Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Philosopher's Stone: Isaac Newton's Alchemy Recipe Comes to Light

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Philosopher's Stone: Isaac Newton's Alchemy Recipe Comes to Light

Article excerpt

To modern ears, alchemy sounds like a fairy tale, but in the 17th century it captured the attention of many leading scientific minds, including that of Sir Isaac Newton.

A recently rediscovered manuscript reveals Newton's handwritten recipe for one of the proposed ingredients of the Philosopher's Stone, the mythical key to successful alchemy, a tradition that sought to purify or perfect objects, such as by transmuting lead into gold. The recipe was discovered by the nonprofit Chemical Heritage Foundation, which acquired it by auction in February.

The handwritten note serves as a reminder that the father of modern physics actually devoted most of his life pursuing what today would be regarded as pseudoscience, a fact often obscured by those wishing to maintain Newton's legacy as a founding figure of the scientific revolution. Nevertheless, Newton's alchemical work remains of great interest to historians.

"For many, many years, Newton's alchemy was considered untouchable," science historian William Newman of Indiana University told National Geographic.

Despite its esotericism, alchemy helped lay the groundwork for modern chemistry, not just in the development of laboratory techniques to isolate different chemicals and produce new ones, but also in the quest to understand the substances that compose the physical world.

"You can see [Newton's] work in alchemy as part of a research program into the forces that act as the ultimate constituent of matter," James Voelkel, Curator of Rare Books for the Chemical Heritage Foundation, said in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

Unfortunately, such high-mindedness didn't prevent alchemy from attracting charlatans who claimed the ability to create universal elixirs and to transmute base metals into gold.

In the 18th century, scientists began to develop chemistry and, to gain credibility, drew a sharp distinction between alchemy and their new empirical discipline. When Newton's papers were reviewed posthumously, any with mention of alchemy or chemical experiments were marked "not fit to be printed. …

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