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Isaac-Newton–Alchemy

Page history last edited by lindsey 12 years, 4 months ago

 Summary

 

    Although Newton mostly noted for his work in physics and mathematics, he seemed to have focused comparitively less on these topics. Rather, Newton dedicated a much larger portion of his time to what is now referred to as alchemy. Newton had written numerous papaers in Alchemy, more so than works in other subjects.  His use of alchemy is largely unknown due to the sheer gravity, pardon the pun, that his physical works had on natural philosophy and the fact that he avoided publicizing his work in the subject. It was not until the early twentieth century that his research on alchemy became public. Only recently have his alchemic papers been looked at seriously by scholars. It has been noted by many of these scholars that Newton's study of alchemy influenced him, at least in part, in writing his famous works: the Principia and Opticks. However, how much Newton's alchemy actually influenced his work is still highly debatable. Some like Bernard Cohen assert that Newton's alchemy had almost no involvement in his physical works, while others like Castillejo assert that alchemy was the foundation of all of Newton's work. Richard Westfall takes an intermediate path, suggesting that it is undeniable that alchemy did influence Newton's work, but that his work could not be equated with the occult.  Westfall's argument occurs in three parts. First, he asserts that the large alchemical corpus (over 1,200,000 words written in Newton's own hand) cannot be ignored. Next, he acknowledges the re-emergence of certain attractive, occult properties in Newton's work (e.g. gravitational attraction in the Principia and the aetherial media in Opticks). Finally, Westfall makes chronological connections between Newton's alchemical works and his physical works.

 

To add confusion to the matter, there was a fine line between what was considered alchemy and chemistry during the seventeenth century. Although it is thought that Newton started out studying chemistry, he soon after switched over to alchemy (Westfall, 317). His work in the subject consisted of reading the works of alchemical authorities and experimenting with certain alchemical ideas.

 

Newton's Principia (cont'd)

 

     The Newtonian Synthesis was the one of most important aspect of Newton's work in physics.  This method of uniting the physics of the terrestrial realm and the celestial realm was something that physics had failed to do for some time.  Also Newton was able to derive both Galileo's law of free fall and all of Kepler's three laws from his first principles.  The explanatory power of the Principia is also great.  Newton explains the workings of the tides, the  basics of the moon's motion, the behavior and nature of comets, and the oblong shape of the earth due to the rotation of the earth.  He also compared the forces of the moon, Earth, and Sun, refering it as a three body problem in which all three attract each other. 

     Newton, who was also very religious, put many implications of theology into his Principia as well.  Newton sought to dispel atheism with his work and saw the universal attractive force that he proposed as a way of putting God back into the universe as the cause or perpetrator of this force. He proposed that something had to be behind all the motion set in the universe and that something was keeping it going. Newton knew that we could calculate the motion and study it but that we had to look at the being that set it in motion in the first place. Newton went on to theorize that God had a very active role in gravity since it was an unseen property of objects. While Newton went on in his career to swap sides in what causes the motion we witness, it is apparent that he always believed that there was something there controlling it and that it was not just chance.

 


 

 

Primary Sources

 

Newton's alchemical corpus.


 

Key Terms and Definitions

 

Ultimate Truth- An old idea which says that the basic truth on the way things work can be found through the study and understanding of many different subjects. Newton was a believer in this idea.

 


 

Relevant Links

 

Comments (5)

jgm829@... said

at 11:32 am on Dec 3, 2008

I started with a basic summary of Newton's involvement in alchemy and how it is perceived by others. I also added a primary source and definition.

Alyson Collins said

at 1:56 pm on Dec 3, 2008

I added the added info Dr. Ramberg gave us about the Principia and Oticks to last class notes page because I thought it made moer sense to add there instead of this page.

Grant Berry said

at 8:54 pm on Dec 3, 2008

I just started by addressing Westfall's argument.

Garrett McCormack said

at 11:50 am on Dec 4, 2008

I just added some of stuff Dr. Ramberg reiterated in class about the Principia.

liz mastroianni said

at 1:49 pm on Dec 4, 2008

didnt change much...pretty much good

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