JF Ptak Science Books Post 1505
I've made a number of posts on this blog regarding the anniversaries of the Trinity atomic test explosion on 16 July 1945, out there in the desert--actually in the Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of the Dead Man/Dead Man's Walk, near Socorro, New Mexico. Its a bad piece of land if you wanted to cross it, especially if you went north-to-south, a hundred mile bit of an unrelenting waterless world.
But that's not the Trinity I want to talk about now--today's Trinity is about as far removed from the flat piece of dry New Mexican earth as you can get, being the beautifully maintained Renaissance grasses of Trinity College at Cambridge. The call to this Trinity, today, is in observation of the 351st anniversary of the arrival of Issac Newton (1642-1727) at that college. 1660 is not an auspicious year in Newton's history, necessarily, but it is the beginning--Newton's enormous years would come in just a little bit, getting well underway during the Plague Years in 1665/1666, when he left the school to ride out the nasties in his native Woolsthorpe1.
Myk favorite image of Trinity is the one above, printed not too long after Newton's return2, and after he had set up his own alchemy lab in a lean-to shack against the wall of the school (slightly visible here in the lower right corner.). Newton's decades-long run in the alchemy turnstile is well known, but what I'd like to know is why he gave it up.
My feeling is that Newton believed he was missing a big something in his way of looking at and understnanding, expressing, the world. I think that he recognized the failing of physics and math to explain the vitalism (in the alchemical sense) of the world, and that alchemy might provide it. Thinking that this vital agent was in a way divine, in a way a product of divine interaction and participation, Newton may have used alchemy in the hopes that this area of study .would get him closer to that cause of all spontaneous processes that would explain all of the varieties and vagaries of living stuff. He might have viewed this creative process in the Old Testament sense of god using light at the beginning of the world, activity life in nothingness; Newton may have actually thought of this process as alchemical in nature.
There has been much written on Newton and alchemy, and I know almost nothing about it. Knowing the anniversary was upon us, and seeing the print of Trinity, and seeing again that little shack where Newton spent so much concentrated effort, all conspired to make me think about what led Newton to give it all up. He stopped just as he was leaving the school for London to become director of the Mint, undertaking a big change in his life. His superhuman insight was about done by this point, even though his Optics would come a little later on, in 1704--most of that work was already completed, with Newton waiting, perhaps, for any troubles that he felt he was going to have upon the book's publication to fade away. And in this case, the problematic part did fade away, into dust, with the death of his long-worn enemy, Robert Hooke, in 1703. And its not that Newton faded away over the next few decades, he was still an exceptional powerhouse of an intellect to the very last, molding the new Scientific Revolution from his position as president of the Royal Society. And hen there was the oversight of the Mint.
But he pretty much gave up alchemy around 1697, and that, as they say, was that. I wonder what it was that he found or didn't find; whatever it was, it wasn't among the million or so very chosen/careful/hidden/coded words in his (very) private (and not-intended-to-be-published) writings on the subject. What was in that final dot at the end of the last recorded sentence on alchemy, I wonder?
The other part of this print of Trinity that I so love is in the foreground, where the artist--or engraver--decided for whatever reason to include a tiny scene of two fighting/playing dogs. Dogs and the shack, and the rest of the grandeur.
1. Newton graduated in 1665 without any particularly noted academic achievement. Of the plague years, Newton wrote: "All this was in the two plague years of 1665 and 1666, for in those days I was in my prime of age for invention, and minded mathematics and philosophy more than at any time since."
Newton returned to the school in 1667 and was made a (minor) fellow; he took his masters in 1668, and in 1669, by the appearance and promise of his great genius, Newton was named Lucasian professor, filling the seat of Isaac Barrow. Newton was 27 years old.
"The more Newton's theological and alchemical, chronological and mythological work is examined as a whole corpus, set by the side of his science, the more apparent it becomes that in his moments of grandeur he saw himself as the last of the interpreters of God's will in actions, living on the fulfillment of times."--F.E. Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton (1974).