Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 9, 2016

Isaac Newton and “junk science”

Filed under: science — louisproyect @ 2:18 pm

Today’s Washington Post has an article with the rather lurid title “Isaac Newton spent a lot of time on junk ‘science,’ and this manuscript proves it”. It turns out that he was “super into alchemy” as reporter Elahe Izadi puts it:

Sir Isaac Newton — the 17th-century scientist, mathematician and father of physics? Yeah, you know him.

But you may not know Newton was super into alchemy, a medieval “science” that preceded chemistry. Practitioners believed it was possible to transform one metal into another. The ultimate goal was figuring out how to transform lead into gold, and the elusive “Philosophers’ Stone” was a substance theorized to do just that.

A newly discovered manuscript, written in Newton’s hand, underscores his fascination with what’s now considered nothing more than mystical pseudoscience. The document, held in a private collection for decades and bought earlier this year by the Chemical Heritage Foundation, describes how to make an essential ingredient of the Philosophers’ Stone.

This document is one of many handwritten by the English physicist best known for establishing the law of universal gravitation.

“Newton was intensely interested in alchemy almost his whole life,” said James Voelkel, curator of rare books at the foundation’s Othmer Library of Chemical History. “These alchemical manuscripts consist of about a million words he wrote in his own hands.”

Alchemy, also called “chymistry” in England back in the 17th century, preoccupied Newton for decades. Following his death, many of his manuscripts were held by his family until they were auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1936. Dozens of private collectors bought his alchemical manuscripts, which had been labeled “not fit to be printed” when Newton died in 1727. Most of these papers have since been donated to Cambridge, except for a handful like the one acquired by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

I got a chuckle out of this since it hewed to the standard narrative about alchemy being “junk science”. Just over 10 years ago I reviewed Cliff Conner’s “People’s History of Science” for Swans (http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy34.html) that puts alchemy into proper perspective. It is worth reposting here:

Cliff Conner’s A People’s History of Science
by Louis Proyect
Book Review

Conner, Cliff: A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives and ‘Low Mechanicks’, Nation Books, New York, 2006, ISBN 1-56025-748-2, 554 pages

(Swans – February 27, 2006)   Cliff Conner’s A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives and ‘Low Mechanicks’ does for science what Howard Zinn did for American history. It is an altogether winning attempt to tell the story of the ordinary working person or peasant’s contribution to our knowledge of the natural world. Just as scholars like Zinn remind us that a slave, Crispus Attucks, was the first casualty of the American Revolution, so does Conner show that humble people were on the front lines of the scientific revolution.

Over the course of this 500 page encyclopedic but lively effort, we learn about unsung heroes and heroines, like Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, a seventeenth century Dutch linen draper who began using magnifying lenses to examine fabrics but went on to pioneer the use of microscopy in the scientific laboratory. He was looked down upon by the scientific establishment as “neither a philosopher, a medical man, nor a gentleman… He had been to no university, knew no Latin, French, or English, and little relevant natural history or philosophy.”

In addition to telling their stories, Conner challenges conventional thinking about how science is done. At an early age, we are indoctrinated into thinking that science starts with pure ideas and then descends into the practical world. In reality, many of the greatest breakthroughs in our knowledge of the world were a result of the practical need to solve a pressing problem, some of which were related to mundane matters of trade and bookkeeping.

Perhaps no other example in Conner’s book dramatizes this as perfectly as the rise of numeric symbols, which came out of the “routine economic activities of farmers, artisans and traders.” Specifically, Sumerians devised symbols to keep track of grain. Rather than repeating the symbol for each grain multiple times, they devised a shortcut where the grain symbol would be drawn once, and prefixed with a numeric symbol. This technique was developed in lowly counting rooms rather than in the court hierarchy.

The next big breakthrough, positional numeration, also had common traders as midwives. This technique makes a digit’s value dependent on its relative position in a number. For example, “9” in the number 2,945 means nine hundred but it indicates “90” in 2,495. Imagine how difficult it would be to do simple calculations without such a system. Try adding the Roman numerals MMCMXLV to MMCDXCV without cheating (converting to positional numbers) and you will see how difficult it is. This is not to speak of the daunting task of multiplying them!

The introduction of the place-value system (together with the symbol of zero to hold “empty” columns) is particularly relevant to Conner’s mission in creating a people’s history of science. To begin with, it democratized arithmetic by making it accessible to all levels of society. Secondly, it did not originate with elite mathematicians but with anonymous clerks — perhaps ordinary accounting clerks — in India between the third and fifth centuries AD. Finally, this revolutionary innovation relied not on mathematics journals or other scholarly venues, but was transmitted by merchants pursuing their trade on routes between India and the rest of the world.

It should be noted that in addition to telling the story of how ordinary people contributed to science, Conner’s book is also a valuable contribution to correcting Eurocentric bias. Eurocentric historiography tends to identify civilization as a unique product of Western Europe that diffused around the world, particularly through the colonization of supposedly backward societies like India. Since science is considered one of the major achievements of Western Civilization, it is most helpful to discover that many of its vaunted contributions originated elsewhere. As such, Conner’s history belongs on the bookshelf next to James Blaut’s Colonizer’s Model of the World, Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350, and a number of works by Jack Weatherford, the anthropologist who has written about the contributions of Native Americans and, more recently, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. In such works, our understanding of who makes history is radically challenged — for the better.

There is another dimension to the story of positional numeration that keeps getting repeated throughout Conner’s book, namely the resistance of elites to such breakthroughs despite their reputation for welcoming new knowledge and ways of understanding the natural world. There was a struggle to suppress the “Algorists” who advocated positional numbering — in Europe and in some places Arabic numbers were banned from official documents.

The reputation that elite scientists have for being impartial and above superstition is often belied by their conduct during times of great stress, especially as the old order is being challenged by the lower classes. In such times, they tend often to rally around the status quo, even if that means throwing standards of objectivity out the window. One of the more interesting examples is the great European witch-hunting craze of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Despite popular views of scientists resisting beliefs in the supernatural, a wholly new “science” of demonology grew up under the auspices of the same elites who were promoting the scientific revolution. King James VI of Scotland was a leading theorist of demonological science but he was also Francis Bacon’s royal patron. According to Conner, some of the most prominent spokesmen of the Royal Academy, an official scientific society, defended witch-hunting, among them the court scientist Robert Boyle.

What explains this anomaly? As it turns out, elite doctors were in a bitter rivalry with female folk healers at this time. As Francis Bacon put it, “In all times, witches and old women and impostors have had a competition with physicians.” There was a need to stamp out “evil witches” but good witches as well. These included midwives and any other women who were prevented by law from entering medical school in those days.

The aforementioned Robert Boyle, who is considered an exemplar of Baconian science, is a prime example of how “heroes” of the scientific revolution are celebrated at the expense of the commoners who made their work possible.

Robert Boyle was an aristocrat, who inherited a fortune from his landlord father Sir Richard Boyle. The father relied on his aristocratic position to defraud Irish landowners. Boyle was honest about how he gained scientific knowledge: “I freely confess that I learned more of the kinds, distinctions, properties, and consequently of the nature of stones, by conversing with two or three masons, and stone-cutters, than I did from Pliny, or Aristotle and his commentators.”

With his vast fortune, Boyle was able to set up workshops and staffed them with all sorts of craftsmen, from machinists and glassblowers to lens grinders and alchemists (yes, alchemists!). Although Boyle took credit for what happened in his laboratories, recent scholarship concludes that very little of the work was done by Boyle himself. One of the most important inventions was an air pump that was almost certainly constructed by his assistants, despite bearing his name (machine Boyleana).

The presence of an alchemist in Boyle’s laboratory might raise eyebrows for a modern reader who is accustomed to thinking of this in terms of astrology, witchcraft and the other “black arts.” It is to Conner’s credit that he not only puts alchemy into its proper context, but has some positive words to say. Although alchemy is understood today mostly as a means of turning base metals into gold, it originally meant working with metals in general. The roots of both chemistry and alchemy in early metal crafts are evident from historians of science. Arab alchemists discovered sal ammoniac and prepared caustic alkalis. (The word alkali is a variant of al-qili, the Arabic term for sodium carbonate.)

In the spirit of giving credit to those who came before us, Conner makes sure to acknowledge the influence of a number of radical scientists and historians of science who blazed the trail for his study. Some of these men and women were either in or around the Communist Party in the 1930s, when “science for the people” was the watchword of the movement.

One of the most remarkable of these figures was a Soviet physicist named Boris Hessen, who was responsible for challenging the “Great Men of Science” approach in the same manner that Marxist historians of his time would highlight the efforts of working people and peasants in changing society throughout history. One of the major figures that Hessen reevaluated was Isaac Newton, the author of Principia, or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, a work that would seem to embody the idea-descending-from-above paradigm.

Hessen argued that the preconditions of Newton’s theory were not “in the empyrean of abstract thought” (Conner quoting Hessen), but in his social environment, which was shaped by “the disintegration of the feudal economy, the development of merchant capital, of international maritime and of heavy (mining) industry.” Newton was challenged to come up with practical solutions to the pressing commercial problems of the day, including the need to measure longitude at sea. Indeed, the third section of Principia is devoted to the problems of the planet’s movements, gravity and other forces that could help to solve the problem of maritime navigation. As it turned out, it was not Newton’s theory that came to the rescue, but a timepiece produced by an ordinary watchmaker.

It is important to stress that Conner does not discount the obvious importance of a Newton or an Einstein, but simply wants to restore some balance in understanding how knowledge of the natural world has developed. It is a product both of the intellect and of experimentation by practical people. It is also obvious that modern science has become much more shaped by mathematics and abstract theory than was the case in earlier times.

Science has become much more a specialist’s discipline as capitalism has consolidated its rule. When the search for profit becomes the driving force of society, it is only natural that the academy is shaped to satisfy that requirement. Advanced degrees and professional societies become the norm, as does the tendency to give ethics the short shrift. Scientists become all too happy to produce scientific studies showing that tobacco will not cause cancer or that atomic energy is the safest source of electricity.

Conner covers these questions in depth in the final chapter, titled The Scientific-Industrial Complex. In July of 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote that science will usher in a kind of New Millennium in which jobs will be plentiful, a higher standard of living universal and disease conquered. But a month later Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be leveled to the ground. The Cold War would soon be initiated and a Defense Industry would become joined by an umbilical cord to research institutes like MIT, Stanford, and Cornell.

As a long-time socialist, Conner remains undaunted. If capitalism is threatening the world with global warming, toxic pollution of the air, ground and water, and weapons of mass destruction — all facilitated by scientific “advances” — then it will generate oppositional forces as it always has. In Marx’s words, capitalism creates its own gravediggers.

The movement has many constituents. At least one of them is rooted in science itself, namely environmentalism. Using the tools of science (biology, soil chemistry, etc.), people such as Rachel Carsons and Barry Commoner have explained how the forces of production are threatening the survival of humanity and the natural world alike.

Just as was the case during the rise of science in the 16th and 17th centuries, “outsiders” were treated with hostility by the elites, most especially women. In some ways, the antagonism toward Rachel Carsons evokes the witch-hunting of an earlier epoch:

Because “in postwar America, science was god, and science was male,” it was inevitable that the author’s gender would be a conspicuous element of the campaign against Silent Spring. The chemical industry’s flacks portrayed Carson as a hysterical woman whose alarming view of the future could be ignored or, if necessary, suppressed. She was a “bird and bunny lover,” a woman who kept cats and was therefore clearly suspect. She was a romantic “spinster” who was simply overwrought about genetics. In short, Carson was a woman out of control. She had overstepped the bounds of her gender and her science.

Scientists on the payroll of the polluting corporations believed they could dismiss her arguments on the grounds that she was “an outsider who had never been part of the scientific establishment. … Her career path was nontraditional; she had no academic affiliation, no institutional voice.” Most damning in their eyes was that “she deliberately wrote for the public rather than for a narrow scientific audience.” But in spite of the scientific elite’s attempts to marginalize her, this “people’s author” ignited a momentous social movement in defiance of Big Science. “We live in a scientific age,” she declared, “yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself.”

Carson put forward “her own, alternative scientific method: people’s observations and interpretations were as important as those of scientists, and community ethics served as the standard for making decisions about environmental risks.” As for her influence on the practice of science itself, by redirecting interest toward ecology and away from traditional mechanistic and reductionist approaches, Silent Spring had a major impact on the way biological knowledge would henceforth be pursued.

The People’s History of Science is a singular achievement. Not only does it inform the reader about the role of the common man and woman in scientific innovation over the ages, it is also an important guide to further research in the area. With a 25-page bibliography, it invites us to become fellow researchers in an area of vital interest to the left. With the daily challenges to a proper scientific understanding of the world — ranging from nonsense about Intelligent Design to global warming denial — it is incumbent upon us to develop and strengthen our knowledge of the world in the spirit of the words in Bukharin’s introduction to Philosophical Arabesques (reviewed on swans.com recently):

Today’s working-class hero is totally unlike the young ignoramus in Fonvizin, who asked, “Why do I need to know geography, when carriage drivers exist?” [A reference to an 18th century play.] It is the workers’ enemies who are playing the role of ignoramus. It is they who are increasingly turning their backs on the intellect, which refuses to serve their ends. It is they who snatch up stone axes, the swastika, the horoscope. It is they who are starting to read haltingly from the book of history, sounding it out syllable by syllable. It is they who pray to stone goddesses and idols. It is they who have turned their backs on the future, and like Heine’s dog, to which they have fitted a historical muzzle, they now bark with their backsides, while history in turn shows them only its a posteriori. Fine battles are now breaking out amid the grandiose festivities, and conflict envelops all areas.



  1. Well done, both in response to the ill-framed note on Newton and alchemy in today’s Post as well as on the original review of Conner. A couple of notes: apropos of eurocentrism, note that the Mayan vigesimal system was symbolic, positional, facilitated rapid combinatorial computation, featured zero to hold empty columns and vastly predates the dates you cite Conner giving for the equivalent innovations in India. Also, Rachel Carson’s last name is consistently misspelled as “Carsons,” though of course the important thing is that you have characterized the actual reasons for resistance to her observations at the time quite well. Thanks for doing. r

    Comment by cadwego — April 9, 2016 @ 3:06 pm

  2. Louis, your reposting of this review prompts me to ask for your suggestions on what should be revised or added in an updated version of the book. I think the final chapter, on 20th-century science, is especially in need of revision. I have some ideas already (for example, with regard to the “computer revolution” in light of the Snowden revelations), but I’m in the early stages of thinking about it, so your comments could be helpful. Thanks.

    Comment by Cliff Conner — April 10, 2016 @ 4:48 pm

  3. Thank you Louis for this very informative post.

    I had always thought that the Babylonians had come up with the place-value-system, as well as zero. I was wrong about the zero, but the Babylonians did have something to do with the place-value-system. Just to add to the historical background: (http://mathforum.org/library/drmath/view/52566.html):

    “The notion of place value was first conceived by the Babylonians somewhere between 2000 B.C.E. and 1000 B.C.E. Their place value system was different from the one we use today because it was base 60 rather than base 10. Do you know what bases are? Basically it means that if you have, say, the number 628 in base 60 then that means 628 (base 60) = 6 x (60)^2 + 2 x (60) + 8 x (1). In base 10, we have:
    628 (base 10) = 6 x (10)^2 + 2 x (10) + 8 x (1). Anyway, this Babylonian system was all very fine except initially it lacked a symbol for zero. However, as time passed, ideas evolved, and by 500 A.D., Indians had invented a base 10 system that had unique symbols for the numbers 1 through 9, employed a place value notation, and used a zero. This is the system that evolved into the way we express numbers today.”

    On another note, it had been a question for me as to why in basic physics classes they always teach you about the trajectory of the projectile motion? Something to do with hunting and, later, war-making? My own hypothetical explanation is that for hundreds of thousands of years humans had lobbed rocks and stones at animals we were trying to kill, or to stave off. Then for some more tens of thousands of years we used mechanically rigged devices like slingshots, bow-and-arrows, and catapults to lob things at each other or at animals we were trying to kill. And so on. So … It is clear that it was only after thousands of years of practice *as a species* that some of us finally and actually came up with the *equation* that informs us about the required exact mass of the projectile object, the initial velocity and initial angle required to hit a certain target at a known distance. [And then, much later than that, chemistry stepped in to amplify the required destructive force on impact. And so on, onto the nuclear age.]

    One last point: If not for alchemy, we wouldn’t have had modern chemistry.

    Comment by Reza — April 12, 2016 @ 2:51 am

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