Science versus alchemy

Jonathan Hyde as Isaac Newton

The BBC’s series The Genius of Invention carried on, this week with a major documentary on the greatest of scientists, Isaac Newton .

But the documentary revealed a more complicated side to Newton: not just the logical man who made great discoveries about light and gravity, for most of his life he was obsessed with alchemy, with the search for the philosopher’s stone. It’s usually assumed that by the time Newton was born in 1642 alchemy, so popular in the sixteenth century, was in decline. This obsession came to light only in the twentieth century when some of his papers were purchased by the economist John Maynard Keynes. So Newton, rather than being the first of the great scientists could instead be seen as the last magician.

Radio 4’s Point of View this week was on the subject of Science, magic and madness, in which Adam Gopnik compared the methods of the great scientist Galileo Galilei with those of John Dee.

The opera Dr Dee

Galileo was Shakespeare’s exact contemporary, whereas Dee, born in 1527 was on an older generation. Both were interested in the science of planets, their orbits, and the effects of gravity, but whereas Galileo tested his theories, rejecting them when they were proved to be wrong and insisting on logical explanations for problems, Dee relied too heavily on reading other people’s opinions. He believed, of course, in alchemy, and nowadays is mostly remembered for his misguided eccentricity and his belief in the occult rather than for his learning. Nevertheless he had been favoured by Queen Elizabeth, who consulted him and visited him at his home, though he was never given any formal status or regular income. He’s become a more popular figure lately with an opera, Dr Dee, being staged in 2012.

Gopnik pointed out that any kind of advance never takes place in simple stages, and Newton’s fascination with alchemy certainly sits awkwardly with the idea that science leapt forward in the age of the Royal Society under Charles II. The idea of turning lead into gold was so compelling that it took a lot of shifting.

Andrea Sella

One of the speakers at the ShakesSphere talk I attended at the RSC a few weeks ago was Professor Andrea Sella, a chemist who talked about the attempts from the Greeks onwards to answer the question “What is the world made of?” Cinnabar ore contains mercury, which could be extracted by heating. If the magical element mercury could come out of a red rock, what else was possible? What was the connection between yellow rocks and gold? It had been known for centuries that combining the two soft metals copper and tin resulted in the much harder metal bronze.

Professor Sella demonstrated a few delightful magic tricks, showing how easy it was to apparently turn one metal into another. He heated caustic soda and zinc dust, and used it to turn a copper coin silver. Then he heated the coin and it turned gold. Nowadays we know these are only illusions, but who could blame alchemists for thinking it might be possible to turn base metals into gold if they could only find the right combination? Knowing that the brilliant Isaac Newton pursued this idea throughout his life certainly makes it seem a less eccentric idea.

John Dee

Belief in the supernatural thrived in Shakespeare’s time, and has never died out in spite of scientific advances. Shakespeare certainly included his fair share of spirits and ghosts. But it seems unlikely to me that Shakespeare modelled his great magician Prospero on John Dee, a man from a previous age whose actual achievements had been so modest.

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