Newton and Alchemy

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Many people know Isaac Newton to be a mathematician, astronomer, and physicist. More still know Isaac Newton to have theorized about gravity, but rarely discussed is his interest in alchemy. The world was still being explored and things like alchemy were a way of discovering more.

Newton by William Blake (1795)
Newton by William Blake (1795)

Most of his terminology used language that is associated with occultism and alchemy. Science, simply put, had not advanced very far; chemistry in particular (which was still tied to alchemy). One strange discovery led Newton to the belief that metals had life of their own! The conclusion makes sense as he was viewing the gradual crystallization of silver in a process called “Diana’s Tree”; it looked like the silver (or Diana in alchemy) was growing.

A Diana's Tree in its solution of silver nitrate
A Diana’s Tree in its solution of silver nitrate

As with many alchemists, Newton sought out the Philosopher’s Stone: a mythical object or material that would change base metals into gold. Several works from Newton’s written collection show at least an interest in the subject, including a 28-page treatise on the stone. But his work on the subject was hidden by his estate, until rediscovery in 1936, because they were considered “unfit to publish”. However, this isn’t the only reason we don’t know the extent of his research.

Some of Newton's notes on the stone
Some of Newton’s notes on the stone

At the time of his work, alchemy became illegal in England for two reasons. For one thing, several scam artists (claiming to have access to the Philosopher’s Stone) had taken money from benefactors and disappeared. Second, the government was actually afraid that the stone would be discovered and the value of gold would drop. For this reason, Newton kept most of his work a secret. But he also lost much of his writing in a large fire (caused by his dog in apocryphal stories), so we may never know what he discovered.

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Music: String Quartet no. 6 in Fm, Op. 80 by Felix Mendelssohn performed by the Musopen String Quartet

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