Category Archives: Newton

Just saying…

Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to have a real talent for very sloppy history of science. He pontificates on history of science topics without taking the trouble to check his facts. On Christmas day to acknowledge the birthday of Isaac Newton he tweeted the following:

On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642

Now, you would think that an astrophysicist would be able to cope with simple arithmetic but it seems to be beyond NdGT’s mental grasp. Newton, as he points out, was born in 1642. The contribution to science that he made that “would transform the world” can only refer to his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and, as any historian of science could have told NdGT, this was published in 1687. Applying the subtraction algorithm, which most of us learnt in primary school, 1687 – 1642 = 45 and not thirty. Even being generous, as this is a fifty per cent error in the stated age at which Newton “would transform the world” we cannot really award NdGT anything but an F for this incredibly sloppy piece of work. Do try to do better next time Neil!


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Newton

Comets and Heliocentricity: A Rough Guide

In the standard mythologised history of astronomy of the Early Modern Period comets are only mentioned once. We get told, in classical hagiographical manner, how Tycho Brahe observed the great comet of 1577 and thus smashed the crystalline spheres of Aristotelian cosmology freeing the way for the modern astronomy. That’s it for comets, their bit part in the drama that is the unfolding of the astronomical revolution is over and done with, don’t call us we’ll call you. The problem with this mythological account is that it vastly over emphasises the role of both Tycho and the 1577 comet in changing the view of the heavens and vastly under rates the role played by comets and their observations in the evolution of the new astronomy in the Early Modern Period. I shall deal with the crystalline spheres and their dissolution in a separate post and for now will follow the trail of the comets as they weave their way through the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries changing our perceptions of the heavens and driving the evolution of the new astronomy. I have dealt with various aspects of this story in earlier posts but rather than simple linking I will outline the whole story here.

In antiquity comets were a phenomenon to be marvelled at and to be feared. Strange apparitions lighting up the skies unpredictably and unexplainably, bringing with them, in the view of the astrology priests of earlier cultures, doom and disaster. As with almost all things Aristotle had categorised comets, fitting them into his grand scheme of things. Aristotle’s cosmology was a cosmology of spheres. In the centre resided the spherical earth, on the outer reaches it was enclosed in the sphere of the fixed stars. Between theses two were the spheres of the planets centred on and spreading outwards from the earth, Moon, Mercury, Venus,  Sun, Mars, Jupiter Saturn. This onion of celestial spheres was split into two parts by the sphere of the moon. Everything above this, superlunar, was perfect, unchanging and eternal, everything below, sublunar, imperfect, constantly changing and subject to decay. For Aristotle comets were a sublunar phenomenon and were not part of astronomy, being dealt with in his Meteorology, his book on atmospheric phenomena, amongst other things.

However Aristotle’s was not the only theory of comets in ancient Greek philosophy, the Stoics, whose philosophy was far more important and influential than Aristotle’s in late antiquity had a very different theory. For the Stoics the cosmos was not divided into two by the sphere of the moon but was a single unity permeated throughout by pneuma (whatever that maybe!). For them comets were not an atmospheric phenomenon, as for Aristotle, but were astronomical objects of some sort or other.

In the High Middle Ages as higher learning began to flourish one more in Europe it was Aristotle’s scientific theories, made compatible with Christian theology by Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas Aquinas, that was taught in the newly founded universities and so comets were again treated as atmospheric phenomena up to the beginning of the fifteenth century.

The first person to view comets differently was the Florentine physician and mathematicus Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1397–1482), best known for his letter and map supplied to the Portuguese Crown confirming the viability of Columbus’ plan to sail westwards to reach the spice islands. In the 1430s Toscanelli observed comets as if they were astronomical object tracing their paths onto star-charts thereby initiating a new approach to cometary observation. Toscanelli didn’t publish his observations but he was part of a circle humanist astronomers and mathematicians in Northern Italy who communicated with each other over their work both in personal conversation and by letter. In the early 1440s Toscanelli was visited by a young Austrian mathematician called Georg Aunpekh (1423–1461), better known today by his humanist toponym, Peuerbach. We don’t know as a fact that Toscanelli taught his approach to comet observation to the young Peuerbach but we do know that Peuerbach taught the same approach to his most famous pupil, Johannes Müller aka Regiomontanus (1436–1476), at the University of Vienna in the 1450’s. Peuerbach and Regiomontanus observed several comets together, including Halley’s Comet in 1456. Regiomontanus wrote up their work in a book, which included his thoughts on how to calculate correctly the parallax of a comparatively fast moving object, such as a comet, in order to determine its distance from earth. The books of Peuerbach and Regiomontanus, Peuerbach’s cosmology, New Theory of the Planets, published by Regiomontanus in Nürnberg in 1473, and their jointly authored epitome of Ptolemaeus’ Almagest, first published in Venice in 1496, became the standard astronomy textbooks for the next generation of astronomers, including Copernicus. Regiomontanus’ work on the comets remained unpublished at the time of his death.

Whereas in the middle of the fifteenth century, as Peuerbach and Regiomontanus were active there were very few competent astronomers in Europe the situation had improved markedly by the 1530s when comets again played a central role in the history of the slowly developing new astronomy. The 1530s saw a series of spectacular comets that were observed with great interest by astronomers throughout Europe. These observations led to a series of important developments in the history of cometary observation. Johannes Schöner (1477–1547) the Nürnberger astrologer-astronomer published Regiomontanus’ book on comets including his thoughts on the mathematics of measuring parallax, which introduced the topic into the European astronomical discourse. Later in the century Tycho Brahe and John Dee would correspond on exactly this topic. A discussion developed between various leading astronomers, including Peter Apian (1495–1552) in Ingolstadt, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) in Frauenburg, Gemma Frisius (1508–1555) in Leuven and Jean Péna (1528 or 1530–1558 or 1568) in Paris, on the nature of comets. Frisius and Pena in Northern Europe as well as Gerolamo Cardano (1501–1576) and Girolamo Fracastoro (circa 1476–1553) in Italy propagated a theory that comets were superlunar bodies focusing sunlight like a lens to produce the tail. This theory developed in a period that saw a major revival in Stoic philosophy. Apian also published his observations of the comets including what would become known, incorrectly, as Apian’s Law that the tails of comets always point away from the sun. I say incorrectly because this fact had already been known to Chinese astronomers for several centuries.

These developments in the theory of comets meant that when the Great Comet of 1577 appeared over Europe Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) was by no means the only astronomer, who followed it’s course with interest and tried to measure its parallax in order to determine whether it was sub- or superlunar. Tycho was not doing anything revolutionary, as it is normally presented in the standard story of the evolution of modern astronomy, but was just taking part in in a debate on the nature of comets that had been rumbling on throughout the sixteenth century. The results of these mass observations were very mixed. Some observers failed to make a determination, some ‘proved’ that the comet was sublunar and some, including Tycho on Hven, Michael Maestlin (1550–1631), Kepler’s teacher, in Tübingen and Thaddaeus Hagecius (1525–1600) in Prague, all determined it to be superlunar. There were many accounts published throughout Europe on the comet the majority of which still favoured a traditional Aristotelian astrological viewpoint of which my favourite was by the painter Georg Busch of Nürnberg. Busch stated that comets were fumes that rose up from the earth into the atmosphere where they collected and ignited raining back down on the earth causing all sorts of evils and disasters including Frenchmen.

On a more serious note the parallax determinations of Tycho et al led to a gradual acceptance amongst astronomers that comets are indeed astronomical and not meteorological phenomena, whereby at the time Maestlin’s opinion probably carried more weight than Tycho’s. This conclusion was given more substance when it was accepted by Christoph Clavius (1538–1612), who although a promoter of Ptolemaic astronomy, was the most influential astronomer in Europe at the end of the sixteenth century.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century comets had advanced to being an important aspect of astronomical research; one of the central questions being the shape of the comets course through the heavens. In 1607 the English astronomer, Thomas Harriot (circa 1560–1621), and his friend and pupil, the MP, Sir William Lower (1570–1615), observed Halley’s Comet and determined that its course was curved. In 1609/10 Harriot and Lower became two of the first people to read and accept Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, and Lower suggested in a letter to Harriot that comets also follow elliptical orbits making him the first to recognise this fact, although his view did not become public at the time.

The comet of 1618 was the source of one of the most famous disputes in the history of science between Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and the Jesuit astronomer Orazio Grassi (1583–1654). Grassi had observed the comet, measured its parallax and determined that it was superlunar. Galileo had, due to an infirmity, been unable to observe the comet but when urged by his sycophantic fan club to offer an opinion on the comet couldn’t resist. Strangely he attacked Grassi adopting an Aristotelian position and claiming that comets arose from the earth and were thus not superlunar. This bizarre dispute rumbled on, with Grassi remaining reasonable and polite in his contributions and Galileo becoming increasingly abusive, climaxing in Galileo’s famous Il Saggiatore. The 1618 comet also had a positive aspect in that Kepler (1571–1630) collected and collated all of the available historical observational reports on comets and published them in a book in 1619/20 in Augsburg. Unlike Lower, who thought that comets followed Keplerian ellipses, Kepler thought that the flight paths of comets were straight lines.

The 1660s again saw a series of comets and by now the discussion amongst astronomers was focused on the superlunar flight paths of these celestial objects with Kepler’s text central to their discussions. This played a significant role in the final acceptance of Keplerian elliptical heliocentric astronomy as the correct model for the cosmos, finally eliminating its Tychonic and semi-Tychonic competitors, although some Catholic astronomers formally continued paying lip service to a Tychonic model for religious reasons, whilst devoting their attentions to discussing a heliocentric cosmos hypothetically.

The 1680s was a fateful decade for comets and heliocentricity. John Flamsteed (1646–1719), who had been appointed as the first Astronomer Royal in Greenwich in 1675, observed two comets in 1680, one in November and the second in mid December. Flamsteed became convinced that they were one and the same comet, which had orbited the sun. He communicated his thoughts by letter to Isaac Newton (1642–1727) in Cambridge, the two hadn’t fallen out with each other yet, who initially rejected Flamsteed’s findings. However on consideration Newton came to the conclusion that Flamsteed was probably right and drawing also on the observations of Edmund Halley began to calculate possible orbits for the comet. He and Halley began to pay particular attention to observing comets, in particular the comet of 1682. By the time Newton published his Principia, his study of cometary orbits took up one third of the third volume, the volume that actually deals with the cosmos and the laws of motion and the law of gravity. By showing that not only the planets and their satellite systems obeyed the law of gravity but that also comets did so, Newton was able to demonstrate that his laws were truly universal.

After the publication of the Principia, which he not only edited and published but also paid for out of his own pocket, Halley devoted himself to an intense study of the historical observations of comets. He came to the conclusion that the comet he had observed in 1682, the one observed by Peuerbach and Regiomontanus in Vienna in 1456 and the one observed by Harriot and Lower in London in 1607 were in fact one and the same comet with an orbital period of approximately 76 years. Halley published the results of his investigations both in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and as a separate pamphlet under the title Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets in 1705. Halley determined the orbit of the comet that history would come to name after him and announced that it would return in 1758. Although long lived Halley had no hope of witness this return and would never know if his was right or not. Somewhat later the French Newtonian astronomer and mathematician Alexis Clairaut (1713–1765) recalculated the return date, introducing factors not considered by Halley, to within a one-month error of the correct date. The comet was first observed on Newton’s birthday, 25 December 1758 and reached perihelion, its nearest approach to the sun, on 13 March 1759, Clairault had predicted 13 April. This was a spectacular empirical confirmation of Newton’s theory of universal gravity and with it of heliocentric astronomy. Comets had featured in the beginnings of the development of modern astronomy in the work of Toscanelli, Peuerbach and Regiomontanus and then in the final confirmation of that astronomy with the return of Halley’s Comet having weaved their way through they whole story over the preceding 350 years.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Newton, Renaissance Science

Published on…

Today I have been mildly irritated by numerous tweets announcing the 5th July 1687, as the day on which Isaac Newton’s Principia was published, why? Partially because the claim is not strictly true and partially because it evokes a false set of images generated by the expression, published on, in the current age.

In the last couple of decades we have become used to images of hoards of teens dressed in fantasy costumes as witches queuing up in front of large bookstores before midnight to participate in the launch of the latest volume of a series of children’s books on a juvenile wizard and his adventures. These dates were the days on which the respective volumes were published and although the works of other authors do not enjoy quite the same level of turbulence, they do also have an official publication date, usually celebrated in some suitable way by author and publisher. Historically this has not always been the case.

In earlier times books, particularly ones of a scientific nature, tended to dribble out into public awareness over a vague period of time rather than to be published on a specific date. There were no organised launches, no publisher’s parties populated by the glitterati of the age and no official publication date. Such books were indeed published in the sense of being made available to the reading public but the process was much more of a slapdash affair than that which the term evokes today.

One reason for this drawn out process of release was the fact that in the early centuries of the printed book they were often not bound for sale by the publisher. Expensive works of science were sold as an unbound pile of printed sheets, allowing the purchaser to have his copy bound to match the other volumes in his library. This meant that there were not palettes of finished bound copies that could be shipped off to the booksellers. Rather a potential purchaser would order the book and its bindings and wait for it to be finished for delivery.

Naturally historians of science love to be able to nail the appearance of some game changing historical masterpiece to a specific date, however this is not always possible. In the case of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, for example, we are fairly certain of the month in 1543 that Petreius started shipping finished copies of the work but there is no specific date of publication. With other equally famous works, such as Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, the historian uses the date of signing of the dedication as a substitute date of publication.

So what is with Newton’s Principia does it have an official date of publication and if not why are so many people announcing today to be the anniversary of its publication. Principia was originally printed written in manuscript in three separate volumes and Edmond Halley, who acted both as editor and publisher, had to struggle with the cantankerous author to get those volumes out of his rooms in Cambridge and into the printing shop. In fact due to the interference of Robert Hooke, demanding credit for the discovery of the law of gravity, Newton contemplated not delivering the third volume at all. Due to Halley’s skilful diplomacy this crisis was mastered and the final volume was delivered up by the author and put into print. July 5th 1687 is not the date of publication as it is understood today, but the date of a letter that Halley sent to Newton announcing that the task of putting his immortal masterpiece onto the printed page had finally been completed and that he was sending him twenty copies for his own disposition. I reproduce the text of Halley’s letter below.


Honoured Sr

I have at length brought you Book to an end, and hope it will please you. the last errata came just in time to be inserted. I will present from you the books you desire to the R. Society, Mr Boyle, Mr Pagit, Mr Flamsteed and if there be any elce in town that you design to gratifie that way; and I have sent you to bestow on your friends in the University 20 Copies, which I entreat you to accept.[1]



[1] Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge etc., 1980, p. 468.


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of Physics, Myths of Science, Newton

Why Newton’s Apple is not a good story.

Over on the Scientific American Guest Blog we have another non-historian trying his hand at the history of science under the title Newton’s Apple: Science and the Value of a Good Story. Our author, Ned Potter a Senior Vice President of an international communications firm and former science correspondent, tells us that Isaac Newton almost invariably tops any list of history’s greatest scientists and then poses the question, why? His answer is that Newton had a great story to tell:

It’s the one about the apple. You remember it – how the young Newton, sent home from school at Cambridge to avoid the plague of 1665, was sitting under a tree one day, saw an apple fall to the ground, and, in a flash of insight, came to understand the workings of gravity.

Right there in his retelling, Potter, reveals why Newton’s Apple is anything but a great story but before I explain why, I have other fish to fry. In a lackadaisical paragraph our intrepid author summarises Newton’s scientific career:

He published his Principia Mathematica in 1687. In his spare time he designed the first reflecting telescope, laid the foundations for calculus, brought us the understanding of light and color, and in his later years – it would be disingenuous to leave this out – tried his hand at alchemy and assigning dates to events in the Bible.

He did not design the first reflecting telescope in his spare time. Investigating the nature of light and colour was at the centre of his scientific endeavours twenty years before he composed the Principia Mathematicae and his design of the reflecting telescope was his answer to the problem of chromatic aberration in lenses that his new theories on colour had discovered and explained. It also wasn’t the first reflecting telescope but the first functioning one, as I’ve already explained elsewhere. Laying the foundations of calculus was also not a spare time activity. We now turn to something that I’m slowly getting tired of correcting. Newton did not try his hand at alchemy and assigning dates to events in the Bible in his later years but started both activities in his youth continuing them for many years. They also played a very central role in the heuristics of his scientific research, as I’ve said on more than one occasion.

My readers may ask themselves why the dating of Newton’s, by modern standards, non-scientific activities is such an important subject for me. It’s rather the other way around. By pretending that Newton only did these things in his dotage people like Potter came claim that Newton was a rational modern scientist in his youth who went off the rail in his old age, poor man. This is the creation of a myth in the history of science. Newton’s alchemy, theology and chronology are a central part of what made him the scientist that he was, to deny this is to deny the man himself and to put a mythological figure, who never existed, in his place. That is not doing history of science and should also have no place in the popular presentation of science.  But back to Newton’s Apple!

The offending phrase is of course saw an apple fall to the ground, and, in a flash of insight, came to understand the workings of gravity. This is not what happened and it also creates a completely false impression of the scientific process of discovery.  Nobody, not even Newton, understands a complex scientific theory such as the theory of universal gravity in a flash of inspiration and claims that they do misinform non-scientists about how science works.

Assuming the apple story to be basically true, and there are many historian of science who think that it is a myth, what Newton thought is very different to coming to understand the workings of gravity in a flash of insight. The sight of the falling apple led him to pose a question to himself, something along the lines of, ”what causes the apple to fall to the ground?” This led to another question, and herein lies Newton’s brilliance, is that which causes the apple to fall downwards the same as that, which prevents the moon from shooting off in a tangent to its orbit as the law of inertia say it should? Here we have the beginning of an idea that can only have taken place in a mind prepared by the requisite study to be able to form this particular idea. The idea alone is in itself useless unless one possesses the necessary knowledge to test it. Newton did possess this knowledge of dynamics, astronomy and mathematics, which he had acquired through intensive personal study over the previous years rather than from his university lecturers. He then applied this knowledge to testing his newly won hypothesis, a fairly complex and demanding mathematical calculation that required both time and effort. And see here the result!  The two aren’t the same! Newton’s initial attack on the problem failed because of inadequate data. He put the problem aside and devoted himself instead to the study of optics (see above). However he did not forget that insight and many years later he returned to the problem with fresh data and showed that his initial insight had in fact been correct. The way was now open to the development of the universal theory of gravity. Note after all of the steps that we have already gone through we have not arrived at the workings of the theory of gravity, we have merely started down the road towards it. In fact Newton would have to invest two years of very intense work, to the exclusion of everything else in his life, between 1684 and 1687 in order to finally develop the theory in all of its glory, as published in his Principia. The process can hardly be described as “a flash of insight”.

I hope that I have made clear that, in the sense of Ned Potter, Newton’s Apple is anything but a good story, as it creates a complete misconception of the scientific process, a process that even in the case of a monster intellect such as Newton’s involves an incredible amount of study and sheer hard work.

The story as presented by Potter could however have its uses in teaching an introductory course in the history of science and in illustrating the scientific process. One presents the students with the myth of Newton’s Apple à la Potter and then have them research the real historical situation. To look for, read and analyse the original sources of the apple story, William Stukeley, as well as John Conduit and Voltaire, who both had the story from Catherine Barton, Newton’s niece and housekeeper as well as Conduit’s wife. Then have them study the real process by which Newton developed his theory of universal gravity, as I have sketched it, demonstrating how misleading such tales can be. As such I think that the Newton’s Apple story can be put to good pedagogical use, however as Potter wishes it to be considered:

Over the years, inevitably, the details have been embellished. Ask around today, and people may tell you that the apple bonked Newton on the head. But the point remains: if you have an important point to make, especially in science but also in other fields, there’s nothing like a good story to make it memorable.

I think it’s anything but a good story particularly if the important point being made is completely false.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Newton

Alchemical confusion redux.

Yesterday, in my frustration with Mr Campbell’s drivel I missed another reference to Newton towards the end of his post to which Laura has drawn my attention in the comments.  Our Google expert delivers the following gem:

If I have limited time I want to read about Principia, not a failed effort later in Newton’s career. The fact that John Maynard Keynes believed in alchemy does not validate it, it instead shows us what was wrong with Keynes-ian economic beliefs. He believed in eugenics too, that didn’t make it valid.

In theses few lines Mr Campbell truly displays his total ignorance of subject he is pontificating about.  We start off with the classic, ‘Newton’s alchemy was a product of his dotage after he had produced his scientific work, the Principia’. Campbell doesn’t express it quite like that but it’s obvious what he believes. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I stated in the previous post Newton began his intensive study of alchemy in 1666 and continued it till 1696. He wrote the Principia in somewhat of a frenzy between 1684 and 1687, that is in two thirds of the way through his alchemy studies. Worse than this from Campbell’s standpoint Newton’s alchemical studies actually played a significant role in the conception of the Principia!

Newton conceived and wrote the Principia during a period in the history of science when the mechanical philosophy was totally dominant. This stated quite clearly that if object A moved as a result of object B then there must exist a mechanical contact between the two objects. Newton’s theory of gravity functioning through action at a distance was completely inacceptable. Newton was originally a supporter of the mechanical philosophy and as such would have been incapable of accepting his own later theory of gravity. What gave him the ability to go against the trend and embrace action at a distance? You guessed it, his study of alchemy. It has been clearly shown, mostly by Betty Jo Dobbs, that Newton’s acceptance of action at a distance and thus of a mental position from which he could formulate his theory of gravity was his study of the spirit forces in alchemy. Beyond this, Newton’s third law of motion is known to have been based on an alchemical principle.

In fact Newton’s introduction of the force of gravity acting at a distance led to the strongest criticism of and opposition to the Principia by the Cartesian and Leibnizian supporters of the mechanical philosophy. They accused him of reintroducing the occult (meaning hidden) forces into natural philosophy that they had banished. On these grounds whilst admiring the mathematical ingenuity of the Principia they rejected its central thesis.

Just as worrying as Mr Campbell’s total misrepresentation of Newton and his alchemy is his presentation of John Maynard Keynes. Now I’m not in anyway an expert on Keynes, in fact I know more about his father John Neville Keynes who was one of my nineteenth century logicians when I was serving my apprenticeship as a historian of mathematical logic. However I don’t really think that Keynes believed in alchemy. Worse than this, in the comments to his post, in response to just such doubt expressed by a reader, Campbell basically admits that he has no justification for this claim beyond his own personal animosity to Keynes’ economic theories and his support of eugenics as well as the fact that the fact that Keynes donated his personal collection of Newton’s alchemical writings to Cambridge University.

I shall ignore both the economics and the eugenics as non sequitur in a discussion on the history of alchemy. Viewing Keynes’ donation of the Newton papers as somehow damning is to say the least bizarre. This and other remarks scattered around Campbell’s incoherent piece lead me to the conclusion that Campbell is the worst sort of historical presentist.  He seems to be of the opinion that only those aspects of a historical researchers work that are still relevant by today’s standard are worth conserving or investigating, all the rest can be assigned to the dustbin of history. By totally misrepresenting alchemy and labelling it just pseudo-science Campbell thinks we dispense with it once and for all. The whole point of the fascinating and stimulating work of Principe et al is that they have clearly demonstrated that the real historical alchemy, as opposed to Campbell’s mythological version, made very significant contributions to the shaping of modern science.


Filed under History of Alchemy, Newton

Alchemical confusion.

On the 11th February 1144 the Hellenistic science of alchemy entered medieval Europe by way of the Islamic empire. In his translation of Liber de compositione alchemiae (Book about the composition of alchemy) Robert of Chester wrote the following:

I have translated this Book because, what alchemy is, and what its composition is, almost no one in our Latin [that is: Western] world knows finished February 11th anno 1144.

This was the start of long and popular period for alchemy within Europe, which reached its peak during the Renaissance during which alchemy gave birth to its daughter, modern chemistry. Rejected during the Enlightenment, along with astrology and magic, as a worthless occult science, alchemy was largely ignored by historian as superstitious nonsense not worthy of serious attention. The last decades have seen a rebirth of interest in alchemy by historians of science led by such prominent historians as Lawrence Principe, William Newman, Bruce Moran and Pamela H. Smith as well as a host of less well known figures such as my Internet friends Anna Marie Roos (@roos_annamarie) and Sienna Latham (@clerestories).

In the last few weeks there has been a surge in interest from the general Internet media mostly generated by Lawrence Principe’s recently published semi-popular history of alchemy The Secrets of Alchemy. This has been mostly fairly harmless but one Internet piece that I read last week is so confused that it provoked my inner Hist-Sci Hulk, especially as it totally misrepresents Newton’s interest and involvement in alchemy. The piece Is Alchemy Back In Fashion? by science writer Hank Campbell is on the Science 2.0 website.

Campbell’s piece was not inspired by Principe’s book but by the essay, Alchemy Restored, that Principe wrote for Focus section of ISIS vol. 102, No. 2 Alchemy and the History of Science. This essay is a very much-shortened version of chapter four of his book, Redefinitions, Revivals, and Reinterpretations: Alchemy from the Eighteenth Century to the Present.

To point out and correct everything that is wrong in Campbell’s piece would turn this post into a minor novel so I shall just content myself with a bit of sniping and correcting his mistaken views on Newton’s relationship with alchemy. The first thing I would note is that before writing his piece Campbell appears to have done his research at the Google University, beloved source of wisdom of vaccine deniers, climate change deniers, anti-evolutionists and other members of the Internet Luniverse. His piece would have benefitted immensely if he had read some of the books written by Principe, Newman, Moran et al. However reading doesn’t seem to be his forte as he doesn’t seem to have actually read the essay by Principe that he heavily criticises in his piece, either that or he maliciously misrepresents Principe’s views.

The whole of the opening paragraphs displays strong Google University influence containing as it does half information that is mostly at least half wrong. There are various conflicting etymologies for the word alchemy or better said the word chemy as al is purely the Arabic definite article. Principe thinks the Greek root cheimeia is the most likely as alchemy in antiquity was Greco-Egyptian, that is it was developed in Egypt but written in Greek. This leading to the Arabic al-kīmiyā of al-Rāzī and the alchemia of the Renaissance adepts. Like those in the eighteenth century who, as Principe tells us, tried to distance chemistry from alchemy Campbell falsely identifies alchemy with the transmutation of metals, correctly called chrysopoeia, whereas seventeenth century alchemy encompassed a wide range of activities including all of that, which in the early eighteenth century became chemistry.

The central point of Principe’s essay is that the chemist of the eighteenth century deliberately misrepresented the scope of alchemy in order to deny that their own discipline was alchemy’s daughter. I find it fascinating that Campbell a science writer with a background in computing, who very obviously knows next to nothing about the history of alchemy and chemistry lectures Principe, who is without doubt one of the world’s leading experts on the subject, on why he is wrong in his analysis of the eighteenth century’s denigrating of alchemy’s reputation. Even more bizarre in the following paragraph:

You know which group was also ridiculed, even until the mid-1800s? Medical doctors. Many people thought Harvard was out of its mind creating a medical school in 1782, but they took it seriously and within a few generations medicine had put quacks on the fringes and adopted evidence-based practices. Before then, legitimate doctors were Ph.D.s and Medical Doctors were that other thing that didn’t count. Today, though, if you say doctor people assume you are an M.D.

The whole of this is so mind bogglingly wrong that it is not even worth criticising except to say that if it were written on paper I would flush it down the toilet. Let us now turn our attention to the good Isaac Newton and his activities as an alchemist. The all-knowing Campbell informs us:

Newton tried alchemy, after all, because he wanted to get to the bottom of it and maybe show chemists he was smarter than they were, just like he showed everyone else he was smarter than they were (I mean you, Hooke.)


The break between alchemy and chemistry had been happening before Newton, that is why he took a shot at it, but until the 18th century they were interchangeable to the public.

I’ve read many misrepresentations of Newton’s alchemical activities but this has got to be one of the worst that has ever crossed my path. Campbell gives the impression that Newton took a swing at alchemy in passing nothing could be further from the truth. For the record, Newton devoted the winter months of the year to an intensive study of alchemy, in a hut especially specially constructed for the purpose, from 1666 until he departed Cambridge for London in 1696, a total of thirty years in case Mr Campbell can’t count.  He also wrote substantially more on alchemy than he ever wrote on physics and mathematics combined. I would not call that “taking a shot at it”.  Although there is some truth that the break between alchemy and chemistry began in the seventeenth century this is in no way the reason that Newton took up the study of alchemy. He was also not out to show chemists that he was smarter than they were. Apart from anything else Newton knew that he was smarter than everybody else, he didn’t need to show anybody anything. Before dealing with the real reasons for Newton’s intense interest in alchemy I’ll just deal with the ill informed sideswipe at the Hooke Newton conflict.

We’ve been here before but it bears repeating that it was Hooke who attacked Newton, not once but twice, and not the other way round. In fact, if anybody suffered from an intense need to show that he was smarter than everyone else it was the unfortunate Robert Hooke. Intensely jealous of others he, time and again, accused his contemporary natural philosophers of stealing his ideas, discoveries and inventions. He dismissed Newton’s first optics paper claiming that anything novel that it contained he had discovered already and then later he claimed that he should be acknowledge as the true discoverer of the universal law of gravity. It’s not really surprising that Newton disliked him. However I deviate from my purpose.

Why did Newton devote so much of his life to an intense study of alchemy? To understand his motivation one has to examine both his religious beliefs and the governing metaphysics of his whole life’s work, which are in fact two aspects of a single complex. Newton was an adherent of the prisca sapientia. This is the belief that directly after the creation, and Newton was a devote if more than somewhat heterodox Christian, humanity had a complete and perfect knowledge of the laws of nature, a knowledge that had become lost over the millennia as humanity degenerated. Following this metaphysic Newton did not believe that he was discovering the laws or secrets of nature but rediscovering them. In fact based on his reading of the Bible he believed that he had been especially chosen by his God to do so.  In line with the hermeticism of his age he believed that alchemy was the oldest form of knowledge possessed by humanity coming either shortly after Moses, or even from him or before him, and if he could unravel its secrets this would bring him closer to that perfect knowledge of nature once possessed by humanity in its early days. This is not a ‘modern scientist’ investigating the chemical aspects of alchemy, as Campbell would have us believe, but a man, we would have immense difficulty identifying with in anyway what so ever, following a twisted theological, metaphysical path that relates in no way to the world we now inhabit.

[1] This date and the following quote are taken from Aksel Haaning, The Philosophical Nature of Early Western Alchemy: The Formative Period c- 1150-1350, in Jacob Wamberg ed. Art & Alchemy, Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen 2006 pp. 23-40, quote p. 25. When quoting the same date, in his The Secrets of Alchemy, Principe points out correctly that although it might be the first translation of an Arabic alchemy text it’s probably not the Latin West’s first contact with the discipline.

[2] Robert of Chester is well known in the history of mathematics for his translation of Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī’s Al-kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa’l-muqābala (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing) the book that introduced algebra to the Latin West and which gave us both the words algebra and algorithm.


Filed under History of Alchemy, Newton

The Renaissance Mathematicus Christmas Trilogy: An Explanation.


I seem to have garnered a number of new readers in the last twelve months who might be confused by my Christmas Trilogy especially as I have offered no explanation within the posts themselves, so I have decided to present a brief explanation of this Renaissance Mathematicus tradition.

Isaac Newton was born on 25th December 1642 (OS), Charles Babbage was born on 26th December 1791 and Johannes Kepler was born on 27th December 1571 (OS). These three are amongst my favourite figures in the history of science so I developed the habit of writing a post dedicated to some aspect of their life and work on their respective birthdays, hence The Renaissance Mathematicus Christmas Trilogy.

For those interested you can find links to previous years’ posts here:

2009: On Clocks and Triangles: a post for Newtonmas Is the question “who invented the computer” legitimate? Shedding some light.

2010: A Christmas Trinity I: Isaac was one too. A Christmas Trinity II: Charlie, Ivor, Robert and me. A Christmas Trinity III: Johann’s geometrical music.

2011: Only 26 and already a professor! How Charles tried to oust Isaac from Cambridge. Kepler contra Fludd, science contra woo?

2012:  Christmas Trilogy 2012 Part I: Did Isaac really victimise Stephen? Christmas Trilogy 2012 Part II: Charles and Ada: A tale of genius or exploitation? Christmas Trilogy 2012 Part III:  What to do if your mother’s a witch.


Filed under History of science, Newton