Lynn: In 1936, the economist John Maynard Keynes purchased a set of Isaac Newton’s papers. To his great surprise, Keynes found that many of them related to Newton’s intense study of alchemy. To those of us in the modern world, alchemy is a discredited pursuit, the stuff of magical thinking and ignorance. Keynes wrote that Newton “was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”
But were Newton’s interests in hard science and alchemy as disparate as they now seem? Mary Losure takes on this question in her fascinating book, Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d (2017).
It is no small task to introduce middle-school students to the complexities of Newton’s groundbreaking discoveries in mathematics and physics. Understanding why alchemy was a compatible and serious study for Newton is an even larger challenge—one Losure meets admirably.
In order to examine these issues, readers first need an understanding of Newton’s era, its scientific knowledge, culture, and historical context. They also need to be introduced to the brilliant, reclusive Newton, whose obsessive curiosity drove him to seek the truth about how the world worked.
Losure writes with a lively enthusiasm and with admirable clarity, bringing to life a picture of a lonely, prickly boy who spent his life thinking about difficult questions seemingly only to satisfy his own drive to understand. As someone who struggled mightily with calculus, Losure’s account of 1665-1666, the “year of wonders,” was especially humbling. It was during this time, while evading the plague, that Newton developed the mathematics of calculus and pondered the laws of motion. He had no computer, no calculator. Using only his mind, spending hours and hours on calculation after calculation, he thought his way to discoveries that still impact scientific thinking today. Soon after, he closed his notebooks and, telling no one about his ideas, went back to the university, where alchemy claimed his attention.
If someone had told me that I would find it impossible to to put down a book about the origins of physics and calculus, I would have laughed, but that is exactly what happened. Mary Losure has worked her own type of alchemy!
Cindy: I have an obscene number of tabs stuck to pages of this book and promise not to quote them all, but in our technology- and device-filled, noisy world, this one is worth mentioning:
I keep the subject constantly before me and wait ’till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light. . . Truth, he remarked much later, grew out of ‘silence and meditation.’
The numerous primary source quotes, whether from Newton’s list of childhood “sins” (like putting a pin in John Keys’ hat) or the alphabetical list of careers he might pursue (beggar, comedian, doctor, engineer, and falconer among them) are as fascinating as his scientific notes. His discovery of light bending and separating into a rainbow of colors that he named a spectrum from the Latin word for “ghost” is illustrated by a page of his notes, including his drawings of light passing through a prism.
The Afterwords is chock full of bonus material for the science geek readers among us, including passages from books available during Newton’s time. Okay, I can’t resist. One more quote from Isaac shortly before his death. He might have listed “poet” as a possible career on his list:
I do not know what I may appear to the world. . . but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.