Of Chymists and Kings in Science


Science, Vol. 338

December 21, 2012 - Princeton, NJ

By Anthony Grafton

Early in the 1940s, John Maynard Keynes composed an ambivalent tribute to Isaac Newton (1). Since the Enlightenment, Newton had been remembered “as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason.” But Newton’s long suppressed manuscripts—many of which Keynes himself bought at auction and presented to King’s College Cambridge—told a different story. The real Newton was an “unbridled addict” of alchemy. He had tried for decades to “read the riddle of tradition, to find meaning in cryptic verses, to imitate the alleged but largely imaginary experiments of the initiates of past centuries.” Keynes described the thousands of pages Newton had devoted to this pursuit as “wholly magical and wholly devoid of scientific value.”

Over the past half-century, historians of alchemy—especially William Newman and Lawrence Principe—have taught us to see the papers that dismayed Keynes in a very different light. The alchemy Newton practiced was a genuine scientific tradition, which took shape over centuries and involved both hands-on experimentation and sophisticated theories.

In The Secrets of Alchemy, Principe has pulled together the threads of his research and that of many colleagues. This elegant, readable book, packed with information and revelation, covers the history of alchemy from its shadowy origins in Hellenistic Egypt to its scholarly recovery in the 20th century. Principe traces the contours of a millennial tradition and shows exactly why Newton and many other brilliantly gifted scientists found so much promise in it.

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