Cumberland Times-News

Columns

May 4, 2013

Sir Isaac Newton was a ‘philosopher by fire’

My last two columns have reviewed Isaac Newton’s upbringing, his great inventiveness (both practical and theoretical) and his reluctance to share his discoveries (fearing lesser minds would have the gall to challenge him.)

A subject that also held Newton’s attention was Alchemy. “Newton’s Notebook” by Joel Levy defines alchemy as “the art and science of material and spiritual transformation.”

Two goals of alchemy stand out: first, the transformation of lead into gold and second, the concocting of an elixir of immortality.

  The belief that ancients such as Moses and Solomon possessed this knowledge is central to alchemy.

It was the alchemist’s duty by experimenting with potions, solutions, plants and dead animals to rediscover the philosopher’s stone (that could change lead into gold) and to develop a drink that would allow one to live forever.

The core of alchemy ideas was adopted and spread through the Islamic world during the Dark Ages.

Some prominent scholars in the West during Medieval times and the early Renaissance were thought to be masters of alchemy, enabling them to converse with spirits and even manipulate the weather.

Some alchemists were charlatans, using their goal of changing lead into gold to divest unsuspecting investors of their money.

Newton considered himself a “philosopher by fire,” not concerned with changing lead into gold but a seeker of the ultimate truths of nature.

Newton (as many others) thought that ancient societies were closer to God and possessed primal wisdom that been lost through the ages.

In 1675, Newton began a friendship with Robert Boyle, author of “the Skeptical Chymist” and one of the founding members of the Royal Society.

Even in his first few years as a fellow (teacher) at Cambridge, Newton was conducting alchemical experiments with the help of his assistant Humphrey Newton.

After the publication of the Principia, a three book volume that developed Newton’s proofs of his laws of motion and gravitation, Newton road a wave of euphoria for several years.

Then Newton had a Black Year (most of 1693) in which he was isolated, not writing letters to any of his friends. It was suspected that Newton in his alchemy experiments might have inhaled some Mercury.

Newton was also depressed over the dissolution of a friendship with a Swiss mathematician with whom Newton was working on a second edition of the Principia.

Montagu, a college friend, had been appointed chancellor of the exchequer. (This was analogous to the present U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.)

Montagu sent a letter to Newton offering the position of the Warden of the Royal Mint. Four weeks later, Newton left Trinity to take the new position and live in the Tower of London.

The British currency was in a bad state; most of the coins dated from the rule of Queen Elizabeth, nearly a century before. The crudely minted coins were easy to counterfeit; many coins had their edges clipped. So the old coins had to be swapped for new improved coins.

Newton’s experience with alchemy gave him the background for this challenge. Newton’s condition for taking the post was that the recoining must be done his way, with no criticism.

The new British coins were milled (with vertical indentations around the edges) to stop clipping.

 Next Newton went after the counterfeiters. He personally paid informers for leads and was made a Justice of Peace to keep up with the incarceration and release of criminals.

Newton’s name struck fear in the hearts of the copiers. In one week in 1699, 10 counterfeiters were awaiting the gallows in one prison.

The most notorious forger, William Chaloner in March, 1699 was hanged, drawn and quartered.

   In 1703, Robert Hooke, Newton’s most hated peer passed away. In the annual meeting that November, Newton was elected President of the Royal Society.

Newton took his position very seriously, reading and commenting on most of the papers submitted for the next 20 years.

In 1727, Newton became ill and died at the age of 84. He was buried in the Nave of Westminster Abbey.

SKY SIGHTS AHEAD: Tomorrow is the best time to spot the Eta Aquarid meteor shower.

The moon will be a crescent in the southeastern dawn. These meteors are connected with Comet Halley that last passed our way in 1986. The best time to see the meteors will be between 4 and 5 a.m.

The moon will pass from the morning to the evening side of the sun late Thursday evening. This Friday night, a very slender crescent moon will appear to the left of the brilliant planet Venus (try viewing at 8:40 p.m.)

The moon will be much easier to spot the following evening at dusk.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.

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