Isaac Newton: The World’s Most Famous Alchemist

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Podcast Transcript

Most people know of Isaac Newton as one of the world’s foremost mathematicians and physicists. 

Listeners of this podcast might also know that he was inadvertently responsible for the creation of the gold standard.

Yet there is another part of Isaac Newton that most people aren’t aware of. A part of him that was very much not a scientist.

Learn more about Isaac Newton and his fascination with alchemy on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

It is hard to express just how important Isaac Newton was. 

He single-handedly developed the basics of modern physics. He put the entire field of science on a firm footing by describing how motion, light, and gravity all work. 

On top of all that, he developed an entire branch of mathematics on which pretty much all other advanced science is dependent. Pretty much the entire discipline of engineering uses calculus for the creation of almost everything we use. 

If you remember back to my episode on the gold standard, it was inadvertently created when Isaac Newton was the head of the Royal Mint, so he also had a major impact on the global economy.

I once came across a book that attempted to rank the most important people in the history of the world. As you’d suspect, there were tons of philosophers and political and religious leaders on this list. However, the person they ranked number one was Isaac Newton. 

I previously also did an episode on how many fantasy Nobel Prizes Newton would have won had Nobel Prizes been given out when he was alive. I came up with ten, which is eight more than anyone else has ever won. 

If you remember back to my episode on the Brachistochrone Problem, some of Europe’s greatest mathematicians took months to solve a problem that Newton figured out in an evening.

So, in summary, Isaac Newton was a really smart guy who laid the foundation for all of modern science and mathematics.

But here is the thing, much of the stuff which made Netwon famous he did before he was 30. While he did work on science his whole life, most of his time was spent doing something else.

Isaac Newton spent most of his life studying alchemy and trying to find hidden codes in the bible.

This isn’t something that is often talked about, but it is absolutely true. 

Before I get into the specifics of Newton, I should probably discuss just what alchemy was. 

Alchemy, if I am being generous, was the ancient version of chemistry.

Almost every country in the ancient world had its own version of alchemy. India and China had their own alchemy traditions, which were separate from western alchemy. Western Alchemy developed in Greece and Alexandria, later shifted to the Islamic world, and then back to Western Europe.

What most alchemists had in common was trying to understand matter and substances. 

They would conduct what, to all outward appearances, looked like chemistry experiments. They would heat substances, mix substances, grind them into powers, and do other chemistry 101-type exercises. 

The problem was that the alchemists didn’t have a correct understanding of what matter was.

They developed theories as to the makeup of the physical world. A common belief was that everything was made up of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.  These had the attributes of heat and moisture. Fire was hot and dry, Earth was cold and dry, water was cold and moist, and, air was warm and moist.

Alchemists weren’t just experimenting for the sake of experimenting. There were certain objectives that alchemists had been trying to achieve for centuries. 

One was an elixir of immortality or the creation of something called a panacea, which could cure any disease. 

But the big thing was trying to develop something known as the Philosopher’s Stone. Yes, the very same thing from the Harry Potter books.

Just as an aside, which has nothing to do with this episode, the title of the book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but they actually changed the title of the book for the American audience to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because they thought that American audiences might not understand it.

When they filmed the movie, the actors had to shoot every scene twice, once saying philosopher’s stone and once saying sorcerer’s stone.

Anyway, back to the alchemists.

The philosopher’s stone wasn’t necessarily a stone per se. Rather it was a substance that could convert base metals, such as iron, lead, tin, zinc, and mercury, into noble metals, such as silver or gold. In other words, they were seeking the transmutation of elements. 

Something that we really wouldn’t know until the 20th century was impossible through simple chemistry experiments. The only way to actually transmute elements is through the atomic nuclei, but alchemists at the time had no clue that such a thing existed.

The philosopher’s stone was also, according to some alchemists, the same thing as the elixir of life or a panacea. 

It was known by other names such as the “materia prima” or “the tincture.”

The philosopher’s stone was the holy grail in alchemy. The pursuit of this substance took up the time and attention of some of the smartest people in Europe for centuries. 

This might be considered crackpot pseudoscience now, but at the time, it was considered totally legitimate research.

There were always rumors of some researcher in some distant land having discovered the philosopher’s stone, so there was always this idea that they were tantalizingly close to rediscovering it.

This brings us back to Isaac Newton.

Isaac Newton worked on his alchemy studies and his pursuit of the philosopher’s stone for over 30 years.

While he studied alchemy for several decades, most of his research occurred in the 1670s when he withdrew from public debate after receiving criticism from scientist Robert Hooke. 

In addition to his own original research, he also copied many texts on alchemy writing by other people. 

One of the reasons why so few people know about his alchemy research is that he didn’t talk about it. It basically kept his research secret, unlike his work with math and physics, for which he published books.

There were several reasons for the secrecy.

The first is that the practice of alchemy was actually illegal in England for several years while Newton was alive. 

It was made illegal because there were so many self-proclaimed alchemists who were defrauding people. Even though he was Isaac Newton, he didn’t want to broadcast the fact that they was basically breaking the law. 

The other reason why he never told anyone might have been the same reason he never published his work on calculus. 

Newton actually believed that he made progress in creating the philosopher’s stone. As with his work on calculus, he kept it to himself because he didn’t want other researchers to get credit for his discovery.

He had heard that the chemist Robert Boyle was also an alchemist and was also working on the philosophers stone.

He was also worried about his one personal protection. There were cases in Continental Europe of alchemists being arrested by various kings. If Netwon had actually figured out how to transmute metals to gold, that would be a very valuable technology to have. Potential something worth killing for.

Another reason probably had to do with the fact that much of his writing on alchemy was also heavily interlaced with religious writing. He referred to himself in his writing as Jehovah Sanctus Unus, which is Latin for Jehova the Holy One.

Much of his writing was in code, so even when others found his writings, there was much that no one understood.

It wasn’t really the best look for a man who was considered one of the top thinkers of the Enlightenment.

For all of these reasons, Newton never went public with his alchemy research in his lifetime.

Knowledge about his alchemy writing really didn’t come to light until he died and his writings were found. 

His scientific work overshadowed his unpublished writings on alchemy, but his alchemy work was always known within a small circle. As science advanced over the next few centuries, later generations of scientists scratched their heads at this part of Newton’s life. 

One of Newton’s biographers, Sir David Brewster, wrote about Newton and alchemy in 1855, 

In so far as Newton’s inquiries were limited to the transmutation and  multiplication of metals, and even to the discovery of the universal tincture, we may find some apology for his researches; but we cannot understand  how a mind of such power, and so nobly occupied with the abstractions of geometry, and the study of the material world, could stoop to be even the  copyist of the most contemptible alchemical poetry, and the annotator of a work, the obvious production of a fool and a knave.

In 1936, most of the works that Newton wrote on Alchemy went up for auction.  Of the estimated ten million words which Newton wrote in his lifetime on all subjects combined, an estimated one million words were about alchemy. 

The books were purchased by the noted economist John Maynard Keynes. He later said of Newton, “he was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”

Keynes kept on acquiring Newton’s alchemy papers from other people through the years, trying to assemble as much as he could in one place. 

He eventually donated his entire collection of Newton’s alchemy writing back to Cambridge in 1946.

There is currently an effort to digitize all of Newton’s alchemy work and have it available online which is being spearheaded by the University of Indiana.

While we think of Isaac Newton as one of the world’s greatest scientists, and he was, he also had a side of him that was very different than what most people assume. 

Then again, Newton probably didn’t think of his alchemy research as being unscientific.  While Newton was responsible for great advances in science and mathematics, there was still a lot about the natural world, which was still unknown in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. 

Even despite his dabbling in alchemy, Isaac Newton’s accomplishments are enough to retain his spot as the world’s greatest scientist.