In case you’ve ever wanted to try to cook up some gold in the garage, Sir Isaac Newton’s alchemy documents are increasingly available online, with new papers added all the time.
Newton an alchemist? Really?
It’s true. One of the most influential scientists of all time actually believed that it was possible to transform base metals such as lead into gold, sometimes with the aid of a mysterious substance called the Philosopher’s Stone.
For many years, scientists didn’t talk about Newton’s interest in alchemy because, frankly, it was embarrassing. It’s like finding out Stephen Hawking got interested in the universe through astrology or Stephen Jay Gould became a naturalist to try to find a unicorn.
But just like how many of us who became programmers started out playing Adventure, Star Trek, or Dungeons and Dragons (depending on how old you are), it turns out that many chemists back in the 17th century actually got their start in alchemy—which, after all, was also known as “chymistry.” While the goal of alchemy might sound nutty to us today, the processes and scientific methods it inspired transferred pretty well to chemistry and to science in general.
And Newton was very interested in alchemy, writing more than a million words on the subject, according to The Chymistry of Isaac Newton, a site from the Indiana University Bloomington devoted to transcriptions, images, and analysis of Newton’s alchemy documents.
This is all coming up now because one of Newton’s alchemy documents recently came up for auction. They had been held in a private collection since 1936, when some of Newton’s descendants auctioned off a batch of his papers in London, writes Emma Stoye in Chemistry World. The 1936 sale brought only 9000 pounds—nearly $13,000 then, and about $222,000 in today’s dollars, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
At that time, many of the texts were purchased by private collectors, but over the years most have been donated or sold back to public institutions. For example, the noted economist John Maynard Keynes owned a considerable collection of Newton’s alchemical writings, which he donated to Kings College in Cambridge. He is also credited with calling attention to Newton’s interest in alchemy in the first place.
In comparison with that 9,000-pound sale, the single document this year sold for $112,500 to the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), this is Newton’s copy of an earlier document published by George Starkey in 1678 for creating “philosophic mercury,” an alchemical substance that was thought to be a component of the Philosopher’s Stone. The CHF is working on scanning the document and uploading digital images and transcriptions to an online database.
“Philosophic mercury was [thought to be] a substance that could be used to break down metals into their constituent parts,’ James Voelkel, the CHF’s curator of rare books, tells Stoye. “The idea is if you break the metals down you can then reassemble them and make different metals.” (Newton may actually even have suffered or died from mercury poisoning.)
Part of the challenge with alchemical documents, aside from their age, the fact that they’re handwritten, and the archaic language in general, is that alchemists frequently wrote using code names, sort of, drawn from sources such as Greek and Roman mythology. After all, if they really did find a way to create gold, they didn’t want someone to steal it, right? In addition, England had made transmuting substances into gold illegal. So much of Newton’s work actually involved trying to figure out what some of these code words meant.
In fact, alchemists believed that some mythology was actually encoded alchemical recipes. “Hence the story told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, that Vulcan ensnared his adulterous wife Venus and her lover Mars in a bronze net, was understood by Starkey to describe a recipe for making the purple antimony-copper alloy,” writes William Newman, a science historian at Indiana University, in The New Atlantis. “Vulcan was a Deckname (cover name) for the fire of fusion, Mars was the iron employed in refining the antimony, and Venus was the copper in the alloy.”
Without Newton’s study of alchemy, it’s likely that he would not have become the scientist we know and revere today. “Newton’s alchemical studies reveal an early modern scholar and experimenter hard at work in deciphering extraordinarily difficult texts and a natural philosopher attempting to integrate the fruits of this research into his overall reform of scientific knowledge,” Newman writes. “Throughout his divergent activities, Newton remained wedded to techniques of analysis and understanding that would be familiar to most of us today. The apparent incongruity between Newton the scientist and Newton the alchemist dissolves when we acquire a deeper understanding of alchemy and of the man himself.”
And as it turns out, alchemists were actually right, after a fashion. Substances can be turned into other substances, such as by bombarding them with radiation. The only problem is, such a process is much more expensive than any amount of gold it could create. Back to the drawing board.
Simplicity 2.0 is where we examine the intricate and transitory world of technology—through a Laserfiche lens. By keeping an eye on larger trends, we aim to make software that’s relevant to modern day workers, rather than build technology for technology’s sake.
Subscribe to Simplicity 2.0 and follow us on Twitter. If what we’re saying piques your interest, head over to Laserfiche.com where you’ll see how we apply the lessons learned on Simplicity 2.0 to our own processes, products and industry.