John Walsh and "The Chymistry of Isaac Newton"


John Walsh, new SLIS faculty member, is the Technical Lead for The Chymistry of Isaac Newton. In an email interview, we asked him about the project.

Isaac Newton, like Albert Einstein, is a quintessential symbol of the human intellect and its ability to decode the secrets of nature. Newton's fundamental transformations of science include the quantification of gravitational attraction that have made our own flights to the moon possible and the formulation of such basic mathematical tools as the calculus. Yet there is another, more mysterious side to Newton that is only imperfectly known to the public—his involvement in the discipline of alchemy, or as it was often called in seventeenth-century England, "chymistry." Newton wrote and transcribed about a million words—at least one hundred thirty one manuscripts—on the subject of alchemy, of which only a tiny fraction has today been published. The material does not lend itself easily to publication in print, thanks to its unfinished character and its sheer volume. Fortunately, the increasing sophistication of online editing makes it eminently feasible to prepare web-based editions of hitherto unedited collections.
The Chymistry of Isaac Newton project aims to produce a scholarly online edition of Newton's alchemical manuscripts integrated with new research on Newton's chymistry and tools for online, digital humanities scholarship. The texts, encoded in TEI/XML, can be viewed in diplomatic or normalized versions, and Latin and other non-English texts are accompanied by translations into English. Where possible, transcriptions are accompanied by page images of the original manuscripts.

The project is led by Professor William R. Newman, Ruth Halls Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University. Walsh guides the technical development and design of the project and its associated digital scholarship tools and consults on the project's implementation of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), an international standard for encoding scholarly and other texts. SLIS student Tamara Lopez is the lead developer and project manager for the project.

The Chymistry of Isaac Newton is hosted by IU's Digital LIbrary Program and is affiliated with The Newton Project based at Imperial College London. The project is supported by the National Science Foundation and by grants from IU's New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities program.

Excerpts from Web Site and NSF Grant Proposal:

  • In 1936, the world of Isaac Newton scholarship received a rude shock. In that year the venerable auction house of Sotheby's released a catalogue describing three hundred twenty-nine lots of Newton's manuscripts, mostly in his own handwriting, of which over a third were filled with content that was undeniably alchemical. These manuscripts, which had been labeled "not fit to be printed" upon Newton's death in 1727, raised a host of interesting questions in 1936 as they do even today...
  • And yet, despite their relative obscurity, Newton's alchemical manuscripts have formed the basis of strong revisionist statements about the nature of his scientific endeavor as a whole. Already in 1946, John Maynard Keynes used the alchemical papers to make his famous claim that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians."
  • It is therefore clear that a new study of Newton's alchemy, accompanied by a complete and scholarly online edition of his alchemical manuscripts, is a desideratum.
  • A factor contributing to a successful outcome for the project will lie in the laboratory. During the last year, Newman, with the aid of Cathrine Reck of the Indiana University Chemistry Department and Laura Alexander, a laboratory assistant, has replicated a number of Newton's chymical processes and apparatus. The results of our work were filmed by BBC and NOVA, who are jointly working on a Newton documentary.
  • It is important to stress the emphatic need for such an integrated project combining new research on Newton's chymistry with an online edition of his manuscripts. In a word, one cannot fully succeed without the other."

The project website is filled with interesting things to read and view. A few favorites:

John Walsh is teaching SLIS-L 566 Digital Libraries this fall.

Posted August 23, 2006