Isaac Newton: handwritten recipe reveals fascination with alchemy

The recipe for 'sophick mercury' – a key element in creating the mythic philosopher's stone to turn lead into gold – will now be available online.

Toru Hanai/Reuters/File
Gold bars are displayed at the headquarters of Mitsubishi Materials Corporation in Tokyo. A nonprofit is digitizing a handwritten recipe by Isaac Newton for creating a key element to make the "philosopher's stone" or turning lead into gold.

A 17th-century recipe written by Isaac Newton is now going online, revealing more about the physicist’s relationship with the ancient science of alchemy.

Calling for ingredients such as "one part Fiery Dragon" and "at least seven Eagles of mercury," the handwritten recipe describes how to make "sophick mercury," seen at the time as an essential element in creating the "philosopher’s stone," a fabled substance with the power to turn base metals, like lead, into gold.  

The manuscript, which is written in Latin and English, was acquired in February by Philadelphia-based nonprofit the Chemical Heritage Foundation, National Geographic reports. The foundation is now working to upload digital images and transcriptions of the text to an online database.

The recipe is a copy of a manuscript by alchemist George Starkey, with Newton's own notes written on the back of the text, explains James Voelkel, a curator of rare books at the foundation's Othmer Library and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.

"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 procedure," Dr. Voelkel told Fox News.

While Newton is best known as a physicist and for his work on calculus, he was also heavily involved in the medieval "science" of alchemy – now considered a mystical pseudoscience far removed from modern-day chemistry.

He wrote some 1 million words on the subject during his lifetime, but despite his own interests, scholars have long dismissed his connection with the subject.

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

That derision – one 19th-century biographer wrote that  "we cannot understand how a mind of such power … could stoop to be even the copyist of the most contemptible alchemical poetry" – is one reason Newton's work on alchemy is only now being reexamined.

In 1888, Cambridge University turned down the opportunity to archive his alchemy recipes, leaving them to be sold at auction for nearly $13,000 in 1936 (about $222,000 in today's dollars). They then landed mostly in private collections, National Geographic reports.

Starkey, who wrote in Latin as Eirenaeus Philalethes, published a text revealing how to make sophick mercury in 1678.

But Newton's manuscript is believed to be a copy of another Starkey manuscript, and may even predate the printed text, Voelkel told The Washington Post, indicating Newton's deep connection to the field.

On the back of the text, he also scribbled notes for another alchemical process: making iron ore.

The cryptic nature of the text also reveals more about the secrecy and intense interest that surrounded alchemy, where alchemists often used codes and allegories to avoid sharing their discoveries broadly. In England, transmutation of metals was also illegal, the Post reports.

Newton's writing reveals that he tackled alchemy with the same rigor as his scientific studies, compiling mentions and references of how each alchemist used a particular term in what Voelkel calls an attempt to do a "data-driven analysis" of the field.

For historians of science, the manuscript also helps establish that Newton's contributions to what was then known as "chymistry" also helped shaped his work on the physics of light, such as the discovery that white light is mixture of many colors.

"Alchemists were the first to realize that compounds could be broken down into their constituent parts and then recombined. Newton then applied that to white light, which he deconstructed into constituent colors and then recombined," Dr. Newman told National Geographic. "That's something Newton got from alchemy."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.