Isaac Newton, Scientist – and Alchemist

Dr Peter Marshall FRGS
Picture © Philip C James 2010
Isaac Newton – The Ultimate Magus was the first of a short series of talks celebrating the 350th Anniversary of the Royal Society. It was given by philosopher, writer & poet Dr Peter Marshall, and introduced by Cindy Beadman, making her debut appearance as a Convenor. The series poses the question ‘Were Science and Faith once on friendlier terms?’
Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night,
God said, let Newton be, and all was light!
Alexander Pope
This was the prevailing view of Newton in the ‘Age of Reason’. With the publication in 1687 of his masterpiece Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (‘The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’), Newton transformed the Western world view and depicted the universe as a machine governed by universal and fixed laws.

Cindy Beadman (Royal Society series convenor) with Dr Peter Marshall
Picture © Philip C James 2010
It is perhaps the greatest irony in the history of Science that its most respected and famous figure, the exemplar of the rational and objective scientist, should have spent more of his life involved with alchemy than in any other intellectual pursuit. For twenty seven years in Cambridge Newton ranged over a vast area of occult and Hermetic knowledge and his central concern was the persuit of the Philospopher’s Stone.
Like all alchemists, Newton felt that it was essential to be pure in thought and action and worthy of ‘The Great Work’. In a note entitled Observations of the Matter in the Glass, he reminded himself of the religious nature of the Work and its importance in helping to alleviate the suffering of humanity. His alchemical work was not for personal wealth or prestige.
Dr Marshall argued that Newton, inspired by his alchemical studies, realized that there was an attractive force which held the planets in their orbits. Newton’s years of alchemical studies undoubtedly contributed to his understanding of the nature of gravity.