EXHIBITS: Newton Confidential

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Science  25 Nov 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5752, pp. 1255
DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5752.1255a

Isaac Newton was up to something that he concealed from his scientific contemporaries. He was experimenting with alchemy—a mystical endeavor that sought to turn base metals into gold. To explore this little-known side of the great physicist, drop by The Chymistry of Isaac Newton, run by science historian William Newman of Indiana University, Bloomington.

Newton pursued “chymistry,” the 17th century term for alchemy, for some 30 years. At the time, alchemists undertook genuine chemistry but also pursued dubious projects such as transmuting metals, and the practice fell into disrepute. The site publishes the first complete transcript of one of Newton's key lab notebooks, which shows that his alchemy and science intertwined. The pages brim with alchemical recipes but also record some of his pioneering optical observations, such as his discovery that white light comprises a spectrum of colors. Newman plans to add annotated versions of all of Newton's writings on chymistry. To browse one of these manuscripts, link to the site for a PBS NOVA program on Newton that aired earlier this month.


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