Othering Newton’s Alchemy — why we do it and what it says about science today
Isaac Newton is one of those historical figures we revere as “a father of modern science”. He nerded out on puzzles; like the way light separates into colours through prisms and how objects are pulled towards the earth. As young nerd, I stanned the guy. I was surprised to learn that he worked harder on alchemy than on prisms or planets. Alchemy! Far from having an austere fixation on the scientific stuff, this guy wanted more than anything to be Rumpelstiltskin. How curious.
Most people react to this news like I did: “Oh I guess alchemy was his hobby”, or even, “how weird!”
Cometh surprise, cometh judgement.
My judgement is a kind of historical category error. Alchemy wasn’t a weird “other thing” to him at all. It was his main game. Today we read about Newton’s science in oleaginous detail in many places but his “occult studies” separately, and more rarely. But he didn’t have one pile of papers for alchemy and another, separate, pile for science. WE do. The distinction is ours, not his.
Do we do tidy away the unsightly work of all our scientific gods?
Yes. Aggressively so.
We do this to Darwin and to Freud for example. These guys did their thing more recently than Newton. As a result, we are still sifting their affairs, rummaging through their cabinets, labeling the tasteful bits “science” and othering the rest.
We can watch ourselves do that sorting in real time. Let’s start with daddy:
Freud was the good oil in the 20th Century, but he’s on the nose in the 21st. His sexism was of its time and passed many of the 20th Century’s tests too. Not any more. Even as casual observers we can see the misogyny in his work. He went to elegaic lengths to distinguish the moral fibre of men from that of women. From queerness to wandering wombs, any divergence from the straight white human male was fair game for psychoanalytic grand-daddy. Psychoanalysis has drifted from the celebrated…