Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Humanities, Then and Now

Volume XXIX Number 1
Fall 2006

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William Newman
William Newman holds a modern re-creation of an "aludel" made by the glassware shop in the IU Chemistry Department. The aludel was widely used in Isaac Newton's day for heating various chemicals.
Photo © Tyagan Miller

This star regulus of antimony (antimony metal made to form visible crystalline structure) was recreated directly from Newton's own detailed recipes.
Photo courtesy William Newman

Sir Isaac's Alchemy

by Jeremy Shere

William Newman leads me down a long, dimly lit corridor in the bowels of the chemistry building at Indiana University Bloomington. We enter a room crowded with beakers, expensive-looking machinery, and cabinets full of chemicals that can sear the skin. Heading to a corner of the lab, Newman dons protective glasses, slips on a pair of vinyl gloves, and carefully pours a blue solution of copper sulfate into a glass vial. Then he places the business end of a shiny, four-inch metal blade into the solution. After several minutes, Newman removes the blade and holds it at arm's length. The blade's bright, silvery hue has turned a dull, brownish shade of copper.

"Alchemists often used this experiment to prove that they could transmute one type of metal into another," he says, twisting the blade to better catch the room's flat fluorescent light.

A professor in the IU Bloomington Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Newman teaches, conducts research, and has written several highly respected monographs. When we meet, he appears in the unassuming guise of an intellectual: glasses, button-down shirt, sensible slacks. In short, he looks nothing like an alchemist, or at least not like how we think alchemists are supposed to have looked--Merlin types with long beards and robes adorned with zodiac symbols. Recently, though, in connection with his current research project, Newman has indeed become a practicing alchemist.

The idea that one metal could be made to become another--most famously turning lead to gold--was what drove alchemy back when it was the premodern scientific pursuit. Looking at the now-coppery blade in Newman's hand, it's not difficult to see how 17th-century princes, commoners, and even men of learning could have believed in alchemy's transformative powers. (In actuality, the solution eroded away a layer of the blade's existing metallic structure and coated it over with a layer of copper.)

Newman's alchemical experimentation, though, has nothing to do with amassing a personal fortune in conjured gold. Rather, he has spent hours recreating experiments first done by 17th-century practitioners of the art in an effort to better understand what it was that alchemists actually did and how they did it. Newman's ultimate goal is to penetrate the experimental mind of one of history's most famous alchemists--Sir Isaac Newton.

Isaac Newton: Chymist

Yes, that Isaac Newton. The towering genius who invented calculus and explained what gravity is and how it works was also an alchemist. The godfather of classical physics who upended what we know about the universe when he showed that white light is actually a mixture of spectral colors was just as fascinated by Mercury's Caducean Rod (a common alchemical term) and strove mightily to discover the elusive philosopher's stone--a mythical substance that alchemists believed could be used to turn cheap metals to precious ones. In fact, Newton spent more time on alchemy--nearly 30 years--than he did on any other single intellectual pursuit.

Newton's deep interest in alchemy may seem incongruous with his pioneering discoveries in physics, optics, and mathematics--work that in large part ushered in the age of modern, rational science. How could a mind as sophisticated and subtle as Newton's be taken in by something as allegedly irrational and myth-obsessed as alchemy?

Taking that approach is to fundamentally misunderstand what alchemy was, what its practitioners did, and what they accomplished. Many alchemists were precise, inventive thinkers whose chemical experimentation paved the way for modern chemistry, metallurgy, and other disciplines. In his own work, Newman uses the term "chymistry" as a way of alluding to alchemy's influence on later, more "respectable" sciences.

"You have to strip your mind of the modern stereotypes about alchemy," Newman says. "It meant much more than trying to transmute lead into gold. By the 17th century, alchemy involved a number of sophisticated chemical techniques and technologies, including distillation, sublimation, purification, and crystallization."

Seventeenth-century medicinal alchemists, Newman says, made advances in pharmacology by turning away from a traditional reliance on plants and toward minerals. Iatrochemists, as they were known, pioneered methods of separating out the more virulent components of minerals to create relatively non-toxic, mineral-based medications. Alchemists also invented a wide range of pigments used for painting and dying, pioneered the manufacture of acids, and invented distillation methods used to make "strong waters," or alcohol.

Even the seemingly quixotic quest to transmute lead and other base metals into gold was rooted in the 17th-century theory that Aristotle's four species of matter--earth, water, air, and fire--ultimately consisted of the same base material. As modern quantum physics has shown, at the most miniscule levels, matter is made of interchangeable protons, neutrons, quarks, gluons, and other even more esoteric and mysterious elementary particles. In theory it would be possible, given the proper technology, to make lead become gold. So alchemy was not only grounded solidly in the physical and chemical knowledge of the 17th century--in some ways, it was way ahead of its time.

It was completely natural, then, even inevitable, that a mind as curious as Newton's would be as fascinated by alchemy as he was by gravity and the laws of motion. Newton's long involvement with alchemy, Newman argues, may have directly influenced his well-known work on optics. Newton's records of early experiments using a prism to break light into its spectral colors are found among notes he took on the writings of Robert Boyle, the famous "father of modern chemistry," who was also a dedicated alchemist.

"Newton was fascinated by Boyle's discussion of the so-called redintegration of compounds--breaking chemical compounds into their components and then putting them back together in different ways," Newman explains. "It's clear that Newton was thinking of light as being something like a chemical substance made of little particles that could be separated."

The Dangers of Enthusiasm

Just as Newton was fascinated by the ways gravity determined the motion of the planets and stars, he was intrigued by alchemy's promise to divine the fundamental nature of matter. And he was hardly alone--alchemy's potential fascinated most of the great minds of the era.

Why, then, did he keep his alchemical research largely under wraps? Newton wrote and transcribed nearly one million words on alchemy, yet never published his research.

He was secretive partly for practical reasons. Like other alchemists, he feared that the ability to transmute base metals into gold would destroy the gold standard. As warden of the mint, Newton was well aware of how a sudden influx of transmuted gold would cripple the economy.

A separate reason for Newton's reticence, though, was more personal. "Alchemy became a danger to one's reputation when interest bled into enthusiasm," Newman says. "Newton was certainly worried about this, so he didn't publicize his wilder attempts to decode alchemical symbolism." Alchemy was among Newton's "dark secrets," to use the words of a 2005 NOVA television documentary on the scientist that featured Newman's research.

Reading through Newton's secret alchemical notebooks, Newman discovered something astonishing. Alongside his monumental abilities in physics, mathematics, and optics, Newton was a talented and inventive literary critic. It was well known that alchemy's allegorical phraseology--Bablylonian dragons, green lyons (lions), toads that decompose and turn into ravens, Neptune's trident--referred to various chemicals and recipes. Newton's notebooks provide evidence of the countless hours he spent attempting to demystify alchemy's Byzantine mythological terminology. (You can try your hand at deciphering part of a notebook, with interactive assistance provided by Newman, at www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/newton/alchemy.html).

"Many of alchemy's strange, allegorical phrases were thought to be a fairly straightforward cipher for ingredients and procedures," Newman says, "but Newton, being Newton, rejected standard interpretations and set about building a new system to unravel alchemical codes. He brought the same intellectual intensity to this work as he did to all his other pursuits."

Newton was aware that his enthusiasm for the more mystical and frankly weird elements of alchemy could harm his legacy. This caution proved prescient when, during the early 18th century, the newly institutionalized discipline of chemistry sought to distance itself from its alchemical origins. Chemists rewrote the history of alchemy as an unenlightened pseudoscience driven solely by gold lust. Consequently, Newton's admirers were eager to disassociate him from alchemy. By the 19th century, Sir David Brewster's biography of Newton simply could not account for Newton's "lapse." How, Brewster wondered, could such a great mind have been duped by frauds and cheats?

Newman on Newton

William Newman's current project rebuts that question. By transcribing and annotating Isaac Newton's alchemical notebooks, Newman wants to dispel the notion that alchemy was a fraudulent science in its day and that Newton's participation in it was somehow dishonorable or, even worse, a waste of time. Newman allows that the more we know about Newton's alchemical career the better we see him as a man of his time, but he resists viewing alchemy as a kind of human foible. "Newton was doing things that were chemically sophisticated," he says.

It's a view shared by a growing number of Newman's science historian colleagues, as evidenced by the recent International Conference on the History of Alchemy and Chymistry at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. Reporting on the three-day conference, a New York Times science article focused on Newman's work with Newton's manuscripts.

With the help of funding from the National Science Foundation, Newman has spent the past two and a half years attempting to understand exactly what Newton was up to during his 30 years of alchemical experimentation. Because Newton never intended his notebooks for public consumption, he made no attempt to explain or systematically organize his notes. One of Newman's main goals is to date the material, a task made much easier by the Web's "word search" capability. Observing how often and where particular words appear in the notebooks will allow Newman and colleagues to create a rough chronology of Newton's alchemical research and experiments.

"So far we've put about 600 pages of Newton's alchemical writings on our Web site 'The Chymistry of Isaac Newton' (webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/newton/index.jsp), including the full text of his most complete laboratory notebook," Newman says.

Meanwhile, in the lab of IU chemistry professor Cathrine Reck, Newman and several graduate students have been hard at work replicating experiments that Newton and other alchemists commonly performed. They have re-created the "star regulus of antimony" (a crystalline structure embossed on a chunk of antimony metal reduced from stibnite), "the net" (a purple alloy of antimony and copper that has a mesh or net-like appearance), and the "tree of Diana" (a silver dendrite grown from amalgam that resembles a sort of growing, metallic shrub). During the 17th century, these and other experiments were powerful indicators of alchemy's ability to manipulate and transmute matter of all sorts. Today, they help Newman figure out what exactly "the blood of the green lyon" and other alchemical terms meant for Newton.

The further Newman delves into Newton's notebooks, the more admiration he has for Newton's particular genius. Newton may not have been unique in his interest in or approach to alchemy, but his active participation certainly raised the bar for intellectual scrutiny of alchemy's central claims and assumptions.

"Newton brought alchemy to a higher level," Newman says. "This was a man totally wedded to the pursuit of knowledge. His devotion to alchemy was genuine, and we should learn to view it as a vital part of his legacy."

Jeremy Shere is a freelance writer in Bloomington, Ind.