Videos Recreate Isaac Newton’s Neat Alchemy Experiments: Watch Silver Get Turned Into Gold

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.

via io9 

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Isaac Newton’s Recipe for the Myth­i­cal ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Is Being Dig­i­tized & Put Online (Along with His Oth­er Alche­my Man­u­scripts)

In 1704, Isaac New­ton Pre­dicts the World Will End in 2060

Sir Isaac Newton’s Papers & Anno­tat­ed Prin­cip­ia Go Dig­i­tal

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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