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12/19/2000

An Alchemist Born Christmas Day

Christmas is the celebration of a birthday, a very special birthday
for millions of people around the world. On Christmas Day in
1642, another very special individual was born. That individual,
born in the year that Galileo died, led Alexander Pope to pen the
lines "Nature, and Nature''s Laws lay hid in the night: God said,
Let Newton be! And All was Light". Today, after a hard fought
election, it''s time for reconciliation. One of Isaac Newton''s
major achievements was to reconcile the scientific achievements
of his predecessors and add his own monumental contributions in
the book "Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica". This
book, known simply as the Principia, stands as an unparalleled
testimony to the capabilities of the human mind. Yet, in a spirit
akin to what is needed today, Newton authored the famous words
"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of
giants."

In an earlier column, I talked about a rainbow in Pittsburgh and
how that rainbow was formed. It was Newton who showed that
the white light from the sun is composed of many colors when he
passed the white light through a prism. Then, to prove his point,
he passed that split beam of colors back through another prism to
reform the white light. He also found that the telescopes of his
day were limited in the sharpness of their images. He showed
that part of the reason for this was that when light passed through
the lenses of the telescopes there was some splitting of the light,
as in a prism. That separation of the colors helped to blur the
images. Newton reasoned that if the light from the heavens was
collected by a mirror it would not have to pass through a lens and
the images became clearer. This "reflective" telescope design
employing mirrors rather than lenses is used today in the huge
telescopes searching out the mysteries of the cosmos.

We talked last week about attractive forces between fields and
objects such as Ricki Martin. Of course, it was Newton who
came up with the law of gravity and the fact that every body in
the universe attracts every other body in the universe. He
combined this revolutionary concept with his laws of motion to
calculate the motions of the planets and comets. His laws of
motion and the idea that every action had an opposite reaction
changed the world of science. The launching of our space probes
employs that concept to get the rockets off the ground. His
invention of calculus alone would have placed him in the
foremost ranks of scientific achievers. This man did much, much
more than watch an apple fall!

All these and other contributions serve to make Newton known
as a father of modern science and the idea that something can be
quantified if the fundamentals are known. What caught my
attention was another, little known side of this mathematical
genius. This other side is the subject of an article by Jennifer
Lee Carrell in the December Smithsonian magazine. This
mathematician, this precise thinker, was an alchemist! As a
chemist, I''ve always viewed with amusement and perhaps some
disdain (which I now regret) those poor figures trying to find the
"philosophers'' stone". This philosophers'' stone is the mythical
stone that makes perfect all that it touches and, of particular
interest to the alchemists, turns base metals into gold. The stone
dates back to ancient times.

According to the Smithsonian article, Newton spent 30 years of
his life striving to uncover the secrets of alchemy and wrote well
over a million words on the subject. Newton was made Lucasian
Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge at the age of 26. (The
current occupant of that chair, Stephen Hawking, is no slouch
either!) That same year he went to London to buy furnaces,
glassware, chemicals and books on alchemy. In the world of
alchemy, you didn''t call things the way they were but used code.
For example, Jupiter was tin, Saturn gold, Mars iron and
Mercury mercury. Newton was quite exact in his alchemy and
his voluminous notes contained the results of his experiments in
detail. The only problem is that they were written in the
alchemist''s code as in this notebook entry quoted in the
Smithsonian article: "This spirit is the green lion the blood of the
green lion Venus, the Babylonian Dragon that kills everything
with its poison, but conquered by being assuaged by the Doves
of Diana, it is the bond of Mercury." Who knows what it means?!

It seems that in his mathematical and physical world at
Cambridge, Newton could also be a wild and crazy guy insofar
as his personal safety was concerned. In his studies of light and
optics, he once stared at the sun for so long that he almost went
blind. But, I almost fainted just thinking about his optical
experiment in which he stuck a blunt needle between his eye
socket and his eyeball! Presumably unaware of the danger, in
1693 he was busy working on experiments involving the
vaporizing of lead and mercury. On a couple of occasions, I''ve
been involved in meticulously trying to clean up every tiny
droplet of mercury resulting from mercury spills in the lab. You
just don''t want to inhale mercury vapor! Newton''s work came at
a time when he thought he really had the philosophers'' stone
nailed. Well, later in that same year he suddenly withdrew and
reportedly suffered from paranoia and began making false
accusations about the actions of various individuals.

About that time, Newton apparently realized that he had not
really found the stone. In 1694 he appeared recovered from his
mental problems, probably caused by his exposure to mercury
vapor. Most of the alchemists really didn''t care about becoming
wealthy from the philosophers'' stone and the gold that would
result. Rather they were striving to reach perfection and
understand the workings of God. It''s ironic that in 1696, Newton
suddenly gave up his experiments in alchemy and moved to
London to become the Warden and then Master of the Royal
Mint. At the time they were involved in completely recoining
the gold and silver coinage of the realm and Newton became a
wealthy man in this job.

The mythical philosophers'' stone was also believed to harbor
forces of attraction. There are some scholars who attribute
Newton''s philosophers'' stone addiction as paving the way to his
ideas that forces could act over long distances. In fact, when his
theories of gravitation became public, he was derided by some
critics for turning to the occult.

Today, we have political types who specialize in putting the right
"spin" on various events or images for the media to propagate.
This spinning is not new and Newton''s image has been "spun" in
the past. After his death in 1727, his voluminous works in
alchemy were deemed unfit to print. The nineteenth century saw
an editor of his "complete" works totally ignore the alchemy, as
did a biographer who considered the works to be the products of
a "fool and a knave". The University Library of Cambridge even
turned down an offer of Newton''s alchemy papers to the
University as a gift! As a result what is left of the papers are
widely scattered.

The twentieth century actually brought forth the achievement of
alchemy''s cherished goal, the transmutation of the elements,
changing one element into another. In 1901, two British
scientists, Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy, discovered
that transmutation of the elements had been going on all along,
quite spontaneously. To their utter amazement, they found that
when certain radioactive elements disintegrate, another element
is formed. This guy Rutherford is considered by many to be the
father of nuclear physics. He proposed the picture of an atom as
having a nucleus (he coined the term nucleus) surrounded by
electrons and in 1908 won the Nobel Prize for his theory on
radioactivity. Ironically, the prize he received was not in physics
but in chemistry. Even more ironically, in 1919, this brilliant
physicist became a real "alchemist" when he turned nitrogen into
oxygen by bombarding nitrogen with alpha particles (helium
nuclei). And, what did he title his last book, published in 1937?
"The Newer Alchemy"!

Finally, Newton compels me to revisit last week''s column about
the Higgs field and boson. Newton was smart enough to know
that there is a difference between mass and weight. Something
with a mass has a different weight under different conditions of
gravity. I glossed over this point last week when I said,
knowingly, "..suppose Ricki masses in at 180 pounds." Purists
should shudder, quite properly. Take Ricki to the moon and he
weighs significantly less than here on earth. Put him in orbit on
a space shuttle and he''s weightless. His mass, however, is the
same in all three cases. Sorry, Professor Newton, I''ll be more
careful next time!

NOTE: Brian Trumbore has kindly given yours truly a week off
for Christmas. The next column will appear on January 2, 2001,
the day after the true beginning of the new millenium. Have a
great holiday and a happy New Year.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-12/19/2000-      
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Dr. Bortrum

12/19/2000

An Alchemist Born Christmas Day

Christmas is the celebration of a birthday, a very special birthday
for millions of people around the world. On Christmas Day in
1642, another very special individual was born. That individual,
born in the year that Galileo died, led Alexander Pope to pen the
lines "Nature, and Nature''s Laws lay hid in the night: God said,
Let Newton be! And All was Light". Today, after a hard fought
election, it''s time for reconciliation. One of Isaac Newton''s
major achievements was to reconcile the scientific achievements
of his predecessors and add his own monumental contributions in
the book "Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica". This
book, known simply as the Principia, stands as an unparalleled
testimony to the capabilities of the human mind. Yet, in a spirit
akin to what is needed today, Newton authored the famous words
"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of
giants."

In an earlier column, I talked about a rainbow in Pittsburgh and
how that rainbow was formed. It was Newton who showed that
the white light from the sun is composed of many colors when he
passed the white light through a prism. Then, to prove his point,
he passed that split beam of colors back through another prism to
reform the white light. He also found that the telescopes of his
day were limited in the sharpness of their images. He showed
that part of the reason for this was that when light passed through
the lenses of the telescopes there was some splitting of the light,
as in a prism. That separation of the colors helped to blur the
images. Newton reasoned that if the light from the heavens was
collected by a mirror it would not have to pass through a lens and
the images became clearer. This "reflective" telescope design
employing mirrors rather than lenses is used today in the huge
telescopes searching out the mysteries of the cosmos.

We talked last week about attractive forces between fields and
objects such as Ricki Martin. Of course, it was Newton who
came up with the law of gravity and the fact that every body in
the universe attracts every other body in the universe. He
combined this revolutionary concept with his laws of motion to
calculate the motions of the planets and comets. His laws of
motion and the idea that every action had an opposite reaction
changed the world of science. The launching of our space probes
employs that concept to get the rockets off the ground. His
invention of calculus alone would have placed him in the
foremost ranks of scientific achievers. This man did much, much
more than watch an apple fall!

All these and other contributions serve to make Newton known
as a father of modern science and the idea that something can be
quantified if the fundamentals are known. What caught my
attention was another, little known side of this mathematical
genius. This other side is the subject of an article by Jennifer
Lee Carrell in the December Smithsonian magazine. This
mathematician, this precise thinker, was an alchemist! As a
chemist, I''ve always viewed with amusement and perhaps some
disdain (which I now regret) those poor figures trying to find the
"philosophers'' stone". This philosophers'' stone is the mythical
stone that makes perfect all that it touches and, of particular
interest to the alchemists, turns base metals into gold. The stone
dates back to ancient times.

According to the Smithsonian article, Newton spent 30 years of
his life striving to uncover the secrets of alchemy and wrote well
over a million words on the subject. Newton was made Lucasian
Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge at the age of 26. (The
current occupant of that chair, Stephen Hawking, is no slouch
either!) That same year he went to London to buy furnaces,
glassware, chemicals and books on alchemy. In the world of
alchemy, you didn''t call things the way they were but used code.
For example, Jupiter was tin, Saturn gold, Mars iron and
Mercury mercury. Newton was quite exact in his alchemy and
his voluminous notes contained the results of his experiments in
detail. The only problem is that they were written in the
alchemist''s code as in this notebook entry quoted in the
Smithsonian article: "This spirit is the green lion the blood of the
green lion Venus, the Babylonian Dragon that kills everything
with its poison, but conquered by being assuaged by the Doves
of Diana, it is the bond of Mercury." Who knows what it means?!

It seems that in his mathematical and physical world at
Cambridge, Newton could also be a wild and crazy guy insofar
as his personal safety was concerned. In his studies of light and
optics, he once stared at the sun for so long that he almost went
blind. But, I almost fainted just thinking about his optical
experiment in which he stuck a blunt needle between his eye
socket and his eyeball! Presumably unaware of the danger, in
1693 he was busy working on experiments involving the
vaporizing of lead and mercury. On a couple of occasions, I''ve
been involved in meticulously trying to clean up every tiny
droplet of mercury resulting from mercury spills in the lab. You
just don''t want to inhale mercury vapor! Newton''s work came at
a time when he thought he really had the philosophers'' stone
nailed. Well, later in that same year he suddenly withdrew and
reportedly suffered from paranoia and began making false
accusations about the actions of various individuals.

About that time, Newton apparently realized that he had not
really found the stone. In 1694 he appeared recovered from his
mental problems, probably caused by his exposure to mercury
vapor. Most of the alchemists really didn''t care about becoming
wealthy from the philosophers'' stone and the gold that would
result. Rather they were striving to reach perfection and
understand the workings of God. It''s ironic that in 1696, Newton
suddenly gave up his experiments in alchemy and moved to
London to become the Warden and then Master of the Royal
Mint. At the time they were involved in completely recoining
the gold and silver coinage of the realm and Newton became a
wealthy man in this job.

The mythical philosophers'' stone was also believed to harbor
forces of attraction. There are some scholars who attribute
Newton''s philosophers'' stone addiction as paving the way to his
ideas that forces could act over long distances. In fact, when his
theories of gravitation became public, he was derided by some
critics for turning to the occult.

Today, we have political types who specialize in putting the right
"spin" on various events or images for the media to propagate.
This spinning is not new and Newton''s image has been "spun" in
the past. After his death in 1727, his voluminous works in
alchemy were deemed unfit to print. The nineteenth century saw
an editor of his "complete" works totally ignore the alchemy, as
did a biographer who considered the works to be the products of
a "fool and a knave". The University Library of Cambridge even
turned down an offer of Newton''s alchemy papers to the
University as a gift! As a result what is left of the papers are
widely scattered.

The twentieth century actually brought forth the achievement of
alchemy''s cherished goal, the transmutation of the elements,
changing one element into another. In 1901, two British
scientists, Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy, discovered
that transmutation of the elements had been going on all along,
quite spontaneously. To their utter amazement, they found that
when certain radioactive elements disintegrate, another element
is formed. This guy Rutherford is considered by many to be the
father of nuclear physics. He proposed the picture of an atom as
having a nucleus (he coined the term nucleus) surrounded by
electrons and in 1908 won the Nobel Prize for his theory on
radioactivity. Ironically, the prize he received was not in physics
but in chemistry. Even more ironically, in 1919, this brilliant
physicist became a real "alchemist" when he turned nitrogen into
oxygen by bombarding nitrogen with alpha particles (helium
nuclei). And, what did he title his last book, published in 1937?
"The Newer Alchemy"!

Finally, Newton compels me to revisit last week''s column about
the Higgs field and boson. Newton was smart enough to know
that there is a difference between mass and weight. Something
with a mass has a different weight under different conditions of
gravity. I glossed over this point last week when I said,
knowingly, "..suppose Ricki masses in at 180 pounds." Purists
should shudder, quite properly. Take Ricki to the moon and he
weighs significantly less than here on earth. Put him in orbit on
a space shuttle and he''s weightless. His mass, however, is the
same in all three cases. Sorry, Professor Newton, I''ll be more
careful next time!

NOTE: Brian Trumbore has kindly given yours truly a week off
for Christmas. The next column will appear on January 2, 2001,
the day after the true beginning of the new millenium. Have a
great holiday and a happy New Year.

Allen F. Bortrum