The legendary physicist tried for years to turn lead into gold—and may have used a newly recovered manuscript in his quest.
Newton copied the recipe by hand from a text by American-born alchemist George Starkey, then scribbled his own lab notes on the back.
Combine one part Fiery Dragon, some Doves of Diana, and at least seven Eagles of mercury, and what do you get? A key precursor to the Philosopher’s stone, according to a rediscovered manuscript handwritten by legendary physicist Isaac Newton.
Held in a private collection for decades, the 17th-century document is now in the hands of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The group bought the manuscript in February and is currently working on uploading digital images and transcriptions to an online database so more people can study Newton’s take on the alchemical text.
The recipe cryptically details how to make “sophick mercury,” a substance seen as a main ingredient for the Philosopher’s stone. The stone in turn could supposedly change base metals like lead into precious ones like gold.
While there’s no evidence that Newton actually made sophick mercury, the manuscript will help scholars understand how he interpreted alchemy’s often deeply encoded recipes, says science historian William Newman of Indiana University. The document also underscores the fact that Newton—a father of modern physics and co-discoverer of calculus—was greatly influenced by alchemy and his collaborations with alchemists.
Newton wrote more than one million words about alchemy throughout his life, in the hope of using ancient knowledge to better explain the nature of matter—and possibly strike it rich. But academics have long tiptoed around this connection, since alchemy is usually dismissed as mystical pseudoscience full of fanciful, discredited processes.
Newton’s 1855 biographer questioned “how a mind of such power” could take seriously “the obvious production of a fool and a knave.” And the sophick mercury recipe is only now resurfacing in part because Cambridge University, Newton’s alma mater, turned down the opportunity to archive his alchemy recipes in 1888. The texts were sold at auction in 1936 for a combined total of just over 9,000 British pounds. Many ended up in private hands and out of scholarly reach.
“For many, many years, Newton’s alchemy was considered untouchable,” says Newman. But he and other historians now view alchemists as thoughtful technicians who labored over their equipment and took copious notes, often encoding their recipes with mythological symbols to protect their hard-won knowledge.
Tree of Life
The newly uncovered recipe is no exception: Newton copied the strange text from manuscripts by the American-born George Starkey, a 17th-century alchemist better known under his romantic pen name Eireanus Philalethes (“the peaceful lover of truth”).
As translated by modern scholars, Starkey’s recipe for sophick mercury involves repeatedly distilling mercury and then heating it with gold. This process eventually produces an alloy with delicate, branch-like growths.
Starkey’s notes indicate that the strikingly tree-like structure made him think that the sophick mercury had become animated with life, indicating its power and importance. However, there’s no evidence that Newton correctly decoded Starkey’s recipe, much less succeeded in producing the alchemical “tree.”
The document’s true significance may lie on its back, where Newton scribbled his own procedure for alchemically subliming lead ore—a process that occupied many of his laboratory efforts to make the Philosopher’s stone, says Newman.
The historian adds that the recipe, which Newton obtained years before Starkey officially published it, may offer more evidence of Newton’s collaborations with other alchemists—which likely influenced his work on optics, the physics of light. Alchemical teachings may have inspired Newton’s groundbreaking discovery that white light is a mixture of various 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,” says Newman. “That’s something Newton got from alchemy.”
So it may be fair to say that if it hadn’t been for Newton the alchemist, we might not have had some of the most famous discoveries from Newton the scientist.