The Queries

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Title page to the 1730 edition of The Queries.

The Queries (or simply Queries) is the third book to English physicist Isaac Newton's Opticks, with various numbers of Query sections or "question" sections (up to 31, depending on edition), expanded on from 1704 to 1718, that contains Newton's final thoughts on the future puzzles of science. Query 31, in particular, launched affinity chemistry and the dozens of affinity tables that were made in the 18th century, based on Newton's description of affinity gradients.


Opticks concludes with a set of "Queries." In the first edition, these were sixteen such Queries; that number was increased in the Latin edition, published in 1706, and then in the revised English edition, published in 1717/18. The first set of Queries were brief, but the later ones became short essays, filling many pages. In the fourth edition of 1730, there were 31 Queries, and it was the famous "31st Query" that, over the next two hundred years, stimulated a great deal of speculation and development on theories of chemical affinity.

These Queries, especially the later ones, deal with a wide range of physical phenomena, far transcending any narrow interpretation of the subject matter of "optics." They concern the nature and transmission of heat; the possible cause of gravity; electrical phenomena; the nature of chemical action; the way in which God created matter in "the Beginning;" the proper way to do science; and even the ethical conduct of human beings. These Queries are not really questions in the ordinary sense. They are almost all posed in the negative, as rhetorical questions. That is, Newton does not ask whether light "is" or "may be" a "body." Rather, he declares: "Is not Light a Body?" Not only does this form indicate that Newton had an answer, but that it may go on for many pages. Clearly, as Stephen Hales (a firm Newtonian of the early eighteenth century) declared, this was Newton's mode of explaining "by Query."

Other scientists followed Newton's lead. They saw that he had been setting forth a kind of exploratory natural philosophy in which the primary source of knowledge was experiment. This Newtonian tradition of experimental natural philosophy was different from the one based on mathematical deductions. In this sense, Opticks established a kind of Newtonianism that in the eighteenth century rivalled in importance the mathematical natural philosophy of the Principia. Some of the primary adepts in this new philosophy were such prominent figures as Benjamin Franklin, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, and James Black.

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Query 1. Do not Bodies act upon Light at a distance, and by their action bend its Rays, and is not this action (cæteris paribus) strongest at the least distance?

Qu. 2. Do not the Rays which differ in Refrangibility differ also in Flexibity, and are they not by their different Inflexions separated from one another, so as after separation to make the Colours in the three Fringes above described? And after what manner are they inflected to make those Fringes?

Qu. 3. Are not the Rays of Light in passing by the edges and sides of Bodies, bent several times backwards and forwards, with a motion like that of an Eel? And do not the three Fringes of colour'd Light above mention'd, arise from three such bendings?

Qu. 4. Do not the Rays of Light which fall upon Bodies, and are reflected or refracted, be gin to bend before they arrive at the Bodies; and are they not reflected, refracted, and inflected by one and the same Principle, acting variously in various Circumstances?

Qu. 5. Do not Bodies and Light act mutually upon one another, that is to say, Bodies upon Light in emitting, reflecting, refracting and inflecting it, and Light upon Bodies for heating them, and putting their parts into a vibrating motion wherein heat consists?

Qu. 6. Do not black Bodies conceive heat more easily from Light than those of other Colours do, by reason that the Light falling on them is not reflected outwards, but enters the Bodies, and is often reflected and refracted within them, until it be stifled and lost?

Qu. 7. Is not the strength and vigor of the action between Light and sulphureous Bodies observed above, one reason why sulphureous Bodies take fire more readily, and burn more vehemently, than other Bodies do?

Qu. 8. Do not all fix'd Bodies when heated beyond a certain degree, emit Light and shine, and is not this Emission perform'd by the vibrating Motions of their parts? And do not all Bodies which abound with terrestrial parts, and especially with sulphureous ones, emit Light as often as those parts are sufficiently agitated; whether that agitation be made by Heat, or by Friction, or Percussion, or Putrefaction, or by any vital Motion, or any other Cause? As for instance; Sea Water in a raging Storm; Quicksilver agitated in vacuo; the Back of a Cat, or Neck of a Horse obliquely struck or rubbed in a dark place; Wood, Flesh and Fish while they putrefy; Vapours arising from putrefy'd Waters, usually call'd Ignes Fatui; Stacks of moist Hay or Corn growing hot by fermentation; Glow-worms and the Eyes of some Animals by vital Motions; the vulgar Phosphorus agitated by the attrition of any Body, or by the acid Particles of the Air; Ambar and some Diamonds by striking, pressing or rubbing them; Scrapings of Steel struck off with a Flint; Iron hammer'd very nimbly till it become so hot as to kindle Sulphur thrown upon it; the Axletrees of Chariots taking fire by the rapid rotation of the Wheels; and some Liquors mix'd with one another whose Particles come together with an Impetus, as Oil of Vitriol distilled from its weight of Nitre, and then mix'd with twice its weight of Oil of Anniseeds. So also a Globe of Glass about 8 or 10 Inches in diameter, being put into a Frame where it may be swiftly turn'd round its Axis, will in turning shine where it rubs against the palm of ones Hand apply'd to it: And if at the same time a piece of white Paper or white Cloth, or the end of ones Finger be held at the distance of about a quarter of an Inch or half an Inch from that part of the Glass where it is most in motion, the electrick Vapour which is excited by the friction of the Glass against the Hand, will by dashing against the white Paper, Cloth or Finger, be put into such an agitation as to emit Light, and make the white Paper, Cloth or Finger, appear lucid like a Glow-worm; and in rushing out of the Glass will sometimes push against the Finger so as to be felt. And the same things have been found by rubbing a long and large Cylinder or Glass or Ambar with a Paper held in ones hand, and continuing the friction till the Glass grew warm.

Qu. 9. Is not Fire a Body heated so hot as to emit Light copiously? For what else is a red hot Iron than Fire? And what else is a burning Coal than red hot Wood?

Qu. 10. Is not Flame a Vapour, Fume or Exhalation heated red hot, that is, so hot as to shine? For Bodies do not flame without emitting a copious Fume, and this Fume burns in the Flame. The Ignis Fatuus is a Vapour shining without heat, and is there not the same difference between this Vapour and Flame, as between rotten Wood shining without heat and burning Coals of Fire? In distilling hot Spirits, if the Head of the Still be taken off, the Vapour which ascends out of the Still will take fire at the Flame of a Candle, and turn into Flame, and the Flame will run along the Vapour from the Candle to the Still. Some Bodies heated by Motion or Fermentation, if the heat grow intense, fume copiously, and if the heat be great enough the Fumes will shine and become Flame. Metals in fusion do not flame for want of a copious Fume, except Spelter, which fumes copiously, and thereby flames. All flaming Bodies, as Oil, Tallow, Wax, Wood, fossil Coals, Pitch, Sulphur, by flaming waste and vanish into burning Smoke, which Smoke, if the Flame be put out, is very thick and visible, and sometimes smells strongly, but in the Flame loses its smell by burning, and according to the nature of the Smoke the Flame is of several Colours, as that of Sulphur blue, that of Copper open'd with sublimate green, that of Tallow yellow, that of Camphire white. Smoke passing through Flame cannot but grow red hot, and red hot Smoke can have no other appearance than that of Flame. When Gun-powder takes fire, it goes away into flaming Smoke. For the Charcoal and Sulphur easily take fire, and set fire to the Nitre, and the Spirit of the Nitre being thereby rarified into Vapour, rushes out with Explosion much after the manner that the Vapour of Water rushes out of an Æolipile; the Sulphur also being volatile is converted into Vapour, and augments the Explosion. And the acid Vapour of the Sulphur (namely that which distils under a Bell into Oil of Sulphur,) entring violently into the fix't Body of the Nitre, sets loose the Spirit of the Nitre, and excites a great Fermentation, whereby the Heat is farther augmented, and the fix'd Body of the Nitre is also rarified into Fume , and the Explosion is thereby made more vehement and quick. For if Salt of Tartar be mix'd with Gun-powder, and that Mixture be warm'd till it takes fire, the Explosion will be more violent and quick than that of Gun-powder alone; which cannot proceed from any other cause than the action of the Vapour of the Gun-powder upon the Salt of Tartar, whereby that Salt is rarified. The Explosion of Gun-powder arises therefore from the violent action whereby all the Mixture being quickly and vehemently heated, is rarified and converted into Fume and Vapour: which Vapour, by the violence of that action, becoming so hot as to shine, appears in the form of Flame.

Qu. 11. Do not great Bodies conserve their heat the longest, their parts heating one another, and may not great dense and fix'd Bodies, when heated beyond a certain degree, emit Light so copiously, as by the Emission and Re-action of its Light, and the Reflexions and Refractions of its Rays within its Pores to grow still hotter, till it comes to a certain period of heat, such as is that of the Sun? And are not the Sun and fix'd Stars great Earths vehemently hot, whose heat is conserved by the greatness of the Bodies, and the mutual Action and Reaction between them, and the Light which they emit, and whose parts are kept from fuming away, not only by their fixity, but also by the vast weight and density of the Atmospheres incumbent upon them, and very strongly compressing them, and condensing the Vapours and Exhalations which arise from them? For if Water be made warm in any pellucid Vessel emptied of Air, that Water in the Vacuum will bubble and boil as vehemently as it would in the open Air in a Vessel set upon the Fire till it conceives a much greater heat. For the weight of the incumbent Atmosphere keeps down the Vapours, and hinders the Water from boiling, until it grow much hotter than is requisite to make it boil in vacuo. Also a mixture of Tin and Lead being put upon a red hot Iron in vacuo emits a Fume and Flame, but the same Mixture in the open Air, by reason of the incumbent Atmosphere, does not so much as emit any Fume which can be perceived by Sight. In like manner the great weight of the Atmosphere which lies upon the Globe of the Sun may hinder Bodies there from rising up and going away from the Sun in the form of Vapours and Fumes, unless by means of a far greater heat than that which on the Surface of our Earth would very easily turn them into Vapours and Fumes. And the same great weight may condense those Vapours and Exhalations as soon as they shall at any time begin to ascend from the Sun, and make them presently fall back again into him, and by that action increase his Heat much after the manner that in our Earth the Air increases the Heat of a culinary Fire. And the same weight may hinder the Globe of the Sun from being diminish'd, unless by the Emission of Light, and a very small quantity of Vapours and Exhalations.

Qu. 12. Do not the Rays of Light in falling upon the bottom of the Eye excite Vibrations in the Tunica Retina? Which Vibrations, being propagated along the solid Fibres of the optick Nerves into the Brain, cause the Sense of seeing. For because dense Bodies conserve their Heat a long time, and the densest Bodies conserve their Heat the longest, the Vibrations of their parts are of a lasting nature, and therefore may be propagated along solid Fibres of uniform dense Matter to a great distance, for conveying into the Brain the impressions made upon all the Organs of Sense. For that Motion which can continue long in one and the same part of a Body, can be propagated a long way from one part to another, supposing the Body homogeneal, so that the Motion may not be reflected, refracted, interrupted or disorder'd by any unevenness of the Body.

Qu. 13. Do not several sorts of Rays make Vibrations of several bignesses, which according to their bignesses excite Sensations of several Colours, much after the manner that the Vibrations of the Air, according to their several bignesses excite Sensations of several Sounds? And particularly do not the most refrangible Rays excite the shortest Vibrations for making a Sensation of deep violet, the least refrangible the largest for making a Sensation of deep red, and the several intermediate sorts of Rays, Vibrations of several intermediate bignesses to make Sensations of the several intermediate Colours?

Qu. 14. May not the harmony and discord of Colours arise from the proportions of the Vibrations propagated through the Fibres of the optick Nerves into the Brain, as the harmony and discord of Sounds arise from the proportions of the Vibrations of the Air? For some Colours, if they be view'd together, are agreeable to one another, as those of Gold and Indigo, and others disagree.

Qu. 15. Are not the Species of Objects seen with both Eyes united where the optick Nerves meet before they come into the Brain, the Fibres on the right side of both Nerves uniting there, and after union going thence into the Brain in the Nerve which is on the right side of the Head, and the Fibres on the left side of both Nerves uniting in the same place, and after union going into the Brain in the Nerve which is on the left side of the Head, and these two Nerves meeting in the Brain in such a manner that their Fibres make but one entire Species or Picture, half of which on the right side of the Sensorium comes from the right side of both Eyes through the right side of both optick Nerves to the place where the Nerves meet, and from thence on the right side of the Head into the Brain, and the other half on the left side of the Sensorium comes in like manner from the left side of both Eyes. For the optick Nerves of such Animals as look the same way with both Eyes (as of Men, Dogs, Sheep, Oxen, &c.) meet before they come into the Brain, but the optick Nerves of such Animals as do not look the same way with both Eyes (as of Fishes and of the Chameleon) do not meet, if I am rightly inform'd.

Qu.16. When a Man in the dark presses either corner of his Eye with his Finger, and turns his Eye away from his Finger, he will see a Circle of Colours like those in the Feather of a Peacock's Tail. If the Eye and the Finger remain quiet these Colours vanish in a second Minute of Time, but if the Finger be moved with a quavering Motion they appear again. Do not these Colours arise from such Motions excited in the bottom of the Eye by the Pressure and Motion of the Finger, as at other times are excited there by Light for causing Vision? And do not the Motions once excited continue about a Second of Time before they cease? And when a Man by a stroke upon his Eye sees a flash of Light, are not the like Motions excited in the Retina by the stroke? And when a Coal of Fire moved nimbly in the circumference of a Circle, makes the whole circumference appear like a Circle of Fire: Is it not because the Motions excited in the bottom of the Eye by the Rays of Light are of a lasting nature, and continue till the Coal of Fire in going round returns to its former place? And considering the lastingness of the Motions excited in the bottom of the Eye by Light, are they not of a vibrating nature?

Qu. 17. If a stone be thrown into stagnating Water, the Waves excited thereby continue some time to arise in the place where the Stone fell into the Water, and are propagated from thence in concentrick Circles upon the Surface of the Water to great distances. And the Vibrations or Tremors excited in the Air by percussion, continue a little time to move from the place of percussion in concentrick Spheres to great distances. And in like manner, when a Ray of Light falls upon the Surface of any pellucid Body, and is there refracted or reflected: may not Waves of Vibrations, or Tremors, be thereby excited in the refracting or reflecting Medium at the point of Incidence, and continue to arise there, and to be propagated from thence as long as they continue to arise and be propagated, when they are excited in the bottom of the Eye by the Pressure or Motion of the Finger, or by the Light which comes from the Coal of Fire in the Experiments above mention'd? And are not these Vibrations propagated from the point of Incidence to great distances? And do they not overtake the Rays of Light, and by overtaking them successively, do they not put them into the Fits of easy Reflexion and easy Transmission described above? For if the Rays endeavour to recede from the densest part of the Vibration, they may be alternately accelerated and retarded by the Vibrations overtaking them.

Qu. 18. If in two large tall cylindrical Vessels of Glass inverted, two little Thermometers be suspended so as not to touch the Vessels, and the Air be drawn out of one of these Vessels, and these Vessels thus prepared be carried out of a cold place into a warm one; the Thermometer in vacuo will grow warm as much, and almost as soon as the Thermometer which is not in vacuo. And when the Vessels are carried back into the cold place, the Thermometer in vacuo will grow cold almost as soon as the other Thermometer. Is not the Heat of the warm Room convey'd through the Vacuum by the Vibrations of a much subtiler Medium than Air, which after the Air was drawn out remained in the Vacuum? And is not this Medium the same with that Medium by which Light is refracted and reflected, and by whose Vibrations Light communicates Heat to Bodies, and is put into Fits of easy Reflexion and easy Transmission? And do not the Vibrations of this Medium in hot Bodies contribute to the intenseness and duration of their Heat? And do not hot Bodies communicate their Heat to contiguous cold ones, by the Vibrations of this Medium propagated from them into the cold ones? And is not this Medium exceedingly more rare and subtile than the Air, and exceedingly more elastick and active? And doth it not readily pervade all Bodies? And is it not (by its elastick force) expanded through all the Heavens?

Qu. 19. Doth not the Refraction of Light proceed from the different density of this Æthereal Medium in different places, the Light receding always from the denser parts of the Medium? And is not the density thereof greater in free and open Spaces void of Air and other grosser Bodies, than within the Pores of Water, Glass, Crystal, Gems, and other compact Bodies? For when Light passes through Glass or Crystal, and falling very obliquely upon the farther Surface thereof is totally reflected, the total Reflexion ought to proceed rather from the density and vigour of the Medium without and beyond the Glass, than from the rarity and weakness thereof.

Qu. 20. Doth not this Æthereal Medium in passing out of Water, Glass, Crystal, and other compact and dense Bodies into empty Spaces, grow denser and denser by degrees, and by that means refract the Rays of Light not in a point, but by bending them gradually in curve Lines? And doth not the gradual condensation of this Medium extend to some distance from the Bodies, and thereby cause the Inflexions of the Rays of Light, which pass by the edges of dense Bodies, at some distance from the Bodies?

Qu. 21. Is not this Medium much rarer within the dense Bodies of the Sun, Stars, Planets and Comets, than in the empty celestial Spaces between them? And in passing from them to great distances, doth it not grow denser and denser perpetually, and thereby cause the gravity of those great Bodies towards one another, and of their parts towards the Bodies; every Body endeavouring to go from the denser parts of the Medium towards the rarer? For if this Medium be rarer within the Sun's Body than at its Surface, and rarer there than at the hundredth part of an Inch from its Body, and rarer there than at the fiftieth part of an Inch from its Body, and rarer there than at the Orb of Saturn; I see no reason why the Increase of density should stop any where, and not rather be continued through all distances from the Sun to Saturn, and beyond. And though this Increase of density may at great distances be exceeding slow, yet if the elastick force of this Medium be exceeding great, it may suffice to impel Bodies from the denser parts of the Medium towards the rarer, with all that power which we call Gravity. And that the elastick force of this Medium is exceeding great, may be gather'd from the swiftness of its Vibrations. Sounds move about 1140 English Feet in a second Minute of Time, and in seven or eight Minutes of Time they move about one hundred English Miles. Light moves from the Sun to us in about seven or eight Minutes of Time, which distance is about 70000000 English Miles, supposing the horizontal Parallax of the Sun to be about 12". And the Vibrations or Pulses of this Medium, that they may cause the alternate Fits of easy Transmission and easy Reflexion, must be swifter than Light, and by consequence above 700000 times swifter than Sounds. And therefore the elastick force of this Medium, in proportion to its density, must be above 700000 x 700000 (that is, above 490000000000) times greater than the elastick force of the Air is in proportion to its density. For the Velocities of the Pulses of elastick Mediums are in a subduplicate Ratio of the Elasticities and the Rarities of the Mediums taken together.

As Attraction is stronger in small Magnets than in great ones in proportion to their Bulk, and Gravity is greater in the Surfaces of small Planets than in those of great ones in proportion to their bulk, and small Bodies are agitated much more by electric attraction than great ones; so the smallness of the Rays of Light may contribute very much to the power of the Agent by which they are refracted. And so if any one should suppose that Æther (like our Air) may contain Particles which endeavour to recede from one another (for I do not know what this Æther is) and that its Particles are exceedingly smaller than those of Air, or even than those of Light: The exceeding smallness of its Particles may contribute to the greatness of the force by which those Particles may recede from one another, and thereby make that Medium exceedingly more rare and elastick than Air, and by consequence exceedingly less able to resist the motions of Projectiles, and exceedingly more able to press upon gross Bodies, by endeavouring to expand it self.

Qu. 22. May not Planets and Comets, and all gross Bodies, perform their Motions more freely, and with less resistance in this Æthereal Medium than in any Fluid, which fills all Space adequately without leaving any Pores, and by consequence is much denser than Quick-silver or Gold? And may not its resistance be so small, as to be inconsiderable? For instance; If this Æther (for so I will call it) should be supposed 700000 times more elastick than our Air, and above 700000 times more rare; its resistance would be above 600000000 times less than that of Water. And so small a resistance would scarce make any sensible alteration in the Motions of the Planets in ten thousand Years. If any one would ask how a Medium can be so rare, let him tell me how the Air, in the upper parts of the Atmosphere, can be above an hundred thousand thousand times rarer than Gold. Let him also tell me, how an electrick Body can by Friction emit an Exhalation so rare and subtile, and yet so potent, as by its Emission to cause no sensible Diminution of the weight of the electrick Body, and to be expanded through a Sphere, whose Diameter is above two Feet, and yet to be able to agitate and carry up Leaf Copper, or Leaf Gold, at the distance of above a Foot from the electrick Body? And how the Effluvia of a Magnet can be so rare and subtile, as to pass through a Plate of Glass without any Resistance or Diminution of their Force, and yet so potent as to turn a magnetick Needle beyond the Glass?

Qu. 23. Is not Vision perform'd chiefly by the Vibrations of this Medium, excited in the bottom of the Eye by the Rays of Light, and propagated through the solid, pellucid and uniform Capillamenta of the optick Nerves into the place of Sensation? And is not Hearing perform'd by the Vibrations either of this or some other Medium, excited in the auditory Nerves by the Tremors of the Air, and propagated through the solid, pellucid and uniform Capillamenta of those Nerves into the place of Sensation? And so of the other Senses.

Qu. 24. Is not Animal Motion perform'd by the Vibrations of this Medium, excited in the Brain by the power of the Will, and propagated from thence through the solid, pellucid and uniform Capillamenta of the Nerves into the Muscles, for contracting and dilating them? I suppose that the Capillamenta of the Nerves are each of them solid and uniform, that the vibrating Motion of the Æthereal Medium may be propagated along them from one end to the other uniformly, and without interruption: For Obstructions in the Nerves create Palsies. And that they may be sufficiently uniform, I suppose them to be pellucid when view'd singly, tho' the Reflexions in their cylindrical Surfaces may make the whole Nerve (composed of many Capillamenta) appear opake and white. For opacity arises from reflecting Surfaces, such as may disturb and interrupt the Motions of this Medium.

Qu. 25. Are there not other original Properties of the Rays of Light, besides those already described? An instance of another original Property we have in the Refraction of Island Crystal, described first by Erasmus Bartholine, and afterwards more exactly by Hugenius, in his Book De la Lumiere. This Crystal is a pellucid fissile Stone, clear as Water or Crystal of the Rock, and without Colour; enduring a red Heat without losing its transparency, and in a very strong Heat calcining without Fusion. Steep'd a Day or two in Water, it loses its natural Polish. Being rubb'd on Cloth, it attracts pieces of Straws and other light things, like Ambar or Glass; and with Aqua fortis it makes an Ebullition. It seems to be a sort of Talk, and is found in form of an oblique Parallelpiped, with six parallelogram Sides and eight solid Angles. The obtuse Angles of the Parallelograms are each of them 101 Degrees and 52 Minutes; the acute ones 78 Degrees and 8 Minutes. Two of the solid Angles opposite to one another, as C and E, are compassed each of [1]them with three of these obtuse Angles, and each of the other six with one obtuse and two acute ones. It cleaves easily in Planes parallel to any of its Sides, and not in any other Planes. It cleaves with a glossy polite Surface not perfectly plane, but with some little unevenness. It is easily scratch'd, and by reason of its softness it takes a Polish very difficultly. It polishes better upon polish'd Looking-glass than upon Metal, and perhaps better upon Pitch, Leather or Parchment. Afterwards it must be rubb'd with a little Oil or White of an Egg, to fill up its Scratches; whereby it will become very transparent and polite. But for several Experiments, it is not necessary to polish it. If a piece of this crystalline Stone be laid upon a Book, every Letter of the Book seen through it will appear double, by means of a double Refraction. And if any beam of Light falls either perpendicularly, or in any oblique Angle upon any Surface of this Crystal, it becomes divided into two beams by means of the same double Refraction. Which beams are of the same Colour with the incident beam of Light, and seem equal to one another in the quantity of their Light, or very nearly equal. One of these Refractions is perform'd by the usual Rule of Opticks, the Sine of Incidence out of Air into this Crystal being to the Sine of Refraction, as five to three. The other Refraction, which may be called the unusual Refraction, is perform'd by the following Rule.

— Issac Newton, The Third Book of Opticks