Newton's Dark Secrets
will read and interpret a passage from a famous alchemical text titled The
Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine.
Students will be able to:
identify Sir Isaac Newton as a scientist and mathematician who practiced
explain that alchemy is a medieval chemical philosophy.
interpret symbols and metaphors that describe different materials and
procedures in an alchemical text.
practice using symbols and metaphors to conceal work as alchemists did.
- copy of the "Secret Symbols" student handout
- copy of the "The Keys to the Stone" student handout
- highlighting pen
Materials for Teacher Demonstration
- copper sulfate
- ungalvanized steel nail
Alchemy was a form of early modern chemistry. Alchemists sought to create the
so-called philosophers' stone in order to, among other goals, change metals
such as lead into gold. For Newton and other practicing alchemists of the 17th
century, there was a philosophical and spiritual aspect of their work that
involved transforming the chaos of our everyday world into a pure enlightened
state. This journey to enlightenment is known as the Great Work.
Alchemists heavily coded their work in symbols and metaphors to both prevent
backlash from the church and to keep the uninitiated from penetrating their
secrets. Animals, humans, plants, colors, and celestial bodies were used to
indicate different substances, processes, and the desired result of those
processes. While there were no fixed rules in the use of symbolism (different
symbols were often used to represent the same thing), there are a few common
themes. Seven base elements—gold, silver, iron, mercury, tin, copper, and
example, were associated with particular planets and zodiac signs. The products
of chemical processes were represented by colors. Kings and queens represent
gold and silver, respectively.
In this activity, students will read and interpret a medieval alchemical
alchemy: A medieval chemical philosophy that aimed to change base metals
to gold, discover a universal remedy for illness, and prepare an elixir that
would enable one to live forever.
antimony: a metallic element with four allotropic forms; used in a wide
variety of alloys.
elements: The seven base metals plus arsenic and sulfur. They were not
elements in the modern sense.
philosophers' stone: A mythical substance believed to cure disease,
confer immortality, and turn ordinary metals like lead into gold.
symbol: A printed or written sign for the purpose of representing an
operation or action, an element, a quantity, a quality, or a relation (as in
symbolism: The practice of representing things using symbols or
attributing symbolic meaning(s) to objects, events, or relationships.
Have students name some universal symbols they commonly see. (Some symbols
include graphic road signs, warning signs, or musical notes.). Ask students
to name some symbol systems that do not use words. (Some examples include
hieroglyphics, Braille, Zip codes, bar codes, or ISBN numbers.) Discuss
with students why symbols are used. (Some reasons include to communicate
without language, to encourage secrecy, or to efficiently communicate
information.) Explain that alchemists used symbols and metaphors to
describe different materials and procedures in alchemical texts and art.
Alchemists believed in the transmutation of metals. One chemical reaction
they used to support their claims was the change that occurred when iron came
in contact with copper sulfate pools found near mines. Since there was no way
to weigh the copper in the pools, it looked to many as though the naturally
occurring copper sulfate was transmuting the iron into copper. You can
demonstrate this reaction to students. Make a solution of copper sulfate and
water. (The concentration is not important, but the solution should have a
bright blue color, like that of the dry copper sulfate.) Dip an ungalvanized
steel nail in the solution and let it stay there for about a minute. When you
remove it, the nail will be plated with copper. (Point out to students that
weighing the initial and final products would have shown that the iron did not
transmute into copper.)
Organize students into teams. Provide copies of the student handouts and
highlighting pens to each team. Review The Twelve Keys of Basil
Valentine and the "Keys to the Stone" with students.
Have teams read the passage and then use the description of the common
alchemical symbols to create their own interpretation of the text.
When teams have finished interpreting the passage, discuss their results.
How similar was each team's interpretation? What might account for any
differences in interpretations? Why might teams—who worked from the same
passage and key code—end up with different interpretations?
As an extension, have students view the complete passage and/or additional
passages of the Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine online at
the excerpted passage:
- grey wolf is
an ore of antimony
- Mars is iron
- Saturn is lead
- the king is gold
Students' answers should reflect that the passage describes the preparation of
gold by mixing impure gold with stibnite and then heating the mixture in a hot
fire three times to purify the gold. Other interpretations of the passage may
include that the stibnite is derived from lead [the offspring of ancient
Saturn], that stibnite is added to impure gold [cast to him the body of
the king], that after being heated three times there is no stibnite left
[when this has been performed thrice the Lion has overcome the wolf and will
find nothing more to devour in him], and that at the end of the experiment,
the king—or the gold—has been prepared [our Body has been
rendered fit for the first stage of our work].
Find an actual page from one of Newton's 300-year-old alchemical notebooks,
with parts decoded, at
Student Handout Questions
Compare your team's interpretation of the text to others in the class. Did
different teams come up with the same answer? Why or why not? Discuss and
defend your choices. While students should all be able to identify the basic
materials and procedure outlined in the text passage, the exact interpretation
will vary among students based on their understanding of the procedure and
context of the text. In addition, interpretations will vary due to the fact
that different students will identify different sections and phrases of the
passage as more important and/or having more relevance than others.
Newton used his own symbols and phrases to describe the steps he took when
performing alchemical experiments. Explain why he might have done this.
Newton might have done this because he was obsessed with the idea of keeping
his work a secret both from the society at large and from other alchemists.
NOVA—Newton's Dark Secrets
Discover more about who Sir Isaac Newton really was, find out what
inspired the Principia, read what Einstein wrote about his predecessor, see one
of Newton's 300-year-old manuscripts decoded, and learn about seven of Newton's
Alchemy Web and Virtual Library
Offers comprehensive library of imagery, symbols, music, alchemical
texts, and commentary.
Newton's Alchemy, Recreated
Describes a project to decipher Newton's chemical laboratory notebooks and
The Newton Project
Provides digital facsimile images of Newton's papers alongside
text-encoded transcriptions on a split screen.
A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery
Lyndy Abraham. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Documents alchemical symbolism from the early centuries AD to the late-20th
Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian
by William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe. University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Examines the goals and practices of mid-17th century alchemists and
prominent scientists and how their work contributed to the development of
The "Secret Symbols" activity aligns with the following National
Science Education Standards (see books.nap.edu/html/nses).
Science Standard G
History and Nature of Science
History of science
Science Standard G
History and Nature of Science
Classroom Activity Author
Margy Kuntz has written and edited educational materials for 20 years. She has
authored numerous educational supplements, basal text materials, and trade
books in science, math, and computers.