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.

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Alchemy, and how to write about it: ESSWE thesis workshop

As advertised before on this blog, the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) has been organising a thesis workshop on alchemy. It took place  in Amsterdam on June 24; here is a short report.

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Lawrence Principe and the Rehabilitation of Alchemy – another lecture in Utrecht

Utrecht has apparently become the place for me to see visiting historians of science. A couple months back Peter Galison gave  lectures and a workshop on secrecy and science, and now last week, the alchemy specialist Lawrence Principe gave the third Descartes-Huygens lecture on “Uncovering the Secrets of Alchemy and its Role in the History of Science”. It was quite a ceremonial occasion, as Principe, who is ordinarily based at John Hopkins University, was officially given an honorary fellowship at Utrecht Unversity. As the man himself opened by saying, this was probably the first time since the 17th century that the oration of a new fellow would be devoted to the art of alchemy.

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