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William Newman
Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Sherry Fisher
Office of the Vice President for Research

Last modified: Friday, November 11, 2005

NOVA documentary shows IU faculty efforts to uncover Isaac Newton’s "Dark Secrets"

Nov. 11, 2005

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- For the past 300 years, Sir Isaac Newton has been considered one of the leading scientific intellects of all time, as well as the father of modern physical science. Some aspects of his scientific quest, however, remain a mystery, in particular his deep obsession with alchemy. In Newton's era, alchemists were suspect, and their science often was earmarked as irrational and charlatanry. Behind the suspicion was the belief that the primary purpose of alchemy was to turn ordinary metals into gold.

William Newman

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"I like to compare the attempt by alchemists to produce gold to the efforts of modern-day medical researchers or economists," said William Newman, professor of history and philosophy of science at Indiana University Bloomington. "Both make big claims of future success such as finding the cure for cancer or accurately predicting sweeping economic change, under which a huge variety of smaller projects are actually carried out. In the same way, under the umbrella of making gold, alchemists were carrying out much more practical projects that served the public, from the manufacture of pigments for painting to the making of medicines that were manufactured with the technology of the alchemical laboratory."

A purple alloy of copper and antimony that Newton -- following his source "Eirenaeus Philalethes" (the American alchemist George Starkey) -- called "the net."

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During Newton's 30-year quest to unravel the challenges associated with alchemy, he wrote more than a million words on the subject, most of which have never been published. Although Newton's writings were not completely unknown to scholars and biographers, they were essentially suppressed because of their scandalous subject. In 1936, when Newton's heirs sold his notebooks through Sotheby's Auction House in London, many of the manuscripts were acquired by libraries. John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, bought about half of the alchemical documents and donated them to Kings College at Cambridge University.

Newman, together with John Walsh, associate director for projects and services for Indiana University's Digital Library Program, and Cathrine Reck, assistant professor in the IU Department of Chemistry, is pursuing a project called "The Chymistry of Isaac Newton" ( The project includes the editing and production of a scholarly online edition of Newton's laboratory notebooks and manuscripts about alchemy, as well as replicating a number of Newton's experiments. The repeated experiments are the subject of an upcoming NOVA documentary called "Newton's Dark Secrets" ( Shot on location at Indiana University, the PBS broadcast will be Tuesday (Nov. 15) at 8 p.m. EST. It presents several re-enactments of Newton's alchemical experiments, conducted or devised by Newman and Reck.

Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Newman has spent years deciphering the notebooks, which are filled with archaic as well as poetic references such as "the Green Lion" and the "menstrual blood of the sordid whore." "While reading Newton's private thoughts," Newman said, "you begin to understand that we're dealing with a guy who was arguably the greatest scientific genius of all time. Because Newton had knowledge about certain things he thought unnecessary to include in his notebooks, we are left with a layer of mystery that makes the deciphering of his language something like decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics without a key like the Rosetta Stone."

Newman won this year's Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society for an outstanding scholarly publication. His award-winning book, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry, was co-written with Lawrence M. Principe, professor of the history of science, medicine and technology and of chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. Newman and Principe argue that historians of chemistry should look to the alchemist George Starkey, who has been described as America's most prominent natural philosopher prior to Benjamin Franklin, rather than to Robert Boyle, for the origins of modern chemistry.

More information about Newman's work is available at He can be reached at 812-855-3622 and