

Re:Interesting biographical resource - (3, Insightful)

phantomfive (622387) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889504)

There is nothing wrong with seeking physical proofs for things written in the bible. In fact, there are physical proofs for some things written in the bible, such as the ruins of the city of Jericho. But that's besides the point. The problem isn't looking for scientific proof of things, the problem is when you don't accept the evidence that contradicts what you expected. Newton was living at the dawn of scientific investigation, he could have investigated almost anything and found something worth writing a paper about.

There is nothing wrong with seeking physical proof for even astrology. The only problem is when you ignore the evidence that shows it's useless.

Re:Interesting biographical resource - (1, Insightful)

turing_m (1030530) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889598)

Interesting how true geniuses are frequently true eccentrics.

What else is eccentricity but deviation from the norm? There are loads of things the average person would probably do differently if he was smart enough to be in the top 0.1% of people, because the better way to do a particular task would then be obvious. Of course, his compatriots are doomed to never understand why his ways are better, because they aren't smart enough to do so. Thus, they label him eccentric.

If you are a genius, even the conventional wisdom of "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" can be flouted, because then you would be smart enough to figure out exactly what sort of un-Romanlike things you can get away with. The extent to which you do the un-Roman things depends on how much you value social approval. The thing is, someone recognized as a genius will care more about implementing a better way of doing whatever it is they want to do, than social approval. When that better way catches on, that is how they get recognized as a genius. So it is no accident that perceived geniuses are eccentrics, some just hide it better than others.

More than a physicist... (5, Informative)

JoeRobe (207552) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889366)

If I recall, according to his assistant's writings, the night that Newton gave his final edition of The Principia to the messenger to go out for printing, he immediately went back into his lab and fired up his alchemy furnace. Alchemy was one of his passions, and he was sincerely attempting to discover the philosopher's stone, and even an "elixir of life". Sounds silly now, but chemistry was so young at that time, nobody knew its potential. He was also passionate about biblical passages. He thought that one could extract important scientific information from the bible, ancient texts and architecture, allowing him to predict the apocalypse and other "insights". Supposedly he wrote more about this than science (in fact I remember hearing 90% was on the occult, 10% "scientific. No reference for that, though).

The wikipedia page [wikipedia.org] is actually pretty insightful.

If you ever have a chance to read even a chapter or two of The Principia, you should. It's an amazingly different perspective on what we now know as "Newtonian Mechanics". Geometry was clearly the tool of scientists as the time...

Re:More than a physicist... (0, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889470)

Uh oh! One of the keystones of modern science was also a bible thumper? That must set some Slashdorks on edge!

Re:More than a physicist... (1)

Cussin_IT (1143215) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889580)

You have a piont there, and that's realy what I was thinking too, but more along the lines of how future scientists will see us. The scientific comunity poured a huge amount of time and recorces into developing cold fusion -for instance- that we now now to be either imposible or nearly so. The piont I'm trying to make here is that you realy don't know if somthing is imposible or not untill you actualy try it.

As a case in piont here, it is actualy posible to change a lead atom into a gold atom, using a special atomic laser to shave off extra protons. Asumming you don't mind having an extramly unstable and radioactive ingot. The Alchemests where sure this was posible, they just didn't know how to do it.

Re:More than a physicist... (2, Interesting)

excelsior_gr (969383) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889740)

Geometry was clearly the tool of scientists as the time...

You nailed it just there... Even relatively modern works, such as those of Gibbs on thermodynamics, much derivation and calculation is based on geometry.

Re:More than a physicist... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889796)

You can also check out Feynman's Lost Lecture to see some of Newton's geometrical arguments presented by Feynman.

And in the end he was right (5, Insightful)

greg_barton (5551) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889380)

You can transmute one element to another. It's called nuclear chemistry.

:O (1)

cjseealf (1594985) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889412)

This is extensively cover by Morris Berman in "El reencantamiento del mundo". Long ago.

Re::O (1)

cjseealf (1594985) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889462)

in a holistic way

A bit harsh (4, Insightful)

turing_m (1030530) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889488)

"He was brutal," said Mark Ratner, a materials chemist at Northwestern University. "He sentenced people to death for trying to scrape the gold off of coins." Newton may have been a Merlin, a Zeus, the finest scientist of all time. But make no mistake about it, said Mr. Ratner. "He was not a nice guy."

There is no civilization as we know it without currency. If people start debasing the currency, they are robbing from the rest of the populace - everyone has to work that bit harder to support them. Make enough to never have to work again, and you have effectively caused the rest of the society to chip in a lifetime worth of slavery just so you can sit on your ass. The crime is not really any different to counterfeiting, and every country takes that very seriously for that reason. So meh.

Newton may or may not have been personable, but it is difficult to argue that he contributed far more to the world than he took from it, and from that perspective he was one of the nicest guys to have ever lived.

Re:A bit harsh (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889602)

Saying he "may or may not have been personable," doesn't seem relevant when you're talking about a death sentence for what should be at most a slap on the wrist.

Re:A bit harsh (1)

turing_m (1030530) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889668)

Saying he "may or may not have been personable," doesn't seem relevant when you're talking about a death sentence for what should be at most a slap on the wrist.

IIRC, he was a fairly prickly character, that's what I was referring to more than anything with the comment about him not being personable. And I suspect that Ratner was understating things when he talked about "trying" to scrape gold off coins. I'd be willing to bet that they did more than "try".

We are also judging Newton from our 21st century standards of respect for life, which is just a tad rich. These days we don't even have the death penalty in a lot of the western world, but back in those days a simple death by hanging was more lenient than sentences involving torture before death.

Re:A bit harsh (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889748)

So, in other words, we should string up all the quants and financial engineers?

Re:A bit harsh (1, Insightful)

deodiaus2 (980169) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889804)

Well, we have perfected the art of scraping off gold and selling it.
Isn't that what most financial analysts do. They have gotten so good that they don't need to deface the physical currency.
Now, we have taken it to a new high in that we will bail out AIG or banks [more so in 1993 for pushing laws which allow them to get into ever moreso highly speculative and highly rewarding endeavors] if they fail. But we let them keep their nice profits when they are successful.
Prior to money, goods and services were exchanged by bartering. Money and financial contracts is the media which allows governments to play this game on its society and to everyone who deals with its currency, and to centralize the decision making to a few individuals. By issuing more money then they collect, governments are able to finance projects which might have been unobtainable in the past.
Gold held its value. If you scraped off some or mixed it with lead, you had less gold.

Unacceptable. (5, Insightful)

BlitzTech (1386589) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889524)

By the modern standards of today, "alchemy" is considered a pseudoscience. Why do new "researchers" (and I use the term VERY liberally) continue to apply modern context to historical figures? Newton was a pioneer of his day. Alchemy was considered a real science, one he spent quite a bit of time furthering, and to condemn 30 years of his life for searching for a way to turn lead into gold is insulting to his memory and legacy as well as insulting to researchers and historians who actually understand that modern opinions, ideas, and knowledge don't always apply in the past.

I am getting very tired of "researchers" making claims with unpublished data that cannot be verified for accuracy (Gliese 581 g possibly a hoax [slashdot.org] ), making 'groundbreaking' claims about history without even considering historical context (this and about 50% of similar posts on /.), and a total failure to understand basic statistics (most 'shocking' studies posted on /.). These idiots give the rest of us researchers a bad name.

Re:Unacceptable. (1)

kale77in (703316) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889696)

+1 Acceptable

"Lo, for had we but lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have gone with them into astrology/nomy and alchemy and phlogiston chemistry..."

History is one of science's best safeguards; it ensures at least a measure of humility and humanity.

Re:Unacceptable. (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889728)

First, stfu. second, even by their standards "alchemy" was considered a pseudoscience. First you should actually learn something, then run your mouth about it, so go and learn something about that time period and what was and was not considered Science. No one says Newton was not one of the greatest Scientists, but that does not negate the fact that 30 years of his life was wasted on garbage/pseudoscience. But don't you worry your little head over it, since his 1 year of contribution to Science is worth more than 1000 years from you.

Hindu in, NYT out (2, Insightful)

ljhiller (40044) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889536)

Congrats on finally getting your submission [slashdot.org] posted after going halfway around the world to find a copy not at the New York Times. Seriously.

It only sounds weird from today's point of view... (3, Insightful)

yet-another-lobbyist (1276848) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889548)

Of course, when you know science as we do today, it's easy to say that this was an obvious dead end. However, imagine how much was known about anything such a long time ago. How could he have known that these experiments would not lead to success? Many other experiments were done at the same time (and much later) that seem much more esoteric, and which ultimately lead to scientific breakthroughs. What comes to my mind right now are Faraday's electrical experiments with frog legs...
So from that point of view, there's absolutely nothing wrong with Newton trying to "cook" some chemical elements seeking for new insights.

poor description of alchemy (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889586)

here are some references for other perspectives on alchemy

Masquerade of the dream walkers: prophetic theology from the Cartesians to Hegel
  By Peter A. Redpath
http://www.rodopi.nl/senj.asp?BookId=VIBS+73
Chapter 1 talks about Newton and alchemy

Restoring Paradise: Western Esotericism, Literature, Art, and Consciousness
  By Arthur Versluis
http://www.sunypress.edu/p-3958-restoring-paradise.aspx
Alchemy and more

alchemy == chemistry (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889606)

The journalist assuming that interest in alchemy is tantamount to being hornswaggled in that time period is ignorant of the history of science. Alchemy is the root of modern chemistry.

Causation does not equal ... the perfect cover! (1)

Rooked_One (591287) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889624)

42? I think that's right. Let me double check my math.... yup!

Lets see - a person surrounded by intolerant people who's main focus in life is money... So "saying" you were doing all these "weird" experiments (to produce gold from a worthless substance) would be the perfect cover for carrying out studies that might be looked at as heresy. Just as someone who knows nothing about programming sees you code and, maybe, lets say a vision of a malicious hacker comes into their mind - you are demonized. This, of course, is parallel to Mark Twain's adage - "Better to say nothing and have people assume you are a fool than open your mouth and confirm it."

A couple of things... (4, Insightful)

Fantastic Lad (198284) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889642)

A couple of things:

1. Alchemy has little to do with chemistry. It's about the purification of the soul through repeated heatings and coolings, and as Newton was learning Hebrew, I'd guess he'd probably figured out some of the fundamentals in play re Gnostic Christianity and similar. "Lead into Gold" is a metaphor, as was much else about alchemy. But I don't know much about Newton, so whatever. Maybe he really was trying to generate a money mill.

2. Not knowing something isn't a crime. Exploration of ideas and the world should never be punished if the person searching is doing so out of an honest desire to learn and isn't hurting anybody in the process. People are far too hard on each other for being ignorant, and too defensive when their ignorance is pointed out. Learning shouldn't be a punishable offense.

-FL

Re:A couple of things... (3, Interesting)

Angst Badger (8636) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889824)

Alchemy has little to do with chemistry. It's about the purification of the soul through repeated heatings and coolings, and as Newton was learning Hebrew, I'd guess he'd probably figured out some of the fundamentals in play re Gnostic Christianity and similar. "Lead into Gold" is a metaphor, as was much else about alchemy.

That is indeed one branch of traditional alchemy, but a lot of alchemists were very serious about transmuting literal lead into literal gold. Once you get used to the jargon, it's fairly easy to separate the texts of one branch from those of the other. (There's a third strand in alchemical writings: lofty-sounding gobbledygook cranked out and sold to turn an easy profit, much like the get-rich-quick TV infomercials and spam of the present day. Theophrastus Paracelsus was one of those, complete with miracle cures for all that ails you and an extra helping of the-Lord-works-in-mysterious-ways if it didn't work.) It's worth noting that the less-than-noble physical alchemists, denounced as "puffers" by the spiritual alchemists, were the ones that stumbled their way into the beginnings of modern chemistry.

As for the Gnostics, they were largely unknown in Newton's time, having been completely suppressed more than a thousand years before his time. The rediscovery of the Gnostics by the lay public came later. In any case, Hebrew would not have helped Newton understand the Gnostics: all their writings were in Greek, just like the rest of early Christian writings before the rise of the church in Rome. Newton may have been influenced by Christianized versions of the Kabbalah that were much admired by alchemists and other occultists in the early modern period, but that's just speculation, as documentary evidence is lacking.

Actually a theologist first (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889684)

The majority of Newton's papers were actually on the subject of Christian theology rather than science. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton%27s_religious_views#Biblical_studies

This is nothing new!!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889778)

I that to break it to you but this was discussed back in my college chemistry classes. This was back in the early 70's. Maybe they are rediscovering something that was known then but forgotten?

erm (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#33889812)

Yet another attempt by chemists to claim part of physics.
First it's a chapter on "Nuclear chemistry" in chem texts, and now it's "Newton's experiments with light were chemistry."

Yellow journalism (3, Informative)

Angst Badger (8636) | more than 3 years ago | (#33889872)

How could the ultimate scientist have been seemingly hornswoggled by a totemic pseudoscience like alchemy [...]

There's an amazing amount of sensationalism and cluelessness tightly packed in that one clause.

First of all, Newton was hardly "the ultimate scientist". He was a very good scientist and a brilliant mathematician, but his achievements and fame have a lot to do with being one of the first modern scientists. He wasn't the only early scientist working on the problems of optics or, for that matter, gravity, and Leibniz developed calculus independently around the same time. Had Newton decided to go into alchemy full-time, someone else would have discovered the same things before long. Calling him the ultimate scientist is just pseudo-journalistic puffery.

And secondly, alchemy wasn't obvious bullshit when Newton was working on it. It's only obviously bullshit now that we have an understanding of real chemistry and -- even more recently -- nuclear physics. More to the point, one of the most important bullshit detectors in the arsenal of science is modern statistics, which rests upon a foundation of calculus, which Newton (along with Leibniz) invented! To stand today on the shoulders of Newton and complain about his lack of perspective pushes the outer limits of irony.

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