ACCIDENTAL DISCOVERY

Does Pseudoscience Lead to Breakthroughs? It Did for Isaac Newton

Newton’s fascination with alchemy didn’t turn lead into gold, but it did lead to revelations about visible light.

A.J.D. Foto Ltd. / Alamy

When a few bad scientists have caused years of setbacks with faulty data on things like global warming and vaccines, it’s easy to demonize “incorrect” science and bad hypotheses as bad for humanity. And in some cases that’s true.

But sometimes a little bad data and bad science can lead to great things—just as Isaac Newton did.

Newton, it was announced this year, had a secret obsession with the lowest of the pseudosciences: alchemy, or the pursuit of a “magic” substance that will change one element into another.

To think that one of humanity’s best minds would have written over a million words on something out of bad fantasy adventure writing is concerning—but maybe it shouldn’t be, because his research eventually led to something earth-shattering in another field.

In this case then, it’s not so much that pseudoscience can become science, so much as great scientific minds can benefit from experimenting with junk science.

National Geographic published a piece this week outlining the newfound documents’ content, and suggesting that the reason they’ve been virtually unknown until now is the stigma attached to alchemy:

“Newton wrote more than one million words about alchemy throughout his life, in the hope of using ancient knowledge to better explain the nature of matter—and possibly strike it rich. But academics have long tiptoed around this connection, since alchemy is usually dismissed as mystical pseudoscience full of fanciful, discredited processes.”

But it’s wrong to demonize sciences of the past, especially if they’re a building block of what eventually became groundbreaking discoveries. Though Newtown’s alleged desire to gain wealth by turning lead to gold with a bit of magic dust sounds ridiculous, perhaps even for his age, his larger desire to find truths in older texts and existing research is not only understandable—but noteworthy.

In hindsight, alchemy was a necessary framework for Newton to get to a greater truth. By realizing the core concept of alchemy—that “compounds could be broken down into their constituent parts and then recombined”—he was able to apply the same consideration to something else, according to science historian William Newman of Indiana University: the visible light spectrum.

Please read the piece in its entirety—it’s utterly fascinating. And it’s most fascinating because Newton’s alchemy obsession is a perfect case study for why science requires bad ideas and ill-informed hypotheses to succeed.

The history of the scientific community—and of innovation in general—is filled to the rafters with accidental discoveries. Everyone knows the story of Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming coming back from vacation to find a strange fungus had killed bacteria in a petri dish, and rather than throwing it out, he examined it, discovering penicillin. But a similarly ill-fated experiment found that an experimental drug meant to relieve chest pain actually stiffened something else entirely, giving birth to Viagra.

Sweet N’ Low, microwave ovens, corn flakes, safety glass, and super glue were all products of people stumbling upon value by accident and having the intelligence and creativity to let those accidents lead to discovery.

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But perhaps the closest cousin to Newton’s own revelation comes from more than a millennium ago, during the Tang Dynasty in China. Back then, when alchemy was still very much a real profession and not a derogatory term for pseudoscience, chemists were trying to combine different products to make, you guessed it, an elixir for immortality. Instead, when they combined saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur, they got gunpowder.

There are dozens of lists on the Internet of accidental discoveries that changed the world: a combination of fate and a brilliant mind in the right place at the right time. Newton is, after all, the man who allegedly came to groundbreaking understandings about gravity after being struck in the head with an apple. Whether it’s true or not, the man has a track record of accidental epiphanies.

If anything, more scientists should sit under fruit trees while reading mystical texts: It could lead to something great.