Most of us primarily know Sir Isaac Newton for his extremely era-appropriate hair-do. Oh, yes, and his development of the laws of gravity, without which we’d all just float off the Earth’s surface… or something like that. But few of us actually know about one of his favorite side-projects that would pit him against the likes of Voldemort or several Homunculi.
I’m talking of course about alchemy. Yes, apparently Sir Isaac Newton, in between coming up with mathematical formulas and physical laws, was busy attempting to turn metals into gold. And something that changes the way we look at the great physician surfaced quite recently, with Philosopher’s Stone notes found in Isaac Newton’s alchemy manuscript.
17th century document
Lost in private collections for most of the time between then and now, Newton’s alchemy notebook was bought by the non-profit organization Chemical Heritage Foundation during an auction in February. It is very difficult to explain just how important the document is in learning more about the mathematician’s life.
The private manuscript contains Newton’s own handwritten copy of a recipe for producing sophick mercury, the main ingredient used in creating a philosopher’s stone. The recipe was copied from the renowned 17th century Harvard alchemist George Starkey, also known as Eirenaeus Philalethes.
Newton and alchemy
Even though all signs point that he gave up the pursuit of alchemy during the latter parts of his career, Sir Isaac Newton’s interest in alchemy is undeniable. He studied the science extensively, even writing some one million words of alchemy notes in his lifetime. But the philosopher’s stone wasn’t the only thing Newton was interested in, with him having extensive notes on different alchemical subjects.
The newly acquired manuscript helps us understand and decode the physician’s alchemical writings and it also provides evidence of one of his most important laboratory procedures. But seeing as alchemy went through a huge rebranding during the 18th century, little of Newton’s association with alchemy is known.
The rebranding of chemistry
Nowadays, alchemy is mostly viewed, with derision, as a pseudo-science. Once known as “chymistry”, alchemy was definitely the precursor of chemistry, so what went wrong? Well, tired of all the attempts at creating gold from regular metal and of giving life to chimeras, 18th century chemists decided they’ve had enough.
So they relegated all the gold-creating and other similar practices to the rank of pseudo-sciences, while the respectable parts remained part of chemistry. The fact that to this day we still look at alchemy with some derision shows exactly how effective the rebranding turned out to be.
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