Sir Isaac Newton was a towering genius in the history of science, he knew he was a genius, and he didn’t like wasting his time. Born on Dec. 25, 1642, the great English physicist and mathematician rarely socialized or traveled far from home. He didn’t play sports or a musical instrument, gamble at whist or gambol on a horse. He dismissed poetry as “a kind of ingenious nonsense,” and the one time he attended an opera he fled at the third act. Newton was unmarried, had no known romantic liaisons and may well have died, at the age of 85, with his virginity intact. “I never knew him to take any recreation or pastime,” said his assistant, Humphrey Newton, “thinking all hours lost that were not spent on his studies.”

No, it wasn’t easy being Newton. Not only did he hammer out the universal laws of motion and gravitational attraction, formulating equations that are still used today to plot the trajectories of space rovers bound for Mars; and not only did he discover the spectral properties of light and invent calculus. Sir Isaac had a whole other full-time career, a parallel intellectual passion that he kept largely hidden from view but that rivaled and sometimes surpassed in intensity his devotion to celestial mechanics. Newton was a serious alchemist, who spent night upon dawn for three decades of his life slaving over a stygian furnace in search of the power to transmute one chemical element into another.

Newton’s interest in alchemy has long been known in broad outline, but the scope and details of that moonlighting enterprise are only now becoming clear, as science historians gradually analyze and publish Newton’s extensive writings on alchemy — a million-plus words from the Newtonian archives that had previously been largely ignored.

Speaking last week at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, William Newman, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University in Bloomington, described his studies of Newton’s alchemical oeuvre, and offered insight into the central mystery that often baffles contemporary Newton fans. How could the man who vies in surveys with Albert Einstein for the title of “greatest physicist ever,” the man whom James Gleick has aptly designated “chief architect of the modern world,” have been so swept up in what looks to modern eyes like a medieval delusion? How could the ultimate scientist have been seemingly hornswoggled by a totemic psuedoscience like alchemy, which in its commonest rendering is described as the desire to transform lead into gold? Was Newton mad — perhaps made mad by exposure to mercury, as some have proposed? Was he greedy, or gullible, or stubbornly blind to the truth?

In Dr. Newman’s view, none of the above. Sir Isaac the Alchemist, he said, was no less the fierce and uncompromising scientist than was Sir Isaac, author of the magisterial Principia Mathematica. There were plenty of theoretical and empirical reasons at the time to take the principles of alchemy seriously, to believe that compounds could be broken down into their basic constituents and those constituents then reconfigured into other, more desirable substances.

Miners were pulling up from the ground twisted bundles of copper and silver that were shaped like the stalks of a plant, suggesting that veins of metals and minerals were proliferating underground with almost florid zeal.

Pools found around other mines seemed to have extraordinary properties. Dip an iron bar into the cerulean waters of the vitriol springs of modern-day Slovakia, for example, and the artifact will emerge agleam with copper, as though the dull, dark particles of the original had been elementally reinvented. “It was perfectly reasonable for Isaac Newton to believe in alchemy,” said Dr. Newman. “Most of the experimental scientists of the 17th century did.”

Moreover, while the alchemists of the day may not have mastered the art of transmuting one element into another — an ordeal that we have since learned requires serious equipment like a particle accelerator, or the belly of a star — their work yielded a bounty of valuable spinoffs, including new drugs, brighter paints, stronger soaps and better booze. “Alchemy was synonymous with chemistry,” said Dr. Newman, “and chemistry was much bigger than transmutation.”

For Newton, alchemy may also have proved bigger than chemistry. Dr. Newman argues that Sir Isaac’s alchemical investigations helped yield one of his fundamental breakthroughs in physics: his discovery that white light is a mixture of colored rays, and that a sunbeam prismatically fractured into the familiar rainbow suite called Roy G. Biv can with a lens be resolved to tidy white sunbeam once again. “I would go so far as to say that alchemy was crucial to Newton’s breakthroughs in optics,” said Dr. Newman. “He’s not just passing light through a prism — he’s resynthesizing it.” Consider this a case of “technology transfer,” said Dr. Newman, “from chemistry to physics.”

A version of this article appeared in print on October 12, 2010, on page D1 of the New York edition.
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