Newton alchemy manuscript to be scanned, put online

The manuscript includes a recipe for sophick mercury, a key ingredient in a substance thought to turn lead into gold.
By Stephen Feller  |  April 8, 2016 at 1:56 PM
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PHILADELPHIA, April 8 (UPI) -- A manuscript by Isaac Newton containing a recipe for a key ingredient in the mythical Philosopher's stone, a substance practitioners of alchemy thought could turn lead into gold, is being scanned and posted online by the museum that bought it.

The Chemical Heritage Foundation bought the manuscript from a private collector and is putting it online to show Newton's work with alchemy was as systematic as his study of physics, and was important to some of his actual scientific discoveries.

Turning lead into gold turned out to be a dead end, but Newton pursued alchemy, a precursor to modern chemistry, the same way he pursued the laws of physics. Experts at the foundation say the recipe, copied from the alchemist George Starkey years before he published it, shows he was working with other alchemists and suggests the pursuit influenced his discovery that white light is a mixture of several colors.

"Newton was intensely interested in alchemy almost his whole life," James Voelkel, curator of rare books at the foundation's Othmer Library of Chemical History, told the Washington Post. "These alchemical manuscripts consist of about a million words he wrote in his own hands."

The belief in alchemy was that one metal could be changed into another by breaking it down with other ingredients. Although the basic concept of molecular structure was there -- chemical elements and how they work were not defined until after Newton died -- heating and mixing metals or other ingredients does not just create other metals.

The new document, titled "Preparation of Mercury for the Stone," is a recipe for sophick mercury to be used in Philosopher's stone, which was thought to change the principle compounds of a metal in a order to make another metal.

William Newman, a science historian at Indiana University, says Newton's recipe for alchemically subliming lead ore, written on the back of Starkey's recipe, was much more significant to the scientist because he spent more time on it while working on the Philosopher's stone.

Newman told National Geographic that having Starkey's recipe so far before it was published suggests Newton was a lot more involved in alchemical circles than people think. Without this interest, Newton may not have figured out the physics of light and that white light is a mixture of several colors.

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

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