Isaac Newton's physics depended on alchemy

A top scientist says that it was not an apple on the bonce that inspired the founder of modern physics, Sir Isaac Newton to his discoveries, but his interest in turning lead into gold.

Speaking at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, William Newman, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University in Bloomington, has been looking at why Newton spent more time doing alchemical experiments than the physics which he is famous for.

Newman said that Sir Isaac the alchemist was just as good a scientist than was Sir Isaac, author of the magisterial Principia Mathematica.

According to the Apple friendly New York Times, he said that it was perfectly reasonable for a man of science to believe in Alchemy, at least in the 17th century.

While the alchemists of the day may not have mastered the art of transmuting one element into another, their work yielded a bounty of valuable spinoffs, such as chemistry and the development of new drugs, brighter paints, stronger soaps and better booze.

But Newton’s alchemical investigations helped him develop one of the fundamental breakthroughs in physics. This is that white light is a mixture of coloured rays, and that a sunbeam prismatically fractured into the rainbow which can be bought back to a white light again using another lens.

Newman said that alchemy was crucial to Newton’s breakthroughs in optics ad was a case of “technology transfer,” said Mr. Newman, “from chemistry to physics.”

One of the principle ideas of alchemy was that matter was hierarchical and  that tiny, indivisible and semi-permanent particles come together to form ever more complex and increasingly porous substances.

This has similarities to 20th-century molecular biology and quantum physics.

Newton thought that with the right gear it should be possible to reduce a substance to its core constituents “its corpuscles”. He thought that he could then prompt the corpuscles to adopt new configurations and programmes.

If he managed this, he thought it possible to prompt metals to grow in a flask.

Of course it did not work, but it was a lot more interesting than falling apples.