Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Last Great Mystic

Now where did I leave my car keys?

Sir Isaac Newton is universally revered as the greatest intellect of all time. Although the English logician/philosopher/mathematician, Bertrand Russell, reserves this spot for the German savant, Gottfried Leibniz, a contemporary of Newton’s. There is little doubt that Newton had a prodigious and profound impact on knowledge in the second half of the 17th century. His contribution to science and mathematics is without peer and much of what he had to say remains relevant to the science of today. Indeed, it wasn’t until the coming of Einstein and his theory of relativity, at the beginning of the 20th century, that we had cause to revise Newton’s worldview. And even then, Newton’s mechanics hold true for ‘real existence’. The effect of relativity only becomes important when we observe nature ‘in extremis’.

Newton is responsible for ‘inventing calculus'; a powerful analytical tool underlying much of modern mathematics. However, it is likely that Leibniz independently formulated calculus about the same time. Their rivalry over who was ‘first’ caused a bitter rift between these intellectual giants. Newton also made great strides in astronomy and invented the reflecting telescope. All large optical telescopes are of this type today. Thus Newton was a rare genius and his insight and vast intellect not only revolutionised the physical sciences but changed the way other men viewed the natural world- after Newton everything was possible and everything was explainable by the scientific, analytical method. Men of science revelled in their new found intellectual optimism and treated non-mechanistic, theological explanations of physical phenomena, with frank disdain.

Everyone remembers Newton, the great scientist. Not everyone is aware of Newton, the Alchemist. This is not particularly surprising as Newton did not publicise or publish his research into this obscure and arcane area of study even though he spent over two decades of his life and wrote over a million words on the topic. When his manuscripts were discovered after his death, ‘The Royal Society’ deemed the work not worthy of publication and even suppressed its content from a wider audience.

Alchemy became popular during the Middle-Ages: a strange amalgam between practical proto-chemistry and mysticism. The primary aim of many practitioners was to find a way of converting base metals, such as lead, into gold. With modern chemistry as our guide, we can look aghast at the naivety of an intellectual giant such as Newton. But he wasn't alone in his quest of the 'dark art' and Robert Boyle, he of 'gas law' fame, was also an adherent. Whilst Newton and his ilk never achieved their dream, their Alchemic dabbling did help to set the study of chemistry, as a science, on a sound footing. Most of the classic chemistry apparatus seen in today’s laboratories was designed by Alchemists.

Newton was a deeply religious man and scoured the bible for symbolism and hidden knowledge. From his biblical studies, Newton calculated that the end of the world would occur in 2060; seems like a shrewd guess to me. He also plundered ancient mythological texts looking for ‘enlightenment’. Strange, that the man who embodied the enlightenment should have been drawn to the esoteric and irrational. He used his ‘findings’ to help refine his alchemic studies, although to no one’s surprise Newton advanced irrational thought, not a jot. One wonders what further scientific discoveries awaited Newton if only he had concentrated all his efforts into science and mathematics.   

Newton was a complex man (aren’t we all- except if you are a woman: ask Bruce Jenner) and a man of immense contradiction. A compelling figure capable of intense logical analysis and penetrating thought. Contrast this with his ability to apply deep analytical analysis to things mystical. I can’t help but believe that Newton’s mystical and alchemic research was just as important to him as his works on light or gravity. Mayhap we should forgive Newton his foibles. He came as close to becoming a god as any man should be allowed. And judging from the extant literature, on gods, no one is perfect.         

Sir Isaac Newton, in repose 


  1. "...Now where did I leave my car keys?.."

    That's usually a girly comment...

  2. To be honest tis hard to tell, sometimes. A colleague's son has just been accused of bullying because he called a transsexual in his class by the wrong gender- how times have changed.

    1. If someone's transsexual which is the wrong gender? What a load of bollocks...
      (or ovaries).

    2. Indeed. We didn't have transgenders in our class. We did have homosexuals- generally they got bullied in the real sense and the teachers didn't care.

    3. Or a lack of bollocks...?

      Sorry, I'll get my coat.