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Newton's Dark Secret

  1. Jan 29, 2006 #1
    I just saw an ad for a Nova program called "Newton's Dark Secret", and had to google to find details.

    It turns out, startlingly, that Newton was secretly practising alchemy and trying to find the legendary "Philosopher's Stone", a kind of mythical catalyst that could transform one element into another.


    In his day there wasn't alot of separation between alchemy and chemistry. It would be nice to have found out he was trying to bring chemistry into the light of science as he did with motion and optics, but it seems he wasn't. He was, apparently, convinced there was something real about the ancient alchemical legends, and put alot of effort into trying to uncover how to transform one element to another.

    He left a great deal of writing on this subject, but it seems that no one who knows about it has wanted to bring it to anyone's attention.

    At the link they talk about the driving impulse behind all of this as being the desire to have control over Nature. It's hard to square his very brilliant insights of a purely realistic kind with his persuit of this sort of unrealistic pseudo-science. Newton of all people!

    It makes me wonder about the sense of reality of all scientists and physicists, and to what extent it can be erroded by their underlying motives.
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  3. Jan 29, 2006 #2


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    I don't think it was his only motive.
  4. Jan 29, 2006 #3
    I don't think it was a secret. That show is telling you a bunch of rubbish. Everyone knew he did alchemy. He thought god was telling him secrets by letting him discover laws of physics. He thought that by knowing these laws, he was in communication with god...........yeah ok Newton. Keep thinking that buddy....I guess when your an arrogant snob and horrible person, you start having bonkers ideas, because no one else wants to talk to you.
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2006
  5. Jan 29, 2006 #4


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    Yeah, I didn't want to question the source. So, I refrained from saying anything otherwise.

    It does sound like a load of crap.

    Just like Einstein being part of a secret society.
  6. Jan 29, 2006 #5
    Perhaps you did not read my post with care, he DID practice alchemy. I said it was NOT a secret. Alchemy was the main science of its day. Chemistry did not emerge until lavoisier in the 1600's. They called it his 'dark secret' so people would watch the show.
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2006
  7. Jan 29, 2006 #6
    Yeah, I thought this was common knowledge. Every show and book I've seen on Newton has mentioned it, not exactly a dark secret. But just cause he was a bit crazy doesn't mean he wasn't also a genius.
  8. Jan 29, 2006 #7
    Edit: lavoisier was 1700's.

    He was a genius, but a rotten guy too.
  9. Jan 29, 2006 #8


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    It was not a secret and it was common in those days.
  10. Jan 29, 2006 #9
    The choice of the word "secret" may be poor depending on what they're intending by it.

    I've never read an biography of Newton and this is the first I've ever heard of this. He is often mentioned as having a difficult personality, though. At any rate, this is unsettling to find out. I would have expected him to be debunking anything he could about alchemy rather than engaging in it.
  11. Jan 29, 2006 #10
    Why? There was no reason for him to think otherwise at the time. Alchemy was something that had been practiced for thousands of years, and had obtained results, like new alloys and metals.
  12. Jan 29, 2006 #11
    Yes, but it hadn't turned lead into gold. When I say "debunk" it, I mean to remove those portions that were bunk, and rationally explain the aspects of it that bore results. Given his abilities for independent thought, I shouldn't think he'd be susceptible to it simply based on the fact other prominent scientists were. It bothers me he would buy in to the notion of a "philosopher's stone", rather than just start looking at chemistry with a fresh mind and seeing where it lead.
  13. Jan 29, 2006 #12
    Alchemy was not just turning lead into gold though. It was a mysticism of chemistry. It was like a religion.
  14. Jan 30, 2006 #13
    Yes, and it surprises me that Newton, of all people, didn't look at it saying "All mysticism and religious aura aside, what's going on here?":
  15. Jan 30, 2006 #14


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    Newton was a freemason, an alchemist and a religious mystic.
    Incidentally, he was also a brilliant mathematician and physicist.
  16. Jan 30, 2006 #15
    Newtons Dark Secret sounded like it would be something really kinky and evil. But the dude practiced alchemy, not really such a big secret.
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2006
  17. Jan 30, 2006 #16
    All these alchemy notebooks he left are in a sort of code in that things have "secret" names, and they haven't figured out what all of it means. They do know, however, that he refers to himself as "Jehovah", which, while not kinky, is a very bipolar thing to do.

    I haven't seen the program yet, of course, but am very curious to see what they have found in these notebooks.

    Galileo practised astrology, casting forecasts for people because it was part of his job as an astronomer. There was no delineation between astrology and astronomy at the time. Yet it's clear that he had no faith in it and only did it to satisfy his patrons and people who insisted on believing in it. All his authentic science was aimed at undermining people's belief in things that weren't born out by experiment, and which were contradicted by observation, so I can forgive him for doing peoples charts in fullfillment of his duties. It would bother me a great deal to find out he left a pile of notebooks trying to advance the subject of predicting people's future by planetary positions.

    This stuff left by Newton is something like that. It is, to me, as if he left notebooks full of calculations of the possible location of Atlantis or Mount Olympus. I find it disturbing that he took the legends of the "Philosopher's Stone" seriously.
  18. Jan 30, 2006 #17
    Did he believe that there was an actual magic stone that turned lead into gold, or that there was just some undiscovered process that would turn things into gold? If it's the latter I don't see what the big deal is.
  19. Jan 30, 2006 #18
    I'm not sure of the details but it seems to be a stone that will transform one element into another by simply touching it to the thing. The ancient mystical texts claimed that someone had actually discovered such a thing. It could be the "stone" itself had to be made somehow rather than mined somewhere. I'm not sure.
  20. Jan 30, 2006 #19


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    Since chemistry didn't really exist yet and he was otherwise busy inventing new branches of math and physics, I'm inclined to cut the guy a little slack...
  21. Jan 30, 2006 #20
    You have to atleast be a bit crazy to be a genius.
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