Turning lead into gold.
Sir Isaac Newton, the renowned 17th-century mathematician and physicist whose work laid the foundations for classical mechanics, calculus, and the law of universal gravitation, was actually a big fan of alchemy.
Alchemy is a pretty ancient science, predating chemistry. It was used in the Middle Ages with the goal of changing ordinary metals into precious ones like gold. Its ultimate goal was figuring out how to transform lead into gold, and the elusive “Philosopher's Stone” was a substance believed to do just that.
Held in a private collection for decades, the 17th-century manuscript written in Newton’s hand describes how to make an essential ingredient of the Philosopher’s Stone — sophick mercury. The text was purchased earlier this year by the Chemical Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The group is currently working on uploading digital images and transcriptions to an online database so more people can study Newton’s alchemical text.
“Newton was intensely interested in alchemy almost his whole life,” James Voelkel, curator of rare books at the foundation's Othmer Library of Chemical History, told The Washington Post. “These alchemical manuscripts consist of about a million words he wrote in his own hands.”
Following Newton’s death, most of his manuscripts were held by his family until they were auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1936. Dozens of private collectors bought his alchemical manuscripts, however, most of these papers have since been donated to the University of Cambridge, except for a handful like the one acquired by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
However, it wasn’t until after Newton’s time that the definition of a chemical element, as we understand it today, was developed. While Newton was around, many thought that metals were comprised of multiple compounds, including a mercuric or sulfuric principle, and it was believed that changing one of those principles could change a metal.
“What's a little bit more crazy is the notion that there's this Philosopher’s Stone that allows you to do this operation automatically,” Voelkel said to The Washington Post. “Heat up, molten a bunch of lead, toss the Philosophers' Stone into it, and transmute automatically.”
The newly discovered manuscript, entitled “Preparation of [Sophick] Mercury for the [Philosopher’s] Stone,” is Newton’s handwritten copy of a recipe authored by famed alchemist, George Starkey. Sophick mercury was supposed to break a metal down into its various components.
The recipe involves repeatedly distilling mercury and then heating it with gold. Using this process, the substance eventually becomes an alloy with delicate growths. It was these tree-like growths that made Starkey believe that the sophick mercury had become animated with life, indicating its power and importance.
But the document’s true significance may lie on its back, where Newton wrote his own procedure for alchemically subliming lead ore. However, there is no evidence that Newton correctly decoded the recipe for sophick mercury.
What historian’s are most interested in is evidence of Newton’s collaborations with other alchemists — which likely influenced his work on optics — the physics of light. Alchemy may have inspired Newton’s groundbreaking discovery that white light is a mixture of various colors.
Although some scholars believe alchemy is not practical and is a pseudoscience, Newman told National Geographic, alchemists were the first ones to grasp the idea that compounds could be deconstructed into parts and then recombined — a principle recognized today.
If it hadn’t been for Newton the alchemist, we may not have had some of the most famous discoveries from Newton the scientist.