Tag: Chemical Heritage Foundation

The Internet Discovers that Newton was an Alchemist

When Chemistry World reported on a Newton manuscript that CHF had recently purchased, it started a small epidemic of posts on Newton and alchemy. Within a few days hundreds of sites—ranging from sites like the Daily Kos and CNN to the Ancient Code and Facebook posts—had summarized, linked to, reposted, or transformed the original report.[1] Following the Chemistry World article as it spread across the internet reveals the process replication and transformation as the information drifted further from the original in time and space.[2]

Results from a Google search for newton's recipe alchemist's
When you restrict the results to the first month following Chemistry World’s report and you prune out duplicate results and other irrelevant hits, you still have hundreds if not thousands of hits for this story about Newton’s interest in alchemy.

Chemistry World

Chemistry World first reported on the manuscript in “Newton’s recipe for alchemists’ mercury rediscovered.” The manuscript contained Newton’s hand-written copy of George Starkey’s recipe for “philosophic mercury” as well as some of his own notes for distilling a volatile spirit. Since the 1930s this manuscript had been in private hands but will now be available to scholars thanks to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which had recently purchased it and will make scans and a transcription available through The Chemistry of Isaac Newton project. The Chemistry World article is rather dry, beginning with the title that certainly doesn’t excite interest—“alchemist’s mercury”? yawn. Importantly, the article doesn’t make grandiose claims, but sticks to a rather conservative: “Until now, the contents of this particular manuscript had not been made public.” Other than the title, there’s no language of rediscovery. No language of surprise at Newton’s interest in alchemy. CHF immediately excerpted and linked to the Chemistry World post.[3]

Original CHF webpage excerpting Chemistry World article.
The Chemical Heritage Foundation immediately summarized and linked to the Chemistry World report. Although CHF has since removed that post, it is still available from Web Archive.

A number of posts derived directly from the Chemistry World report. Summarizing the Chemistry World post, Gizmodo piled on with typical dismissal of Newton’s alchemy, “Rediscovered Manuscript Shows How Isaac Newton Dabbled In Alchemy.” Dabbled? As Jim Voelkel pointed out in the Chemistry World post, “the estimate of Newton’s alchemical output is something like a million words in his own hand. This [manuscript] is just another little page in a corpus of hundreds and hundreds of documents.” Gizmodo’s “dabbled” as well as the “he [Newton] resorted to the mysterious world of alchemy” reflects not Newton’s interests and efforts but rather Gizmodo’s desire to save Newton from the stain of alchemy:

Sir Isaac Newton may have been one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, but his contributions to chemistry leave much to be desired. … Newton and his fellow alchemists were simply doing the best they could given the dearth of scientific knowledge.

Gizmodo doesn’t want us to blame Newton for believing in alchemy. He was a great scientist, one of the greatest, who just happened to live in an ignorant, benighted time.

Other sites that would seem to have little or no interest in Newton or alchemy or history also picked up and summarized the Chemistry World post, e.g., Sputnik News’s “Eureka! Scientists Unveil Isaac Newton’s Recipe for Philosopher’s Stone[4] and Macedonia Online’s “Organization claims to have found Newton’s Recipe for Philosopher’s Stone.”

A week after the initial report, the Daily Mail posted a derivative of the Chemistry World article, “Isaac Newton’s recipe for ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ rediscovered.” They reworked Chemistry World’s original so that it would appeal to their readers, as the subtitle indicates: “17th-century alchemy manuscript reveals ingredients it was thought could make people IMMORTAL.” Because the their readers care less about the finer alchemical details and more about immortality and transmuting lead into gold, and because Harry Potter had popularized the Philosopher’s stone, the Daily Mail foregrounded these themes.

The Daily Mail’s version then served as the source for numerous other posts on the Newton manuscript, e.g., a few days later Unexplained Paranormal Phenomena shamelessly copied the post in “Isaac Newton’s Recipe For Magical ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Discovered.”

Filed under “WTF?” are the posts that appeared on various cooking sites the same day as the Daily Mail’s article, e.g., the Good Cooking Store’s “Isaac Newton’s recipe for ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ rediscovered” and Cooknology’s “Isaac Newton’s recipe for ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ rediscovered.”[5] These posts seem to have been generated by running the Daily Mail’s article through a simple algorithm that had a tenuous grasp on English. The algorithm replaced definite articles with indefinite articles and identified some bizarre synonyms. At times the synonyms read like a middle school student who, having discovered a thesaurus, transforms “human” into “tellurian.” At times the synonyms distort the text in strange ways as when “volatile spirit” becomes “flighty suggestion” or “minute example” becomes “notation instance.” I assume these sites have some automated process that scrapes certain sites for cooking related posts, transforms them, and reposts them in an effort to generate traffic and advertising income.[6]

Comparison of the Daily Mail and the Cooknology post.
I used DiffChecker to compare the Daily Mail’s version to Cooknology’s version. This screenshot highlights some of the systematic changes some algorithm made to produce the Cooknology version.

Live Science

Another major branch of posts appeared about a week after the Chemistry World article, starting with Live Science’s “Isaac Newton’s Recipe for Magical ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Rediscovered.” Magic, immortality, mythical substances all figure in this version, as does implicit surprise that

though best best known for his study of gravity and his laws of motion, Newton also apparently wrote more than a million words of alchemical notes throughout his lifetime.

Despite contacting CHF and quoting Jim Voelkel a number of times, Live Science’s version offers much of the same content in slightly different form. The only new information indicated that the manuscript had come up for auction two other times, in 2004 and in 2009.

Soon Live Science version was copied verbatim by other sites, including Yahoo’s ”Isaac Newton’s Recipe for Magical ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Rediscovered,” Rocket News’s “Isaac Newton’s Recipe for Magical ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Rediscovered,” which amusingly included the copyright notice from Live Science prohibiting copying and redistributing of the content, “Copyright 2016 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.” A few days later CBS posted their copy, cleverly disguising their borrowing behind a new title: “Manuscript reveals Isaac Newton’s recipe for magical ‘philosopher’s stone’.”

Once again, filed under “WTF?”, Live Science’s version also spawned an algorithm-generated version on cooking sites. Sebastian’s Fine Food, for example, copied CBS’s version of Live Science’s article: “Manuscript reveals Isaac Newton’s recipe for magical ‘philosopher’s stone’.” Again, the algorithm substituted synonyms and replaced definite with indefinite articles. But this time the algorithm doesn’t do as good a job of it. Some of the replacements make no sense. For example, “up” is replaced by “adult” as in “ended up working” that becomes “finished adult operative.” In another instance, “great interest” becomes “good seductiveness.” Is this some perverse way of driving internet traffic?

Comparison of the Live Science and the Sebastian Fine Food posts.
I used DiffChecker to compare Live Science’s version with Sebastian’s Fine Food’s version. This screenshot shows some of the 102 changes the algorithm made.

National Geographic and the Rest

Two weeks later through reputable outlets such as National Geographic, FOX News, and the Washington Post the story had permeated internet news sites. These three sites give the impression that they are brining something new to the story, but do little more than recycle much of the same content.

National Geographic’s “Isaac Newton’s Lost Alchemy Recipe Rediscovered” is entertainingly written—it opens with an enticing question: “Combine one part Fiery Dragon, some Doves of Diana, and at least seven Eagles of mercury, and what do you get? A key precursor to the Philosopher’s stone….” The speculation that Newton turned to alchemy to “possibly strike it rich” seems dismissive. We learn a bit more about George Starkey, but the focus remains vague surprise that “Newton—a father of modern physics and co-discoverer of calculus—was greatly influenced by alchemy and his collaborations with alchemists.” In addition to citing Jim Voelkel, the article quotes Bill Newman, who had been conspicuous for his absence in the other articles. In this version Newton’s alchemy is enlisted in the service of his science, especially optics.

The worry that such a scientific giant as Newton was engaged in junk science animates the Washington Post’s “Isaac Newton spent a lot of time on junk ‘science,’ and this manuscript proves it.” Dear Washington Post: alchemy was not “junk ‘science’” and this manuscript proves nothing. The Daily Beast borrows from the National Geographic’s and the Washington Post’s articles to worry about how alchemy (again dismissed as “junk science”) informed Newton’s presumably real science:

Newton, it was announced this year, had a secret obsession with the lowest of the pseudosciences: alchemy, or the pursuit of a “magic” substance that will change one element into another.
To think that one of humanity’s best minds would have written over a million words on something out of bad fantasy adventure writing is concerning—but maybe it shouldn’t be, because his research eventually led to something earth-shattering in another field.

For the record, dear Daily Beast, it wasn’t announced this year that Newton was interested in alchemy. It has been known for a long time. The article you cite points out that already in the 19th century Newton’s biographer was aware of his interest in alchemy. Scholars have written numerous books and articles on Newton’s alchemy. Bill Newman, whom you cite, has spent much of the last 20+ years working on Newton’s alchemy (even attempting to recreate a number of his laboratory practices and experiments). Maybe you just learned of it, but that’s just your own ignorance. And when did alchemy become the “lowest of the pseudosciences”? Both the Daily Beast’s and the Washington Post’s articles are full of problems and add little to the broader story.

FOX News’s “Isaac Newton and the ‘philosopher’s stone’: Manuscript reveals alchemy recipe | Fox News” is pleasantly bland, echoing what we’ve seen elsewhere and adding nothing new.

Three weeks after the Chemistry World post, purportedly reputable news and other specialized sites are spooning out bits from previous accounts as if they were some Newton-themed Smörgåsbord. These later posts, e.g., History.com, CSMonitor, Phys.org, CNN, Atlas Obscura, Smithsonian Magazing, contribute nothing to the conversation nor do they add anything to the information provided in their sources. These later posts seem to accomplish little beyond duplicating and remixing information widely available. By this point news has become merely repetition—the echo chamber of the internet is deafening.

Diagram showing the relationships between various versions of the Newton post.
This diagram shows five major branches of this story as it spread across the internet. The versions further down the diagram tend to recycle more and more of the same material. What distinguished these five branches was their reliance on Jim Voelkel as a source.

Postscript: I want to point out that this entire story was scarcely news worthy when it all began on March 17, 2016. Back in 2010 Discover Magazine was all worked up over Newton’s interest in alchemy and interviewed both Bill Newman and Larry Principe in “Isaac Newton, World’s Most Famous Alchemist.” But even then manuscripts demonstrating Newton’s interest in alchemy weren’t news. Five years earlier still, in 2005, NOVA had interviewed Bill Newman about Newton as alchemist and had created an interactive page that let you try to decode one of Newton’s alchemical manuscripts. More remarkable than Newton’s interest in alchemy is the internet’s failure to remember that long ago we discovered Newton’s interest in alchemy, as a quick internet search will reveal.[7]

  1. Search results for this report or some version of it edged up towards a thousand. Sure, on the Kardashian-Bieber scale that number is infinitesimal, but on the nerdy-academic scale, it is a rather impressive.  ↩

  2. Another way to describe this process is by reference to the old party game “telephone.” But the language of infection and epidemic seems so much more sophisticated and, well, science-y.  ↩

  3. For some reason, a couple weeks after CHF’s initial post, they switched the source of their excerpt from Chemistry World to National Geographic. They switched the same day National Geographic posted about the Newton manuscript. Perhaps CHF preferred the more dramatic prose in National Geographic’s version. Perhaps CHF assumed it looked better to appear in a major publication like National Geographic rather than the obscure, discipline specific Chemistry World.  ↩

  4. I don’t really know what these people are going on about. There are NO scientists mentioned in the article. In this story, scientists didn’t discover anything. Historians, maybe.  ↩

  5. These posts seem to have been rather ephemeral, even by internet standards. Within a few days these posts had disappeared.  ↩

  6. Clearly, recipe in the title of the Daily Mail’s post was sufficient to flag it as a cooking related post. These posts have since disappeared. Perhaps the sites have human editors that go through and remove egregious mistakes such as this one.  ↩

  7. I realize that in 2005 many of the authors of the most recent round of Newton-was-an-alchemist-?!? posts were probably still toddlers, but they should know how to perform a basic internet search. What good is their superior internet nuance and sophistication if they refuse to use it?  ↩

Field Trip to The Chemical Heritage Foundation

Each time I teach Collecting Nature & Displaying Authority we take three field trips to local museums. Our first outing took us to the ‎Chemical Heritage Foundation. Megan, one of the Visitor Services Assistants, led us around on an informative tour and engaging tour of the permanent exhibition, Making Modernity.

A portrait of Robert Boyle—a chemistry hero if there ever was one.
A portrait of Robert Boyle—a chemistry hero if there ever was one.

The students were pensive and measured but asked really interesting questions about curators, visitors, tours, objects, displays, design, architecture, public engagement, policy, scholars and fellows, funding, etc.

Students take notes at one of the displays in the CHF.
Students take notes at one of the displays in the CHF.

Before we went to the CHF, students compiled a list of questions or issues that they wanted to think about when they visited:

  1. How does the museum—through its history, its literature, its architecture, its collections, etc.—represent itself? What image is it trying to project?
  2. Who is encouraged to visit the museum?
  3. Is there an entrance fee?
  4. Is there a gift shop?
  5. How are visitors expected to act in the museum?
  6. What does the museum expect visitors to know?
  7. Are there guides or docents or gallery attendants? If so, what role do they play?
  8. How are the objects arranged, labeled, displayed? What do those choices suggest?
  9. Are there coherent themes that recur in the gallery? Is there a unified theme?
  10. Are donors identified in any way, e.g., a wall of donors, listed on individual displays?
  11. Are donors’ contributions indicated, e.g., by items donated, by amount of money donated?
  12. What argument is the museum trying to make? What message does it want visitors to take home?

They also thought of a few things to do while there:

  1. Choose three things (e.g., objects, cases, portraits, books, lighting, plinth) and explain what they are doing in this museum.
  2. Pick out one or two objects or display cases that surprised you in some way and explain why it surprised you?
  3. Find two or three things that are part of the display but not “on display,” e.g., lighting fixtures, handrail, curtains, and explain what they are doing, how they affect the display, what choices they represent.
A portrait of Paul Ehrlich, “The Father of Chemotherapy” according to the label.
A portrait of Paul Ehrlich, “The Father of Chemotherapy” according to the label. Read more about this portrait at the CHF webpage.

Given the smart questions students asked, I am looking forward to reading their write-ups about the visit.