Query 31

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A visual[1] of the opening paragraph of Newton's famous "Query 31" (1718), wherein, he started the science of affinity chemistry, the forerunner to physical chemistry, and thereby, as some have conjectured, initiated the chemical revolution.

In famous publications, Query 31 (TR:63) (LH:8) (TL:71), aka "chemical query", formerly "Query 23" (Newton, 1706), turned "Query 31" (Newton, 1717/1718), are Newton's finalized thoughts on the micro-forces of chemical reaction, with particular focus on the "affinities", powers, or the "attractive virtues" operating between chemical species, and how a scale of affinity preferences exist between the species, as evidenced by the ability of certain species to displace bound species in union via contact and subsequent reaction.


The timeline of the growth of the Queries. The first edition of the Optics (1704) contained sixteen queries. A further seven were added to the first Latin edition of 1706, bring the total to 23, wherein, presumably "Query 23", at this point, was the so-called "chemical query". Eight more were added to the second English edition of 1717, bringing the total to 31. The numbering of the queries changed in the 1717 edition; which makes their identification somewhat confusing. The arrangement of the queries is summarized in the above diagram, with the boxes indicating continuity in numbering.[2] The 1718 edition, with its finalized "Query 31", the "chemical query", which launched the science of affinity chemistry, was the last and final edition.

In 1679, Newton was dialoging his ideas, with Boyle, about possible "secret principles" in nature, operating between liquors and their sociability or non-sociability:

“There is a certain secret ‘secret principle’ in nature by which liquors are sociable to some things and unsociable to others. Thus, water will not mix with oil but readily with spirit of wine or with salts. But a liquor which is of itself unsociable to a body may by a mixture of a convenient mediator be made sociable. So molten lead which alone will not mix with copper or with Regulus of Mars, by the addition of tin is made to mix with either.”
Isaac Newton (1679), “Letter to Robert Boyle[3]; compare William Newman's 2003 summary of this quote: "Just as water ‘elects’ to mix with ethyl alcohol or with salts, so it chooses not to mix with oil, Similarly, water will sink into wood while quicksilver will not, but quicksilver will penetrate and amalgamate with metals, which water will not. Likewise, aqua fortis (nitric acid) will dissolve silver and not gold, while aqua regis (mixed nitric and hydrochloric acid) will dissolve gold and not silver. Nonetheless these rules are not written in stone"[4]

In 1706, Newton, in "Query 23" of his Optics, made a first draft outline of the results and findings of his chemical studies.

In 1717, Newton, amid added eight more queries to his Query List, moved his final "chemical query" (#23) to Query 31.

In 1718, Newton, in his final print edition of Optics, presented his final version of "Query 31", via about thirty-pages of text.


The following is the opening paragraph:

Query 31. Have not the small particles of bodies certain powers, virtues, or forces, by which they act at a distance, act at a distance, not only upon the rays of light for reflecting, refracting, and inflecting them, but also upon one another for producing a great part of the phenomena of nature? For it's well-known, that bodies act one upon another by the attractions of gravity, magnetism, and electricity; and these instances shew the tenor and course of nature, and make it not improbable but that there may be more attractive powers than these. For nature is very consonant and conformable to herself. How these attractions may be performed, I do not here consider. What I call ‘attraction may be performed by impulse, or by some other means unknown to me. I use that word here to signify only in general any force by which bodies tend towards one another, whatsoever be the cause. For we must learn from the phenomena of nature what bodies attract one another, and what are the laws and properties of the attraction, before we enquire the cause by which the attraction is performed. The attractions of gravity, magnetism, and electricity, reach to very sensible distances, and so have been observed by vulgar eyes, and there may be others which reach to so small distances as hitherto escape observation; and perhaps electrical attraction may reach to such small distances, even without being excited by friction.”
— Newton (1718), “Query 31” (pgs. 375-76)

Key paragraph

The following is a key paragraph:

“Is it not for want of an attractive virtue [ΔG > 0] between the parts of water (∇) and oil, of quick-silver (☿)(Hg) and antimony (♁)(Sb), of lead (♄)(Pb) and iron (♂)(Fe), that these substances do not mix; and by a weak attraction (ΔG ≈ 0), that quick-silver (☿)(Hg) and copper (♀)(Cu) mix difficultly; and from a strong one [ΔG < 0], that quicksilver (☿)(Hg) and tin (♃)(Sn), antimony (♁)(Sb) and iron (♂)(Fe), water (∇) and salts, mix readily?”
Isaac Newton (1718), “Query 31”, in: Optics (pg. 383) [note: alchemical symbols and Gibbs energy conditions added][5]

wherein we see three difference attractive virtues compared. This, presumably, is the key anchor point with which Etienne Geoffroy (1718) transformed Newton's verbal descriptions of affinity reaction preferences, into an ordered table, wherein the powers of affinity are ranked by row.

End paragraph

The following is the final paragraph, wherein Newton pays homage to the god of Noah:

“In this third book, I have only begun the analysis of what remains to be discovered about light and its effects upon the frame of nature, hinting several things about it, and leaving the hints to be examined and improved by the farther experiments and observations of such as are inquisitive. And if natural philosophy in all its parts, by pursuing this method, shall at length be perfected, the bounds of ‘moral philosophy’ will be also enlarged. For so far as we can know by natural philosophy what is the first cause, what power he has over us, and what benefits we receive from him, so far our duty towards him, as well as that towards one another, will appear to us by the light of nature. And no doubt, if the worship of false gods had not blinded the heathen, their moral philosophy would have gone farther than to the four cardinal virtues; and instead of teaching the transmigration of souls, and to worship the sun and moon, and dead heroes, they would have taught us to worship our true author and benefactor, as their ancestors did under the government of Noah and his sons before they corrupted themselves.”
— Newton (1718), “Query 31” (pgs. 405-06)

Here, we note that when natural philosophy, in respect to the chemical art, was perfected, via the efforts of Torbern Bergman and his Dissertation on Elective Attractions (1775), that Goethe built on this to "enlarge the bounds of moral philosophy", as Newton prophesied, by apply the so-called "moral symbols", of Newton, Cullen, and Bergman, to questions of moral philosophy, as elaborated in, in coded form, his Elective Affinities (1809).


In Aug 1718, Etienne Geoffroy transformed the verbal reaction descriptions of Newton's Query 31 into an affinity table. Over the next century, dozens of large "affinity tables" began to be made, upon which the science of affinity chemistry began to take shape.[6]

In 1775, Torbern Bergman, in his Dissertation on Elective Attractions, made the largest affinity table ever.

In 1808, Goethe made a human affinity table; precursor to his Elective Affinities.

In 1882, Helmholtz, in his "On the Thermodynamics of Chemical Processes", proved that "free energy" is the true measure of chemical affinity, at which point, what was formerly called affinity chemistry, became subsumed into physical chemistry and chemical thermodynamics.


The following are related quotes:

Quest 31. The small particles of bodies act at a distance upon the rays of light, producing not only reflection, refraction, and inflexion, but a great part of the phenomena of nature—examples from physics and chemistry—particles of bodies are held together by attractive forces—all bodies seem composed of hard particles—the cohering of two flat surfaces, and the rise of water, vertically, between such surfaces—other similar experiments—more examples of attractive forces—nature is very conformable to her self—by the principle of inertia, some other principle was necessary to put bodies initially into motion, and some other principle is necessary for conserving their motion—there is not the same quantity of motion always in the world—motion is always upon the decay—inelastic impacts—the active principles that conserve and recruit motion are such as the cause of gravity, which keeps the planets and comets in motion, the cause of fermentation, which keeps the heart and blood in motion and heat—if it were not for such principles all motion, putrefaction, generation, and life would cease—the prob-able state of matter at the creation and the changes that have occurred since—in addition to inertia the particles of matter have certain active principles, which are not the occult qualities of the Aristotelians—these occult qualities put a stop to the improvement of natural philosophy and tell us nothing—de riving general principles of motion from phenomena is a great step even if the causes of those principles are not yet discovered—the creation—difficult things in natural philosophy should be investigated by the method of analysis before being investigated by the method of composition—this analysis consists in making experiments and observations and in drawing general conclusions from them by induction—hypotheses are not to be regarded in experimental philosophy—arguing from experiments and observations by induction is the best way that the nature of things admits of—proceeding in this way we may proceed from effects to their causes, from particular causes to more general ones, to the most general—discussion of these Books of Optics in terms of this method—effect on moral philosophy of perfecting natural philosophy—effect of worship of false gods on the moral philosophy of the heathen.”
— Duane Roller (1979), Analytical Table of Contents Synopsis of Query 31 (pgs. cxv-cxvi)[5]
“The most famous query was 31, which began: ‘Have not the small Particles of Bodies certain Powers, Virtues or Forces, by which they act at a distance, not only upon the Rays of Light for reflecting them but also upon one another for producing a great part of the Phaenomena of Nature?’ By ‘phaenomena of nature’, Newton meant chemistry. And whereas the first set of queries had been a sentence or a paragraph, Query 31 stretched over 30 pages. Since 1669, Newton had been quietly but intensely studying chymistry (a term that denotes the sum of early chemistry and transmutational alchemy), both from books and in the lab. What he had shied away from sharing publicly now came bubbling out: deliquescence, exothermic reactions, dissolution of metals in acids, substitution reactions. He had ideas about these phenomena—the particulate structure of matter and the forces between particles—and, approaching the end of his life, he needed to get them out. The additional queries in the third edition of Newton’s Opticks marked the end of his 60-year career as a natural philosopher. So, unexpectedly, in the closing appendix to the later editions of Opticks we find Newton’s chemical legacy.”
— James Voelkel (2012), “Last Words”[1]

End matter


  1. 1.0 1.1 Voelkel, James. (2012). “Last Words: Even toward the end of his life, Isaac Newton still had questions about chemistry”, ScienceHistory.org, May 4.
  2. Gjertsen, Derek. (1986). The Newton Handbook (Queries, pgs. 519-). Taylor & Francis.
  3. Newman, William R. (2003). Gehennical Fire: the Lives of George Starkey, and American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution (Elective affinity, pgs. 231-34). University of Chicago Press.
  4. Affinity chemistry – Hmolpedia 2020.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Newton, Isaac. (1730). Optics: Treatise of the Reflection, Refractions, Inflections and Colors of Light – Fourth Edition (Foreword: Albert Einstein; Introduction: Edmund Whittaker; Preface: Bernard Cohen; Contents: Duane Roller) (Query 31, pgs. 375-406). Dover, 1979.
  6. Affinity table (subdomain) – Hmolpedia 2020.

Further reading

  • Newton, Isaac. (1718). Optics: Treatise of the Reflection, Refractions, Inflections and Colors of Light – Second Edition, with Additions (Query 31, pgs. 350-82). Innys.

External links

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