The revelation that Sir Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, practiced the covert art of alchemy may shock us today, but was this pursuit considered deviant in Newton's own era? To find out, we spoke to Bill Newman, an historian of science at Indiana University who spent years deciphering Newton's secret coded recipes.
A Legitimate Pursuit
NOVA: Why are people surprised when they hear that Isaac Newton—the grand patriarch of physics—was an alchemist?
BILL NEWMAN: Well, I think it's because alchemy has been portrayed as the epitome of irrationality and a sort of avaricious folly.
Sinister, dark-robed sorcerers trying to turn lead into gold. Is that an accurate picture of alchemists in Newton's time?
It's accurate for some alchemists. But we now know that most of the great minds of the period were involved in alchemy, including Robert Boyle, John Locke, Leibniz, any number of others.
Given that so many great minds were interested in it, why was alchemy illegal?
Well, first of all, it became legal during Newton's time. But why was it illegal? There's a long association, for good reasons, between alchemy and counterfeiting. It's quite likely, actually, that medieval and early modern rulers were consciously employing alchemists to debase their own coinage.
But they didn't want other people doing it?
[laughter] Yeah, right; exactly, exactly.
So what were these "legitimate" alchemists in the 17th century trying to do?
Alchemy really encompassed all chemical technology—everything ranging from the manufacture of pigments for paint to making artificial precious stones. It included the manufacture of so-called "chemical medicines." And, of course, it also included the attempt to make the "philosophers' stone."
"He really thought that alchemy provided a sort of limitless power over nature."
Tell me about the philosophers' stone. I think of it vaguely as some magical substance that could turn ordinary metals into gold.
The philosophers' stone was thought to be an agent of universal transmutation. It also was viewed as a curative agent that could "cure" metals of their impurities and cure human beings of their illnesses. So it was a sort of universal panacea.
Was Newton an alchemist because he wanted to make gold or find the key to immortality? Or was his alchemy just another part of his science—a way to gain knowledge about the material world?
If you look at the experimental notebooks that he kept for about 30 years, it really is impossible to avoid the conclusion that he was trying to produce the philosophers' stone. But I don't think he was doing it to gain monetary wealth.
Was it to gain an understanding of nature?
And power over nature. Power over nature has always been a key element to alchemy.
Codes and Riddles
Did alchemists think that they were going to discover powers they wanted to keep for themselves? Is that why alchemy is so veiled in secret codes?
That's certainly part of the reason. You find alchemical treatises that claim that knowledge of the philosophers' stone has to be kept secret, because if it gets out to the world that a particular alchemist has it, he'll be strangled in his bed to extract the secret.
It seems that Newton also wanted to hold tight to his secrets—he never published any of his alchemical work.
I think that, like other alchemists, he thought that alchemy promised tremendous control over the natural world. It would allow you to transmute virtually anything into anything else, not just lead into gold. There are other things, too, that probably were in Newton's mind. For example, alchemists realized that if the philosophers' stone were real and it got out to the public, it would ruin the gold standard. [laughter]
"Alchemy was the ultimate riddle [which] provided a challenge to him that he just couldn't resist."
I think what makes a lot of people think of alchemy as black magic is this bizarre language—phrases like "the Green Dragon" or the "menstrual blood of the sordid whore."
It's mind-boggling to think of Newton writing those phrases.
Well, this was the enigmatic language of alchemy. I mean "enigmatic" in a quite strict sense: it was a riddling language. The best way to look at these metaphors is in the light of riddles. So the "menstrual blood of the sordid whore" is decipherable. It means simply the metalline form of antimony. That is the "menstrual blood" that's extracted from the "sordid whore," which is the ore of antimony. [See more of Newton's alchemy decoded in our interactive manuscript.]
It's a coded language.
It is a code, and it's clear that the alchemists delighted in this code. It's almost a form of poetry. In fact, lots of alchemists wrote in the form of poetry, quite literally.
Did all alchemists share the same code, use the same terminology?
They shared lots of common elements, but it did vary from alchemist to alchemist. It's extremely tricky for Newton. He was reading alchemists over a period of time, ranging over perhaps a thousand years, and there was a lot of development in these treatises. But Newton generally thinks they're all saying the same thing, so that's a problem.
Why did Newton spend so much time copying the writing of other alchemists?
He wasn't for the most part just copying verbatim. What he was doing in many cases was weaving together extracts from different authors, trying to make sense out of them. I think alchemy was the ultimate riddle. Newton delighted in riddles, and this provided a challenge to him that he just couldn't resist.
Revealed Wisdom For a Chosen Few
Why did Newton think that Greek myths somehow encoded alchemical recipes and a path to the philosophers' stone?
That theory had been in existence for quite a long time. Newton's major source in alchemy, George Starkey, shared this theory. Michael Maier is a famous writer of the early 17th century who tried to decipher as much Greek mythology as he could get his hands on. So it was a common belief.
Was it part of a broader belief in some sort of "revealed wisdom" about the natural world?
Oh, yes. There's a tradition of scholarship that was very popular in the Renaissance called the prisca sapientia, the primal wisdom. It claimed that there was a secret wisdom that was first transmitted by an archetypical figure—say, for example, Moses—and then passed down through a line of successors, usually including Pythagoras, Plato, and so forth, and that this wisdom was really the ultimate tool for understanding the universe. Newton clearly believed that.
Did Newton view himself as one of these chosen few, one of the people ordained to receive this wisdom?
I suspect he did, yes. I don't think he would have admitted it publicly, but one of his pastimes was concocting alchemical pseudonyms for himself. And one of these pseudonyms was Jehovah Sanctus Unus—that is, Jehovah, the Holy One.
That's how Newton described himself?!
"It's really a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, and we're only at the beginning of having solved it."
Did Newton think that he made progress in developing the philosophers' stone?
Yes, I think that's quite clear. If you look at his manuscripts, there are stages of development that you can isolate. In his experimental notebooks, there are entries where he says "I found the caduceus of Mercury today" and this sort of thing that reflect real discoveries that he's made in the laboratory.
Newton Under Wraps
After Newton's death, why did none of his writings on alchemy come to light? Certainly people going through his papers came across this writing. Was it viewed as not worthy of him?
Oh, yeah. There's no question that they were considered to be borderline scandalous. Newton died in 1727. By that time you're well into the Enlightenment, and alchemy had become the domain of dunces; it was associated with all sorts of useless medieval knowledge. So the fact that Newton had been a serious student of this obsolete and idiotic field was really problematic.
Do you think that today we should think less of Newton, knowing how deeply devoted he was to alchemy?
No. On the contrary, I think that this opens up a side of Newton that makes him a much more fascinating figure. And I think also the fact that so many of these very, very seminal figures in the Scientific Revolution were heavily involved in alchemy opens up a new historiographical area that really promises to throw quite a different light on the whole period.
It opens our eyes to the incredibly wide range of Newton's intellectual pursuits.
Yeah, it's very important to see the full breadth of Newton's inquiries. And the dreams that were embodied in his alchemical pursuits explain to some degree how and why he was such a driven man. I think he really thought that alchemy provided a sort of limitless power over nature.
And even though he recognized that he hadn't solved all the problems in alchemy, he truly felt that he had made strides.
Well, of course, he's famous for having said that he felt as though he were only a boy on a seashore, having picked up a pretty shell, and that there were many, many other shells remaining to be discovered on the edge of this vast sea. That's what he said about his scientific endeavor as a whole, not just his alchemy.
You've said that Newton's alchemy is still a great unsolved mystery. Why?
In part because his experimental notebooks are so cryptic. These experimental notebooks pick up in 1678, and there is a story that there was a fire in Newton's laboratory immediately before that. So it's likely that we would have more materials if they hadn't been destroyed in this conflagration. Also, Newton doesn't bother to explain his terminology; being Newton, he expects to know his terminology.
And the terminology is very perplexing. He uses standard alchemical decknamen—cover-names like the Green Lion and the Babylonian Dragon, and so forth—but he seems to be using them in ways that don't correspond to how his immediate sources used them. So we have to carry out a huge combined effort, both in our laboratory and in studying the texts, to determine what these substances were.
Beyond that, Newton doesn't tell us why he's doing the experiments. He just says, "I did this and that, and I produced a volatile substance here," and so forth. He doesn't say the purpose of the experiment! So all of this has to be inferred and put together. It's really a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, and we're only at the beginning of having solved it.
Wow. Do you enjoy actually getting into the lab and trying to reproduce what he might have been doing with his crucible?
Oh, absolutely. And in many cases, you can reproduce the products very clearly. It's satisfying, but it's a heck of a lot of work. [laughter]
As you continue studying the manuscripts and replicating his experiments, what do you hope to find?
Well, there are a number of different things. One thing I'm trying to do is determine the chronology of the different manuscripts, so that we can say exactly how his ideas developed over time. Like I said, it's a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. I would just like to be able to put all the pieces together and see what he was really trying to do, what his goals were, and how this fit with his natural philosophy.
And if you succeed in making the philosophers' stone, you'll let us know?
[laughter] If I succeed, I'll disappear.
[Explore one of Newton's original manuscripts, "decoded" with Bill Newman's help.]