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Isaac Newton : Alchemy :: Michael Jordan : Golf

Not realizing the domain-specificity of their successes.


  1. Dmitri says:

    Nobel laureate: anything else

  2. Andrew J Doucet says:

    Interesting fun fact about Isaac Newton: IFF Wikipedia is to be believed (after all, it’s on the internet so it must be true!) if you follow the “academic lineage” (i.e., [doctoral advisor’s]^n doctoral advisor), you will eventually get to Isaac Newton. Here’s the list I came up with so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong:
    Andrew Gelman -> Donald Rubin -> William Gemmell Cochran -> John Wishart -> Karl Pearson -> Francis Galton -> William Hopkins -> Adam Sedgwick -> Thomas Jones -> Thoams Postlethwaite -> Stephen Whisson -> Walter Taylor -> Robert Smith -> Roger Cotes -> Isaac Newton

  3. Jake says:

    Lots of people play golf, and not just those are good at it. I doubt MJ thought he was as good at golf as he was good at basketball, but that’s no reason not to play golf. How about his baseball career? Again, I’m sure he knew he wasn’t as good at it. He effectively conquered one game – why not dabble in others?

    Many people think vitamin C cures the common cold, a belief that goes back to Linus Pauling, who said it did. People believed him because he had 2 Nobel prizes,

    • Andrew says:


      MJ has famously lost millions of dollars to golf hustlers, which suggests he’s not as good as golf as he thinks he is. My guess is that, from his basketball experience, Jordan drew the lesson that if he tries really hard, he can win. But trying really hard will only get you so far, and it wasn’t enough to allow him to beat people at golf who were better golfers than he was.

      • AllanC says:

        I don’t know anything about MJ other than he was a next level talent when it came to basketball. And it may very well be true that his prowess at basketball led him to believe what you claim. However, there are many, many alternative reasons for why one might lose money wagering on a game. I think you’re being a bit uncharitable in picking only one!

        Moreover, losing money in a hustle is not necessarily the same thing as losing to someone better then you. For example, see the ending scene of PoolHall Junkies (available on Youtube as “Pool Hall Junkies Final Scene” posted by semajtr…art but I won’t link because I don’t want the blog to eat my comment).

  4. Jeff says:

    Jesse Ventura : Politics

  5. VK says:

    Er. How quickly they forget in only 25 years. MJ : Baseball.

  6. Gene Callahan says:

    How does Andrew know that Newton wasn’t great at alchemy?

    • Bob says:

      It appears that Newton was pretty good at chemistry. McKie provides a nice overview at

      Newton and Chemistry
      by McKie, Douglas
      Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 37, p.1

      Much of Book Three, Part I of Opticks discusses topics in chemistry. Query 31, at the end of the book, is about 30 pages long and much of it addresses chemistry. Among other sub-queries, it asks if it is not the case that all material objects are composed of mixtures of immutable atoms. I used modern language, but that’s what he asked. A flavor of his language is given by this example:
      There are therefore Agents in Nature able to make
      the Particles of Bodies stick together by very strong
      Attractions. And it is the Business of experimental
      Philosophy to find them out.

      Newton’s chemical studies informed his design of the Cu/Sn/As alloy that he used to create the mirror in his first reflecting telescope. See the contemporaneous account of his description of the process at Apparently, he tried several alloys before he found a composition that had the right mix of rigidity, ability to take a polish, and a lack of porous irregularities.

      Here’s a key passage:
      The way, which he used, was this. He first melted the Copper alone, then put in the Arsenick, which being melted, he stirred them a little together, bewaring in the mean time, not to draw in breath near the pernicious fumes. After this, he put in Tin, and again so soon as that was melted (which was very suddenly) he stirred them well together, and immediately powred them off.

      This is only tangentially related to chemistry, but I’ll share the observation anyway. Newton is often described as believing that light consisted of particles. One reason for this description is that he said so over and over. However, he was also aware of the wave nature of light but did not figure out a way to combine the particle and wave views.

      If you had asked him what the “wavelength” of yellow light was, he might have replied, “As I stated in my book Optics at proposition XVIII using different terminology, the “half-wavelength” of yellow/orange light is 1/89,000 inches or about 285 nanometers in your notation. That works out to 570 nanometers for the full wavelength.” (The Wikipedia article on color gives a range of 590-560 nm for the wavelength of yellow light.)

      In Opticks, he stated:
      Nothing more is requisite for putting
      the Rays of Light into Fits of easy Reflexion and easy
      Transmission, than that they be small Bodies which
      by their attractive Powers, or some other Force, stir
      up Vibrations in what they act upon, which Vibrations
      being swifter than the Rays, overtake them
      successively, and agitate them so as by turns to
      increase and decrease their Velocities, and thereby
      put them into those Fits.

      Opticks, Dover, 1952, at pp. 372-73.

      Bottom line, Newton did not invent modern chemistry—so in that sense he was not as good a chemist as he was physicist or mathematician. But, I bet he was a substantially better “alchemist” than Michael Jordan is a golfer.


    • Carlos Ungil says:

      I don’t know if it’s fair to say that Newton was bad at alchemy. Who was better than Newton? Why?

      If one really wants to make fun of Newton for failing at something, investing may be a better example: he lost a fortune on the South Sea Company bubble.

  7. steven t johnson says:

    Doing experiments in alchemy with impure reagents, imprecise balances, ineffective vacuum pumps, poor lenses etc. seems pretty much guaranteed to produce ambiguous results. Analyzing them with current ideas while pressured with financial support pushing for a predetermined end…well, it hardly seems shocking to me that alchemy produced more personal speculative systems than a finished science.

    One could say that starting from a philosophical materialist position, such as atomism, led to more productive results. But then, that is uncomfortably close to saying that science is materialist. This is a highly controversial thought, so much so that the vast majority of philosophers to my knowledge prefer to speak of “naturalism.” Which surely can’t be the same thing at all, otherwise why make such an issue of using a different term?

  8. Andrew Y. says:

    Linus Pauling : Vitamin C

  9. Torquemada in Training says:

    I know this is all in fun, but I have to point out that Jessie was actually well-regarded as governor. So was Arnold for that matter.

    • Jeff says:

      Fair enough. He wasn’t the worst governor. I remember him as someone who was bad at politics, even if the ways in which he blundered through it ended up working for him for a while. I’ll allow it’s a fine distinction, though. My impression of Arnold is that he is very good at politics.

  10. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Climatologists: Public Policy

  11. Frans Badenhorst says:

    Andrew Gelman : History of Science

    • Andrew says:


      It’s a paradox! I write that Newton didn’t realize the domain-specificity of his successes and was bad at alchemy. You write that this is like me: that I don’t realize the domain-specificity of my successes and I’m wrong about Newton. But if I’m wrong about Newton, then he wasn’t so wrong, which by your analogy implies that I’m not so wrong either, which implies that Newton was wrong, . . . Oh no!

      • Christoph says:

        You could also be both bad at the History of Science and right about Newton, by chance. :P

      • Bob says:

        Sorry to be repetitive. But, read Query 31 and see if you still think Newton was bad at chemistry.
        See and scroll down or search for Qu. 31 Note that he gets the source of the internal heat of the earth incorrect—assigning it to oxidation rather than radioactivity.

        I find it hard to read because some of the vocabulary is unfamiliar. What’s Butter of Antimony or Spar of Lead? A web search reveals than they are SbCl,3 and PbCO3, respectively in modern notation.


        • Andrew says:


          I never said Newton was bad at chemistry! But he also spent a lot of time on alchemy. See here, for example: “Newton was describing a recipe for the Philosophers’ Stone, a legendary substance that reputedly could turn base metals like iron and lead into gold. . . . Newton was not the only intellectual heavyweight from his era trying to make gold. The recipe for the Philosophers’ Stone had come from his older contemporary, the famed British chemist Robert Boyle. As it turns out, Boyle was a devotee of alchemy too. If two of the greatest scientists who ever lived were dedicated alchemists, then alchemy needs a makeover, a big one, contend Principe and his colleague William Newman, a historian of science at Indiana University. Back in the day, the two argue, alchemy was not the misguided pseudoscience that most people think it was. Rather, it was a valuable and necessary phase in the development of modern chemistry. Among alchemy’s signature accomplishments: creating new alloys; manufacturing acids and pigments; inventing apparatus for distillation, the process used in making perfumes and whiskeys; conceiving of atoms centuries before modern atomic theory; and providing a template for the scientific method by running controlled experiments again and again.” That’s all fine. Still, there was no Philosophers’ Stone. So in that sense it does seem that he overestimated what he could do.

          • Bob says:

            Well, back to Query 31. As I read it, he believes that gold, silver, copper, and several other materials are fundamental, not compounds. He describes fundamental materials saying:
            All these things being consider’d, it seems probable to me, that God in the Beginning form’d Matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable Particles, of such Sizes and Figures, and with such other Properties, and in such Proportion to Space, as most conduced to the End for which he form’d them; and that these primitive Particles being Solids, are incomparably harder than any porous Bodies compounded of them; even so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces: No ordinary Power being able to divide what God himself made one in the first Creation.
            . . .
            And therefore that Nature may be lasting, the Changes of corporeal Things are to be placed only in the various Separations and new Associations and Motions of these permanent Particles; compound Bodies being apt to break, not in the midst of solid Particles, but where those Particles are laid together, and only touch in a few Points.

            Earlier he writes:
            And in general, is it not from the same Principle that Heat congregates homogeneal Bodies, and separates heterogeneal ones?’

            Language very similar to the above also appears in a draft conclusion to The Principia as reported by I.B. Cohen. See Section 9.3 of Cohen’s introduction to the Principia. (The Principia: The Authoritative Translation and Guide: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy)

            That language is consistent with solid gold being an amalgamation of fundamental particles (he seems to be unaware of subatomic particles). I don’t think the author of Query 31 believed in the existence of the philosopher’s stone. The existence of one would conflict with his views (1) that fundamental particles were immutable and (2) gold consisted of fundamental particles.

            I am a strong fan of Newton. Perhaps not as strong fan as was Chandrasekhar—but he may have gotten carried away. See….27..353S.

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