Newman on Newton

Bill Newman knows his Newton.

Newman visited Butler University on Monday to present on chemistry and alchemy as part of  he Fall 2010 Woods Lecture Series.

Newman is a professor in the department of history and philosophy of science at Indiana University in Bloomington. He teaches courses on the history of matter theory and the history of early chemical technology.

Newman is the general editor of “The Chymistry of Isaac Newton,” an integrated project that combines new research on Newton’s “chymistry” with an online edition of his manuscripts.

Monday’s presentation covered the transmutation of metals through the use of alchemy—thought possible by many notable intellectuals in the 1700s, such as Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and George Starky. By metal transmutation, he was referring to the creation of precious metals gold and silver from common metals, such as lead and copper.

“People often wonder why scientific figures believed in the transfusion of one metal to the other,” Newman said. “Two ways to look at it are from theoretical to mechanical.”

Newman claimed that intellectuals in the 1700s were under the belief that copper and lead were unripe metals that could be changed to precious metals, either naturally or through laboratory environments.

These beliefs arose from such observations as miners finding the metals silver and lead in the same general areas—leading them to believe the silver was a more progressed form of the lead.

In his presentation, Newman preformed some of the experiments that provided the intellectuals from the 1700s evidence for metal transmutation. He said that individuals would perform “public transmutation,” or experiments in public, such as dipping a silver medallion into a mysterious solution in order to change the medallion into gold.

Newman replicated a “public transmutation” within his presentation. He dipped a silver coin into concentrated nitric acid, which turned the coin gold by corroding the silver and creating a gold and silver alloy.

He also did an experiment using copper vitriol in which the silver blade of a knife was turned to a copper color, again showing physical evidence for the proof of alchemy.

“Artificial transmutation of silver into gold was witnessed by the greatest thinkers of the century,” Newman said.

In other words, there was physical evidence and reason to believe that alchemy could exist and this created an age of gold that fascinated thinkers such as Newton.

Newman said Newton’s nephew-in-law noted in a report that Newton never truly gave up his fascination with alchemy.

“If he were younger, he would have another touch at metals,” he said.

Newman even made a Harry Potter reference, with the mention of the philosopher’s stone—an article thought to have the power to modify any normal metal to gold. Legendary tales surround the philosopher’s stone and its seemingly magical powers—one of the most well known tales being “The Golden Calf,” Newman said.

Though Newman recognizes that alchemy and the existence of a philosopher’s stone have since been proven untrue, his point is that there was definite reason for this fascination to have arisen within even the greatest intellectuals.

Junior Andrew Hiday said the presentation was interesting because Newman presented Newton in the light of alchemy, rather than the physics for which the scholar is most well known.

“[Newman] presented some very interesting points and entertaining demonstrations, although his presentation style was very bland,” Hiday said. “I feel like I gained insight into parts of Isaac Newton that I did not realize before.”