Isaac Newton - James Gleick (2004)

Chapter 9. All Things Are Corruptible

HIS DEVOTION to philosophical matters grew nonetheless. He built a special chimney to carry away the smoke and fumes.1

By Newton’s thirties his hair was already gray, falling to his shoulders and usually uncombed. He was thin and equine, with a strong nose and gibbous eyes. He stayed in his chamber for days at a time, careless of meals, working by candlelight. He was scarcely less isolated when he dined in the hall. The fellows of Trinity College learned to leave him undisturbed at table and to step around diagrams he scratched with his stick in the gravel of the walkways.2 They saw him silent and alienated, with shoes down at heel and stockings untied. He feared disease—plague and pox—and treated himself preemptively by drinking a self-made elixir of turpentine, rosewater, olive oil, beeswax, and sack. In fact he was poisoning himself, slowly, by handling mercury.3

No one could understand till centuries later—after his papers, long hidden and scattered, began finally to be reassembled—that he had been not only a secret alchemist but, in the breadth of his knowledge and his experimentation, the peerless alchemist of Europe. Much later, when the age of reason grew mature, a fork was seen to have divided the road to the knowledge of substances. On one path, chemistry: a science that analyzed the elements of matter with logic and rigor. Left behind, alchemy: a science and an art, embracing the relation of the human to the cosmos; invoking transmutation and fermentation and procreation. Alchemists lived in a realm of exuberant, animated forces. In the Newtonian world of formal, institutionalized science, it became disreputable.

But Newton belonged to the pre-Newtonian world. Alchemy was in its heyday. A squalid flavor did attach to such researches; alchemists were suspected as charlatans pretending to know how to make gold. Yet the modern distinction between chemistry and alchemy had not emerged. When the vicar John Gaule, an expert on witchcraft, assailed “a kinde of præstigious, covetous, cheating magick,” he called this malodorous practice by its name: chymistry.4 If alchemists were known to treasure secrecy and obscure their writings with ciphers and anagrams, these habits were no bar for Newton, burrowing further inward. If they revered arcane authorities and certain sacred texts, if they adopted Latinate pseudonyms and circulated secret manuscripts, so for that matter did Christian theologians. Newton was a mechanist and a mathematician to his core, but he could not believe in a nature without spirit. A purely mechanical theory for the world’s profusion of elements and textures—and for their transformations, from one substance to another—lay too far beyond reach.

He met with mysterious men and copied their papers—a W.S., a Mr. F.5 He devised a pseudonym, Jeova sanctus unus, an anagram of Isaacus Neuutonus. In the garden outside his room he built a laboratory, a shed abutting the wall of the chapel. His fire burned night and day.6 To alchemists nature was alive with process. Matter was active, not passive; vital, not inert. Many processes began in the fire: melting, distilling, subliming, and calcining. Newton studied them and practiced them, in his furnaces of tin and bricks and firestones. In sublimation vapors rose from the ashes of burned earths and condensed again upon cooling. In calcination fire converted solids to dust; “be you not weary of calcination,” the alchemical fathers had advised; “calcination is the treasure of a thing.”7 When a crimson-tinged earth, cinnabar, passed through the fire, a coveted substance emerged: “silvery water” or “chaotic water”—quicksilver.8 It was a liquid and a metal at once, lustrous white, eager to form globules. Some thought a wheel rimmed with quicksilver could turn unaided—perpetual motion.9 Alchemists knew quicksilver as Mercury (as iron was Mars, copper Venus, and gold the sun); in their clandestine writings they employed the planet’s ancient symbol, . Or they alluded to quicksilver as “the serpents.”10

“The two serpents ferment well …” Newton wrote at one session. “When the fermentation was over I added  16gr & the matter swelled much with a vehement fermentation.…”11 Like other alchemists, he conceived of mercury not just as an element but as a state or principle inherent in every metal. He spoke of the “mercury” of gold. He particularly coveted a special, noble, “philosophical” mercury: “this  … drawn out of bodies hath as many cold superfluities as common  hath, & also a special form & qualities of the metals from which it was extracted.12 Part of mercury’s esoteric appeal was its tendency to react with other metals. Applied to copper, lead, silver, and even gold, it formed soft amalgams. A skillful practitioner could use mercury to purify metals. Over time, mercury builds up in the body, causing neurological damage: tremors, sleeplessness, and sometimes paranoid delusions.

Robert Boyle, too, was experimenting with mercury. In the spring of 1676, Newton read in the Philosophical Transactions an account “Of the Incalescence of Quicksilver with Gold, generously imparted by B.R.”13 He recognized the inverted initials, and he suspected that the research drew near the alchemists’ dream of multiplying gold. “I believe the fingers of many will itch to be at the knowledge of the preparation of such a ,” he wrote privately. A dangerous sort of knowledge might lie nearby—“an inlet to something more noble, not to be communicated without immense damage to the world.”14 Newton believed—and knew Boyle did, too—that the basic substance of matter was everywhere the same; that countless shapes and forms flowed from the varied operations of nature on this universal stuff. Why should the transmutation of metals be impossible then? The history of change was all around.

Like no other experimenter of his time, alchemist or chemist, he weighed his chemicals precisely, in a balance scale.15 Obsessed as always with the finest degrees of measurement, he recorded weights to the nearest quarter of a grain. He measured time, too; here, a precise unit was an eighth of an hour. But measurement never replaced sensation: as his experiments fumed, he touched and sniffed and tasted the slimes and liquors that emerged.

He probed for the processes of life and death: vegetation and, a special case, putrefaction, which produces a “blackish rotten fat substance” and exhales matter into fumes. Nothing can be changed from what it is without putrefaction, he wrote in haste, in his microscopic scrawl. First nature putrefies, then it generates new things. All things are corruptible. All things are generable. And so the world continually dies and is reborn. These exhalations, and mineral spirits, and watery vapors, generate a rising air and buoy up the clouds: “so high as to loos their gravity.”16

This is very agreeable to natures proceedings to make a circulation of all things. Thus this Earth resembles a great animall or rather inanimate vegetable, draws in æthereall breath for its dayly refreshment and vital ferment.… This is the subtil spirit which searches the most hiden recesses of all grosser matter which enters their smallest pores and divides them more subtly then any other materiall power what ever.

Driving this cycle of death and life, inspiring this circulatory world, must be some active spirit—nature’s universal agent, her secret fire. Newton could not but identify this spirit with light itself—and light, in turn, with God. He marshaled reasons. All things, in the fire, can be made to give off light. Light and heat share a mutual dependence. No substance so subtly pervades all things as light. He felt this in the depth of his being.

“Noe heat is so pleasant & beamish as the suns,” he wrote.

Through his alchemical study shines a vision of nature as life, not machine. Sexuality suffused the language of alchemy. Generation came from seed and copulation; principles were male (Mercury) and female (Venus). Then again:

these two mercuries are the masculine and feminine semens … fixed and volatile, the Serpents around the Caduceus, the Dragons of Flammel. Nothing is produced from masculine or feminine semen alone.… The two must be joined.17

From the seeds, the seminal virtues, came the fire and the soul. If alchemy was the closest Newton came to a worldly exploration of sexuality, it crossed paths with a theological quest as well. To alchemists the transmutation of metals meant a spiritual purification. It was God who breathed life into matter and inspired its many textures and processes. Theology joined alchemy as the chief preoccupation of Newton’s middle decades.

The new mechanical philosophers, striving to create a science free of occult qualities, believed in matter without magic—inanimate brute matter, as Newton often called it. The virtuosi of the Royal Society wished to remove themselves from charlatans, to build all explanations from reason and not miracles. But magic persisted. Astronomers still doubled as astrologers; Kepler and Galileo had trafficked in horoscopes.18 The magician, probing nature’s secrets, served as a template for the scientist. “Do you believe then,” Nietzsche asked two centuries later, “that the sciences would ever have arisen and become great if there had not beforehand been magicians, alchemists, astrologers and wizards, who thirsted and hungered after abscondite and forbidden powers?”

Descartes had gone to great lengths to purify his scheme, substituting mechanical (but imaginary) vortices for hidden (but real) forces like magnetism. Newton was rebelling against Descartes, and nowhere more fiercely than in the realm of the very small. The philosophers stood further removed from atoms than from the stars. Atoms remained a fancy, invisible to human sight. The forces governing heavenly bodies were invisible too, but ready to be inferred from a mathematical treatment of the accumulating data. For any practitioner of chemistry or alchemy, one question loomed: what made particles cohere in the first place?19 What caused inert atoms to stick together, to form minerals and crystals and—even more wonderfully—plants and animals? The Cartesian style was recklessly ad hoc, Newton thought. It offered a different mechanical explanation for every new phenomenon: one for air, another for water, another for vinegar, yet another for sea salt—“and so of other things: your Philosophy will be nothing else than a system of Hypotheses.”20 Newton wanted a universal cause.

As with the question of light’s true nature, he chose a narrow rhetorical path: veering past the question of whether his program was or was not fundamentally mechanical, all reduced to particles and forces. Of light he had said, “Others may suppose it multitudes of unimaginable small & swift Corpuscles of various sizes, springing from shining bodies at great distances, one after another, but yet without any sensible interval of time, & continually urged forward by a Principle of motion.”21 For the rest:

God who gave Animals self motion beyond our understanding is without doubt able to implant other principles of motion in bodies which we may understand as little. Some would readily grant this may be a Spiritual one; yet a mechanical one might be showne.…

Rather than turn away from what he could not explain, he plunged in more deeply. Dry powders refused to cohere. Flies walked on water. Heat radiated through a vacuum. Metallic particles impregnated mercury. Mere thought caused muscles to contract and dilate. There were forces in nature that he would not be able to understand mechanically, in terms of colliding billiard balls or swirling vortices. They were vital, vegetable, sexual forces—invisible forces of spirit and attraction. Later, it had been Newton, more than any other philosopher, who effectively purged science of the need to resort to such mystical qualities. For now, he needed them.

When he was not stoking his furnaces and stirring his crucibles, he was scrutinizing his growing hoard of alchemical literature. By the century’s end, he had created a private Index chemicus, a manuscript of more than a hundred pages, comprising more than five thousand individual references to writings on alchemy spanning centuries. This, along with his own alchemical writing, remained hidden long after his death.