Esoteric chemistry

To the joy of historians, manuscripts by Isaac Newton about alchemy are rediscovered

Accounting records by English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton (1642-1727) indicated, in 1669, purchases in Cambridge and London of some unusual products: aqua fortis (nitric acid), oil, pure silver, antimony, lead white, nitrate, tartar salt and mercury. He also bought two furnaces, wood glue, and a large compilation of treatises on alchemy called Theatrum chemicum. For someone who had almost every kind of intellectual aptitude, as wrote economist John Maynard Keynes, a scholar of the physicist’s life and work, this interest does not cause any surprise. Besides the specialties already mentioned, Newton knew, in depth, law, history, theology and astronomy. He also pored over chemistry, when this area of knowledge, in a certain way, was mixed up with alchemy in the 17th century. In July this year, Great Britain’s national academy of science, the Royal Society, announced the discovery of a collection of papers of the English physicist about alchemy, given up as lost since 1936. That was the year in which the auction house Sotheby’s sold this material, and for 69 years its whereabouts were unknown. Now, during an ample cataloging of manuscripts carried out by the Royal Society in its archives, the papers were rediscovered. Many of them are notes about the work of another alchemist of the 17th century, the Frenchman Pierre Jean Fabre.

But there is one part, written in English, with Newton’s own ideas about alchemy. “It’s an immensely important finding for scholars of the scientist’s work and science historians in general”, said the society’s executive secretary, Stephen Cox.

Alchemy was a sort of chemistry of the Middle Ages, which combined elements of chemistry, physics, astrology, metallurgy, medicine, and mysticism as well. Amongst its objectives was to attain the philosopher’s stone, a mythical substance that would allow the transmutation of base metals into gold, and the universal panacea, a remedy against all physical and moral ills. Richard S. Westfall (1924-1996), the author of one of the best biographies of the English physicist, The Life of Isaac Newton (with a Portuguese translation by Nova Fronteira, 328 pages), said that he “courted alchemy with ardor for 30 years” and, from what one knows, the production of gold never dominated his interest. “The philosophical tradition of alchemy always regarded its learning as a secret property of a select group that distinguished itself from the common horde by its knowledge and purity of heart”, Westfall wrote. For him, the motivations of the great scientist involved the quest for the “truth” of all things. Something that Newton, one day, believed one could reach by alchemy.