Yesterday we featured an online archive of “chymical” manuscripts from the hand of Isaac Newton, who, in addition to modern physics and mathematics, practiced the magical, medieval art of alchemy. Found among his alchemical papers was a recipe for “sophick mercury,” a chemical believed to create the “Philosopher’s stone,” the occult substance that supposedly turns base metals like lead into pure gold. Did such magic ever rise to the level of repeatable science or was it pure mythological fantasy?
For well over two hundred years after Newton’s death in 1727, nearly everyone believed the latter. However, when the physicist and mathematician’s alchemical papers went on auction at Sotheby’s in 1936, “the world of Isaac Newton scholarship received a rude shock,” writes Indiana University’s archive project The Chymistry of Isaac Newton. Hundreds of alchemy manuscripts that had been quietly suppressed by Newton's relatives and hidden away in private collections came to light all at once.
In the intervening years, Newton scholars and science historians have had to reassess his considerable level of investment in occult arts. And they’ve come to see alchemy as an important precursor to modern chemistry. As IU science historian William Newman "points out," io9 tells us, "alchemy wasn't always the laughable idea it is today."
Although his alchemical manuscripts were in constant conversation with ancient and mystical sources, “Newton’s chymistry was in many cases fully operational and explicable in modern chemical terminology,” writes Newman, who has done much of the work to recover the chemical science amidst Newton’s alchemical pseudoscience.
In the videos you see here, Indiana University seeks to “drive this point home” with lessons that can “be employed in schools as an integral part of their science education curricula.” We begin at the top with a classical alchemical experiment, the “transmutation” of silver into gold. In this case the medallion is already composed of a silver-gold alloy. It's an experiment in which "alchemists' knowledge of chemistry actually helped them con their contemporaries into believing they could transform silver into gold," notes Newman. Once the medallion is dipped in nitric acid, much of the silver dissolves, giving the impression of it having been changed into pure gold.
Further up, we have other “chymical” experiments from Newton’s alchemy, like the “transmutation”—or plating—of iron into copper and the creation of a silica garden, illustrating so-called mineral “vegetation.” In experiments like the one below it, the creation of the “Tree of Diana”---in which a crystalline growth emerges from an amalgam of silver and mercury—we see how alchemists were inspired to create alternate terminology for the products of their experiment that sound to modern ears like unscientific nonsense. This mystical jargon often served to confuse or ward off the uninitiated, who would be unable to make a “Tree of Diana” even if they had the ingredients on hand, unless they already knew the procedure and the product.
The last two modules, further up and just above, demonstrate copper and iron shot dissolving in solutions of silver nitrate and copper nitrate, respectively. Educators and the generally curious should download Indiana University’s lesson plan on “Newton’s ‘Chymistry’ of Metal Solubilities.” Therein, you learn that “Newton spent more time on his alchemy than he did on his physics and math combined!” though most of his alchemical work remains unpublished. The few, more respectably-worded, experiments Newton did publish in his lifetime come from “Query 31” of his masterpiece, the Opticks. It is from these procedures that the lessons derive.
But even as we see the ostensibly straightforward chemical instructions Newton published, we should remember that these came from decades of research in the much murkier, occult field of alchemy. You’ll find more information on Newton’s chemistry here and here, as well as at these many related websites.