Isaac Newton's interest in alchemy is well-known — he wrote over one million words about the subject. Now, a long lost alchemic manuscript of the renowned physicist has resurfaced after being held in a private collection for decades. Purchased by the Chemical Heritage Foundation , a Philadelphia nonprofit, the writings include a recipe for “sophick mercury," the key ingredient for the Philosopher's stone, which, if you read or watched the first Harry Potter, could turn metal into gold. While outlandish ingredients like Fiery Dragon, Doves of Diana, and Eagles of mercury are included among the text, they were just coded titles for non-magical materials.
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. However, there’s no evidence that Newton correctly decoded Starkey’s recipe, much less succeeded in producing the alchemical “tree.”
Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation
While alchemy isn't a particularly well-regarded field of science (read: not at all), if Newton hadn't been so involved in alchemy, it could be argued that his groundbreaking scientific discoveries might not have come about.
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.”
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