Technology

Garage Alchemy a la Isaac Newton

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Professor William Newman isn't afraid of what the neighbors think. Here we have Professor Newman holding a beaker of concentrated nitric acid (aqua fortis) dissolving copper into a green solution.At his left foot is a large glass bottle of nitrogen dioxide in the process of combining with water vapor to form more nitric acid, according to the recipe supplied by Isaac Newton. Newman is historian of science at Indiana University who has recreated 17th Century laboratory conditions and experiments, including a homemade replica of Isaac Newton's laboratory furnace in his backyard. Newman's research shows that alchemists were not just tinkering blindly--they produced "A solid body of repeated and repeatable observations of laboratory results."

Adam Krause photographed Newman for the July/August issue of Discover: "The shoot made for an intense few hours.The chemical reaction Professor Newman performed was incredibly strong; coupled with the garage's bad ventilation, it made both the professor and myself light-headed.In order to keep our senses intact we both held our breath for the 20 seconds it took to take the photos and then rushed outside to fresh air."

A modern retort purchased from a chemical apparatus supplier in India. Retorts are no longer commonly used in the United States.

Another retort from an Indian chemical apparatus supplier.

A modern replica of Isaac Newton's "chymical" furnace in front of William Newman's garage in Indiana. To the left is a gas bottle containing nitrogen dioxide, a bag of blacksmithing coal, and a bag of charcoal.

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