What We Are Reading Today: Newton the Alchemist

Updated 21 November 2018
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What We Are Reading Today: Newton the Alchemist

Author: William R. Newman

When Isaac Newton’s alchemical papers surfaced at a Sotheby’s auction in 1936, the quantity and seeming incoherence of the manuscripts were shocking. No longer the exemplar of Enlightenment rationality, the legendary physicist suddenly became “the last of the magicians.” Newton the Alchemist unlocks the secrets of Newton’s alchemical quest, providing a radically new understanding of the uncommon genius who probed nature at its deepest levels in pursuit of empirical knowledge.
In this evocative and superbly written book, William Newman blends in-depth analysis of newly available texts with laboratory replications of Newton’s actual experiments in alchemy. He does not justify Newton’s alchemical research as part of a religious search for God in the physical world, nor does he argue that Newton studied alchemy to learn about gravitational attraction. Newman traces the evolution of Newton’s alchemical ideas and practices over a span of more than three decades, showing how they proved fruitful in diverse scientific fields. A precise experimenter in the realm of “chymistry,” Newton put the riddles of alchemy to the test in his lab.
He also used ideas drawn from the alchemical texts to great effect in his optical experimentation. In his hands, alchemy was a tool for attaining the material benefits associated with the philosopher’s stone and an instrument for acquiring scientific knowledge of the most sophisticated kind.


Review: Book revisits the Mongol Empire that changed Eurasia forever

Updated 17 February 2019
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Review: Book revisits the Mongol Empire that changed Eurasia forever

BEIRUT: They swarmed through deserts, steppes and mountains across Central Asia, killing, plundering, bringing fear and death to all who opposed them. Great cities fell: Aleppo, Baghdad, Damascus, Delhi, and Kabul. The Mongols changed the map of Eurasia forever.

Recently republished in paperback, Timothy May’s “The Mongol Empire” is part of a major series of books on the history of the Islamic world from the University of Edinburgh.

May provides a much-needed global perspective on Mongol rule, and its impact on Islam itself: Mongol converts represented a staggering increase in the number of Muslims in the world at the time, and their conquest only fueled the spread of the religion. Three further Islamic empires, meanwhile, would rise from the Mongol’s eventual disintegration. 

But unlike the Ottoman, Fatimid and Seljuk empires, the Mongols were not majority Muslim; indeed, one of the great strengths of the four great “Khanates” was the tolerance of religious freedom they extended to their subjects.

The greatest Khan, Temujin, was crowned Genghis Khan, Ruler of the Universe, in 1206. In his late thirties, he was a brilliant warrior and commanded a vast army famed and feared for its superb horsemanship and remarkable archery. Cunning and opportunistic, he allegedly proclaimed: “I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”

When he died in 1227, Genghis Khan ruled an empire the size of a continent, from China to Europe. History shows that it is easier to build an empire than preserve it, and the fate of his successors proved even the Mongol Khans were no exception.

The Mongols left virtually no written record of their empire, but their legacy lasts to this day. During their rule, they not only facilitated trade, offering merchants protection, status, and tax-exemption, but actively encouraged the use of the East-West trade routes later known as the fabled Silk Road, linking China, India, Europe and the Middle East.