William Newman demonstrates alchemical transmutation – with a few notes on whiggishness

The perpetually mystified Newton

When I press the “publish” button for this post I shall immediately duck and take cover from allegations of whiggishness. The title of the lecture I post below, “Why did Newton believe in alchemy?” is precisely the sort of question-asking that has recently been criticised in the history of science blogging community in a recent upsurge of discussions about whig history and misapplication of categories in narrating or explaining science history. As Rebekah Higgitt wrote on teleskopos back in 2010, the “Newton as alchemist” trope seems to be a perennial surprise, and she suggested (I think convincingly) that the very fact that journalists but also scholars continue to introduce this topic precisely as a surprise – no doubt to attract the attention of their audience – is actually just perpetuating the mystery rather than leaving it behind and moving on. The problem is not only that we should start by acknowledging the state-of-the art established knowledge in the field (which in the case of Newton means at least departing from such works as Robert Westfall’s Never at Rest, and Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs’ The Janus Face of Genius) rather than by perpetuating the research questions of more than half a century ago. The problem is also that by playing the surprise card, we encourage people to ask questions that are poorly formulated and misleading in the first place. Questions such as, “was Newton a scientist or a sorcerer?” As Thony Christie will tell you, that’s a completely silly question, which cannot avoid distorting the material it’s supposed to clarify. To put it in histsci jargon, the question is too far removed from “actor’s categories” to make any sense.



Review: Mark Morrisson’s “Modern Alchemy”

(The following is my review of Mark Morrisson’s Modern Alchemy. The final version was published in Aries 11.1).

In 1901 physicist Ernest Rutherford and chemist Frederick Soddy, tucked away in a laboratory at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, were struck with amazement as they watched the element thorium transform into an inert gas. Soddy, exclaiming that they had witnessed nothing less than transmutation, was warned by his more temperate colleague: “For Mike’s sake, Soddy, don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our heads off as alchemists”.

Alchemy would, however, be invoked frequently during the decades to come; not with reference to obscure occultists in the secret vaults of hermetic societies, but in connection to new discoveries concerning radioactive decay. Indeed, in its the early decades, what would become nuclear physics was commonly labelled “modern alchemy”. The crucible and athanor had been replaced by cloud chambers, spectroscopes, and ionization chambers,  but there was a nagging feeling that the ancient and modern alchemists ultimately shared the same goal: the transmutation of elements.