Harry Potter wasn’t the only one after the philosopher’s stone.
Isaac Newton’s recently discovered manuscript is his handwritten copy of mid-17th-century Harvard alchemist George Starkey’s procedure for producing “sophick mercury,” a substance seen as a main ingredient for the philosopher’s stone, a fabled stone used in alchemy.
The document had been in private hands for most of the 20th century. The Chemical Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia, acquired the 17th-century document through an auction in February.
“The significance of the manuscript is that it helps us understand Newton’s alchemical reading — especially of his favorite author — and gives us evidence of one more of his laboratory procedures,” said James Voelkel, curator of rare books at the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Othmer Library of Chemical History.
Newton, who established the law of universal gravitation and is considered a father of physics, also studied alchemy extensively. It is estimated that he wrote 1 million words in notes on alchemy during his lifetime.
Alchemy, also known as “chymistry,” was a predecessor of chemistry that attempted to convert base metals into gold. Alchemists believed adding a molten base material, such as lead, to a small bit of philosopher’s stone would turn the material into an entirely different element. It would transform from being a waxy, red substance to being a noble metal, such as gold.
Newton’s interest in alchemy is not widely known, as alchemy is usually dismissed as pseudoscience. Around the time of Newton’s death, professional chemists “rebranded” chemistry, relegating gold-making to an enterprise now derogatorily labeled alchemy and keeping the respectable parts in what we now understand as chemistry, Voelkel said.
“The fact that we still view alchemy with derision is a reflection of how effective that 18th-century rebranding was,” he said.
Alchemists were capable of many important manipulations of matter, such as separating gold and silver from an alloy. In the context of his time, changing lead into gold could have told Newton something about how matter is composed, Voelkel said.
We can’t say that Newton’s experiments in alchemy influenced his theory of gravity, Voelek said. But he clearly approached alchemy and physics in a similar way.