No. 967:
Isaac Newton: Alchemist

Today, let's meet Isaac Newton, the secret alchemist. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1782 James Price, Fellow of the Royal Society, did a public experiment in which he appeared to change sulfur into 50 times its weight in gold. The Society took the claim seriously enough that they called him before the other Fellows to rerun the experiment. When Price failed, historian Richard Gregory tells us, he drank poison on the spot and died.

We're left to wonder: What did Price really believe? Why was he carrying poison? If he knew he'd fail, why didn't he drink it at home and avoid that last humiliation? Price hands us a disturbing parable about science and credulity.

Now bear in mind: Hoping to change lower substances into gold is not silly. Transmutation clearly is possible. Whenever we drive our cars, we transmute the hydrocarbons that make up gasoline into water, carbon dioxide, and worse. Nuclear fusion literally transmutes hydrogen into helium at the atomic level.

A century before Price, Robert Boyle wrote a paper claiming he'd generated heat by mixing a special form of mercury with gold. The paper was vague. We don't know what his special mercury was. Since gold is very inert, Boyle's claim resembled today's hopes for cold fusion. He may've seen a chemical reaction, but the claim is as troubling today as it was then.

The catch is: Boyle didn't believe in alchemical transmutation, but his contemporary, Isaac Newton, did. Newton wrote thousands of pages on the subject and never published one. He was alarmed by what Boyle had done. He thought Boyle had tapped into some elemental alchemical truth too dangerous to be revealed -- like atomic fusion, I suppose.

Newton gave us his laws of mechanical motion, but he kept his deeper alchemical beliefs secret. A hundred and fifty years later we would use Newton's mechanics to describe atoms and molecules. The old alchemical essences of the mind would give way to a new atomic physics -- based on objective Newtonian billiard balls.

And I return to my question: What did Newton believe; what did Boyle believe; what do you believe; and what in God's name did Price believe that he should squander his life as he did?

Scientists have always fought over their claims. But much of that combat reminds us of Price facing the Royal Society with a vial of poison in his coat pocket. Most scientific combat is waged over convictions that're no less tenuous. What really drove Price to suicide? I believe it was trying to live in a world in which, like ours, doubt is made a greater sin than error. Price died in a world where it was nobler to embrace conviction than it was to seek out, define, and ultimately reduce ignorance.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Gregory, R.L., Even Odder Perceptions, New York: Routledge, 1994, (Chap. 22: Good as Gold: Newton's Alchemy of Matter and Mind.)

I am grateful to Jeffery Scoggins of Detering Book Gallery, Houston, for spotting Gregory's "Odd" book for me.