Wednesday, February 10, 2010

James Voelkel on Bringing Newton’s Alchemy to the Masses

Posted by Darin Hayton on 02/10 at 10:58 PM

James Voelkel spoke yesterday about “The Chymistry of Isaac Newton” project that intends to produce on-line editions of all of Newton’s alchemical manuscripts at He divided his time between extolling the project’s virtues and pointing to its challenges.

Jim began by establishing Newton’s interest in alchemy: Newton wrote nearly 1 million words on alchemy. About 20% of Newton’s output was devoted to alchemy. Judged on the basis of the number of words, it is difficult to deny the importance of alchemy for Newton’s broader intellectual project. When Newton died, Thomas Pellet reviewed Newton’s manuscripts to decide which should be printed. He judged the alchemical manuscripts “Unfit to be printed.” Consequently, these went back to the family and were handed down from one Earl of Portsmouth to the next until the late 19th century At that time, the Cambridge University acquired the scientific manuscripts, and once again the unwanted texts were returned to the family until finally in they were auctioned off in the early 20th century. The economist John Maynard Keynes purchased many of the alchemical manuscripts and traded for others.

Jim implicates this scattering of Newton’s manuscripts in the fact that there will never be a multi-volume edition of Newton’s collected works, in the way there are collected works of people like Giorlamo Cardano or Johannes Kepler. There are individual volumes that bring together different types of Newton’s work, his optics, his correspondence, etc. Jim further laments the fact that the publishing world has changed so much that there never will be such a collection. Instead, we have to be content with on-line collections of material.

One such on-line collection is “The Newton Project,” which focuses on Newton’s theological writings.1

The Newton Project makes Newton’s theological writings available through on-line editions (Source: The Newton Project)

Although “The Chymistry of Isaac Newton” is independent of “The Newton Project,” the two share some technology as well as some basic approaches and goals. Both use TEI p4 XML guidelines for transcribing the texts. Both produce fully searchable transcriptions, in both diplomatic and normalized transcriptions. Diplomatic transcriptions preserve the idiosyncrasies of Newton’s original texts, e.g., the abbreviations, misspellings, symbols, etc. Normalized transcriptions have been modernized. Abbreviations have been expanded, symbols have been translated into English worlds, 17th-century English orthography has been modernized.

“The Chymistry of Isaac Newton” intends to produce on-line editions of all of Newton’s alchemical manuscripts (Source: “The Chymistry of Isaac Newton”)

Jim rehearsed the advantages of on-line editions:2

  • Inexpensive to produce and accessible from anywhere.
  • Dynamic rather than static: unlike printed texts, on-line editions can be corrected and extended.
  • Flexible.
  • interactive: pointing to the Perseus project, Jim points out how on-line editions can be linked to a range of other on-line resources (from lexica, as Perseus does, to other texts, to images, etc). On-line editions can also take advantage of Web 2.0 features, such as user input.

Jim pointed out that there on-line texts come in a variety of shapes and sizes

  • High-quality digital scans of pages offer “just page images.” These are “not bad but not searchable.” (Jim points to the Max Plank Institute’s digital library as an example.)
  • Page images along with “dirty” OCR, which provides some transcription
  • Page images with better OCR (Google style), which allows for basic searches but has various limitations
  • Page images with complete diplomatic and normalized transcriptions. This is the gold standard.

To illustrate why complete transcriptions are to be preferred, Jim shows a page from a Newton manuscript, pointing out that most people would not be able to read it.3 Whereas readers would have little difficulty reading the normalized transcriptions and could, with some effort, get through the diplomatic transcription. These complete transcriptions are, of course, complete searchable. The entire corpus of transcribed material is, in fact, searchable. Such searches surely facilitate certain types of research.

Jim points to a diplomatic transcription of a Newtonian manuscript.

Producing complete transcriptions raises a number of difficulties:

  • How do you treat Newton’s abbreviations and conventions?
  • How do you handle symbols for alchemical concepts, reagents, compounds, etc.?
  • How do you incorporate Newton’s idiosyncrasies, such as multiple quotation marks, deletions, paragraph breaks, interlineations, etc.

Jim draws attention to the difficulty of handling symbols in an on-line transcription.

Despite the challenge that symbols present, The Chymistry of Isaac Newton has worked incredibly hard to incorporate symbols. Users can even search for symbols using a custom-built interface.

Looking forward, Jim would like to see all the texts from Newton’s own library of alchemical texts digitized. Newton owned about 230 alchemical works (The Chemical Heritage Foundation has 108 of these books). If these texts could be digitized, they could then be linked to Newton’s own alchemical writing through both Newton’s bibliographic citations and through un-cited quotations. By digitizing Newton’s alchemical library, scholars could

  • Study Newton’s own study of alchemy
  • Discover Newton’s debt to his sources rather than assume all of his manuscripts are his own thoughts
  • Gain a basic understanding of 17th-century alchemy (assuming Newton’s library was typical)
  • Show relationships between the broad corpus of alchemical texts

With that Jim concluded his talk. Questions from the audience focuses largely on pragmatics: How long does it take to make a transcription? Is this linked to the Royal Society’s Turning the Pages? What determined the order of symbols in the search box? Why is a diplomatic transcription called diplomatic? How many of Newton’s alchemical manuscripts does the project have? What about less important figures?

There were also a few more theoretical questions: How do you decide which editorial interventions to make? And why? How clear are the editorial changes and should they be marked more clearly?4

I left Jim’s talk with a handful of lingering questions, particularly with respect to the digital humanities. While it is possible that in a different forum he would have addressed these issues, he left unexamined a handful of issues. First, there was a tension between his lamenting the absence of a “proper,” printed collection of Newton’s works—and, consequently, the lack of any printed version of Newton’s alchemical texts—and Jim’s celebration of on-line editions. His efforts to point out the advantages of on-line editions sounded like post hoc justifications for the project. Second, the advantages he listed have become tropes, almost fetishes or clichés. They might have merit—e.g., extensible texts offer advantages over printed/fixed texts—but fetishizing these advantages evacuates them of meaning. What are those advantages? Why are those aspects advantages (as opposed simply to differences)? Advantages for whom? For scholars? For the general public? User input? Which users? All? Equally? Some? Qualified users? Who gets play gate keeper to determine qualified to contribute? Third, the difficulties of editing a text are not unique to on-line versions. Most of the difficulties are common to printed and on-line editions. How does working in a digital format exacerbate these difficulties or introduce new ones?

Finally, and most importantly, what is the role of digital humanities in historical scholarship? Jim’s talk seemed to assume that producing digital, on-line editions of these alchemical manuscripts was clearly and unproblematically a disideratum. But he didn’t offer any justification for such an assumption. Is that justification bound up in the fact that these are Newton’s alchemical manuscripts? Is it bound up in the fact that they are alchemical? Is it related to the fact that we can produce on-line editions? I am wary of the “Field of Dreams” approach to digital humanities, or any digital or on-line project. Just because we build it doesn’t mean that anybody will come or that anybody should come.

1A review of The Newton Project is found here. This “The Newton Project” should not be confused with the other “The Newton Project”s: “The Newton Project, Canada” or “Das Newton Project.”
2However valid these points might be, they have come to sound like tropes of digital humanities. It would have been nice to hear a more thorough-going analysis of these points. I wonder how much the format of Jim’s talk constrained his discussion of these issues. More on this later.
3Jim showed off a little when he read the first line of the text to the audience, claiming that “it’s not that bad.”
4Jim’s response to this question was in tension with his ideal of making texts accessible: “Normalized [transcription] is the Newton manuscript for tourists” so we don’t pay too much attention to the editorial changes or signaling them. I [Jim] only really care about the diplomatic transcriptions.

Tags: alchemy, chymistry, digital humanities, isaac newton, james voelkel, on-line editions, on-line texts