Isaac Newton: Alchemist
Created | Updated Jun 15, 2015
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It may come as a surprise to many that the great man of rational science, Isaac Newton, was not above dabbling in alchemy, the quest to 'turn base metals into gold'. In fact, Newton did not merely dabble; he devoted far more time - in hours per day, years of his life and manuscript sheets written - to his esoteric studies than he ever did to the work that made him famous. He wrote over a million words on the subject of alchemy, most of it in code.
Newton probably believed, like most alchemists, that he was rediscovering the lost knowledge of Moses and of Hermes Trismegistus. These were the legendary sages to whom it was believed had been revealed divine knowledge. Both lived in Egypt, where much of their learning had been preserved in the Great Library of Alexandria, until its destruction. That knowledge had since been steadily lost over time; the ancient Greeks had lived in a 'golden age' when much of it had still been preserved, but since their time more and more had been lost. For this reason, alchemy had become a library-research discipline, not one given to experiment. Knowledge of the 'hidden arts' was to be obtained through the discovery and deciphering of lost and mysterious ancient texts. Newton, of course, took the opposite tack - although he accepted that he was rediscovering lost knowledge, he meticulously checked and noted down his findings by means of chemical experiment. The brazier in his room burned constantly for years at a time.
Famed alchemists throughout history included Roger Bacon (who may have rediscovered gunpowder and invented the telescope during the 1200s), Thomas Aquinas, and even a Pope, John XXII. Its history had been chequered to say the least - as an art allied to witchcraft and dark magic, it was considered immoral, and the making of gold or silver was outlawed in England in 1404. (Mere immorality and illegality were of course not necessarily a bar in a country where the South Bank brothels were largely run by the Church, and both Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I funded efforts. Indeed, Elizabeth was closely associated with John Dee, another famous magician and alchemist.) The ban was revoked in 1689, during Newton's working life. That may have made alchemy legal, but it did not make it acceptable, and Newton went to great lengths not to publicise his interest in the subject.
The basic theory was that all metals were composed of sulfur and mercury. These two substances, in combination, went to make up the seven known metals: gold, silver, iron, tin, mercury, lead and copper. Each of these was associated with one of the seven known planets. When Newton said he saw seven colours in the rainbow, he was linking light into this alchemical scheme as well. Because the metals melted when heated, they were thought to become more like mercury1 - showing that one metal could be changed into another. Who knows what mystical secret Newton thought he was on the edge of when he found that white light was the combination of all seven colours?
This idea of the transmutability of metals led naturally on to the idea that comparatively cheap 'base' metals could be turned into gold. This was to be performed by means of the 'Philosophers' Stone', a mysterious substance that, when added to a mixture of gold and other metals would transform the whole lot into pure gold, whilst leaving the Philosopher's Stone itself unaffected and ready for re-use. (Since a 'seed' of gold was required, this was often known as 'multiplication' of gold, rather than 'creation'.)
Over time, further legends had attached themselves to this mysterious, unobtainable Philosopher's Stone. Prime among them was the idea that it could somehow be used to bestow eternal life and youth upon its possessor.
In reality, the idea of the Philosophers' Stone and Elixir of Life probably came from China, not the Egypt of Moses and Hermes Trismegistus. Alchemy itself, however, probably did begin in Alexandria, in about 200 AD. After the destruction of the Great Library, many ancient texts were preserved by the Arabs, and a heavy Arab influence tinted the science of al-kimia ever after.
The basic search for the Philosophers' Stone followed a set pattern. Mercury was dissolved in nitric acid. Other metals were then added to give a precipitate of purified mercury - 'philosophers' mercury'. This was then repeated at increasing temperature. This philosophers' mercury was used in various ways, usually involving antimony and iron reacting together to give a beautiful and unusual crystalline structure called a star regulus. This was very similar to a pattern created by reacting antimony with gold under similar conditions.
In truth, Newton probably saw little distinction between physics and alchemy. Even in his day, there was a firm distinction between the acceptable but dull practice of chemistry - the purview of dyers - and the almost blasphemous ideas of alchemy (the creation of gold was illegal under the Act Against Multipliers, until 1689, when it was repealed, mostly due to the influence of closet alchemist Robert Boyle). As a consequence, Newton kept his alchemical studies from all but his most intimate colleagues. This distinction may seem strange, but modern readers should remember the very different attitudes at the time towards medicine - the perfectly legitimate attempt to cure sickness - and anatomy, the desecration of dead bodies, often stolen from graveyards.
Newton's interest in alchemy seems to have started around 1667 or 1668. It was closely followed by his first visit to London, which it seems likely he used to purchase books on the subject. His contact and supplier in London was a William Cooper, who would also have been able to introduce Newton to other enquiring alchemical minds in the loose circle that centred around Samuel Hartlib.
Newton brought his characteristically systematic approach to the subject, and immediately began to compile a glossary - eventually running to over 7,000 words2 - to decrypt some of the notoriously impenetrable hermetic writings. For a man largely credited with the clear, impersonal and banal literary style of modern scientific papers, Newton was very much at home in writing in the florid, almost unintelligible cant of alchemy. Even so, he was forced to leave many alchemical terms undefined. Frankly, many of them were meaningless, though there is no way of telling how long Newton spent trying to read sense into a text where none existed.
The distinctly disreputable art of alchemy was passed as much by word of mouth as it was by esoteric texts. Newton was now 'in' with fellow legendary scientist and sometime alchemist Robert 'I am the Law' Boyle. Boyle, like Newton, was both an alchemist and a chemist, and a member of the Hartlib Circle. Unlike Newton, he was happy to publish his chemical findings; Newton was famously reluctant to publish anything, on any subject. Boyle did not go so far as to publicise his alchemical interests - something that would have been seen as tantamount to witchcraft, and illegal to boot - but even so, Newton seems to have considered him dangerously loose-lipped.
Serious alchemists adopted codenames for their correspondence. Thus, Newton dubbed himself Jeova Sanctus Unus - Latin for 'One Holy God', and simultaneously a nod to Newton's Arian beliefs (that God was a single, indivisible entity and not a Trinity) and a near-anagram of his Latinised name, Isaacus Neuutonus. It was under this moniker that Newton corresponded with other members of the Hartlib Circle, including Henry More and Boyle.
We know little of Newton's researches. His room-mate John Wickens helped Newton at every step of the way, tending the furnace for those few hours of the night when even Newton had to sleep. But unfortunately, he seems to have understood little of what Newton was doing, and remembered less by the time anyone thought to ask him. We do know that Newton formed a star regulus structure in 1670, and seems to have thought that he was on the path to creating gold by this means - if he could form a star regulus from antimony and iron and then turn it back into antimony and gold, there would be a net transfer of iron to gold. It also seems clear that Newton believed that Boyle had succeeded in transmuting lead to gold, but that Boyle was keeping his method secret.
In around 1672, Newton wrote a treatise called Of Nature's Obvious Laws & Processes in Vegetation, in which he described a life-force and a 'spiritual chemistry'. Although not strictly alchemical in nature, this gives further insight into the distinctly non-Newtonian world-view he held about many subjects.
By 1675, Newton saw fit to record his progress in a 1,200-word essay called Clavis ('The Key'), never intended for publication. It is easy to see how Newton - the very model of the unemotional scientist when it came to his physical experiments - resorts to vague mysticism, code and metaphor when describing his alchemical works. This was, to him, hidden knowledge, not meant to be revealed to the unprepared. Michael White, in Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, quotes a typical set of instructions from an alchemical work, by way of example:
Take from the four elements the arsenic which is highest and lowest, the white and the red, the male and the female in equal balance, so that they may be joined to one another. For just as the bird warms the eggs with her heat and brings them to their appointed term, so yourselves warm your composition and bring it to its appointed term. And when you've bourne it out and caused it to drink of the divine waters in the Sun and in the heated places, cook it upon a gentle fire with the virginal milk, keeping it from the smoke. Then shut the ingredients up in Hades and stir carefully until the preparation becomes thicker and does not run from the fire. Then remove it from the fire; and when the soul and spirit are unified and become one, project upon the body of silver and you will have gold such as the treasuries of kings do not contain.
- Kleopatra, 2nd Century female alchemist
Not exactly GCSE chemistry, and clearly not like the chemistry of Newton's time either. Chemistry was considered a rather workmanlike trade, used mostly by dye-makers. It was no more mysterious or glamorous - or mystical - than weaving or carpentry, and certainly instructions were given clearly, not couched in this metaphysical code.
In 1677 (or 1678) a fire burned through Newton's new rooms (he had moved in just a few years previously, in 1673). It is known that this destroyed many of his papers; what is not known is exactly what those papers were. There is speculation that it may have been an early draft of the first volume of his second great masterpiece, Opticks. But equally, others have supposed that it may have been the great work on chemistry that we know Newton planned, the Principia Chimica. It is known that Newton at some stage wrote a (semi-nonsensical) text called Praxis on the subject. We also know that Newton burned many of his papers shortly before his death; it has been speculated that this may have contained much of his alchemical work.
As a final surprising note in a surprising subject, Newton did not abandon alchemy in frustration. Instead, it seems that he lost interest in it for the opposite reason - he thought he had solved the mysteries and created gold. It may be coincidence that it was shortly after his break-up with Fatio de Duillier and subsequent breakdown that Newton decided that he had finally succeeded in the age-old dream of transmuting base metals into gold 'to infinity'. After this, Newton's interest in alchemy appeared to tail off and, ironically, he took up the job of creating value in a different way - as Warden of the Royal Mint.