William R. Newman: Newton the Scientist or Newton the Alchemist?

Isaac Newton was an alchemist. Isaac Newton was perhaps the greatest scientist who ever lived. How do we reconcile these two statements? After all, to most modern people, alchemy was at best a delusion and at worst an outright fraud. But Newton’s involvement in chrysopoeia, the alchemical attempt to transmute metals, is undeniable. Thanks to a famous 1936 auction of Newton’s papers, it is now an indisputable fact that the famous physicist wrote extensively on alchemy. Careful estimates indicate that he left about a million words on the subject, or possibly somewhat more.  Nor can one assert that this material stemmed from Newton’s old age, when he had ceased to be a productive scientist. To the contrary, his involvement in alchemy occupied the most productive period of his life, beginning in the 1660’s, when Newton’s innovations in mathematics and physics were still in their formative stages, and continuing up to the early eighteenth century when he published his famous Opticks.

What then are we to make of Newton’s alchemical quest, which extended over more than three decades? In the last third of the twentieth century, when the academic field of the history of science still held alchemy in low esteem, scholars were perplexed at his devotion to the aurific art. Two complementary theories emerged that attempted to explain Newton’s involvement in alchemy. The first built on the modern idea that alchemy was a type of magic, and that Renaissance magic focused on the hidden sympathies and antipathies between material things. The reason why a lodestone attracted iron at a distance was because of a hidden sympathy between the two.   Couldn’t this sort of explanation have stimulated Newton to think of gravity in terms of an immaterial attraction? And wasn’t alchemy based on the idea that some materials react with others because of a similar principle of affinity? Thus the idea that Newton’s involvement with alchemy was part of a quest to understand gravitational attraction was born. But closer inspection shows that this historical explanation has little or no justification. When Newton actually does speak about gravity and alchemy in the same breath, as in his manuscript Of Natures obvious laws & processes in vegetation, he explicitly proposes a mechanical explanation of gravity that does not involve immaterial attraction. There is no evidence that his concept of action at a distance emerged from his alchemical studies.

The second major attempt to explain Newton’s alchemy in the last generation stemmed from a consideration of two fields: religion and analytical psychology. The pioneering psychologist Carl Jung had been arguing since the early twentieth century that alchemy was really a matter of “psychic processes expressed in pseudochemical language.” Moreover, Jung argued that the language of alchemy was remarkably similar to that of Gnosticism, a heterodox religious movement of the early Christian centuries that stressed the need for personal revelation (gnosis) and communication with God. The 1936 auction that revealed Newton’s alchemy to the world had also released millions of words in his hand that dealt with prophecy, biblical chronology, and the iniquity of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Newton was now understood to be a passionate Antitrinitarian and a deeply religious thinker.

Wasn’t it possible, then, that his alchemy was merely an outgrowth of his religion, and that he saw the philosophers’ stone in its role of perfecting metals as a material surrogate for Jesus, the savior of souls? After all, alchemists had long justified their art as a divine pursuit, which God would only allow to fall into the hands of the worthy. Like the argument about alchemy and gravitational attraction, however, the claim that Newton’s interest in alchemy sprang from his religiosity falls on hard times when one examines the evidence. In reality, Newton never develops the religiously tinted themes that his alchemical sources sometimes convey. When they speak of the Holy Trinity, for example, Newton ignores the obvious religious sense and immediately tries to decode the reference into the form of an alchemical recipe. And if one turns to the roughly four million words that he wrote on religious topics, the references to alchemy are vanishingly small. For Newton, alchemy and religion were independent domains, each to be treated separately.  

Why then did Newton believe in the aurific art, and what was the empirical basis of his generation-long alchemical quest? By examining the evidence upon which early modern alchemists based their beliefs, one can better appreciate Newton’s goals. In their world, minerals and metals came into being and then died beneath the surface of the earth, forming gigantic trees whose branches presented themselves as veins and stringers of ore. This idea seems less naïve when one considers mineral entities such as wire silver, which really does seem to mimic organic life.

In this world, nature seemed to delight in transmutations, as Newton himself would say in the final editions of his famous Opticks. A famous example lay in the blue mineral vitriol found in mines, which could rapidly “transmute” iron into copper by plating it. The continual sinking down and rising up of living, fertile, mineral fumes led Newton to his own early theory of subterranean generation and corruption. Basing himself on the old alchemical principle that art should mimic nature, Newton spent decades attempting to arrive at ever more volatile metal compounds, which he hoped would act as destructive agencies that could break metals into their primitive components and thereby release their hidden life. In my ongoing attempt to understand Newton’s goals and methods, I have replicated a number of his experiments in the Indiana University Chemistry Department. The results, even if they have not revealed the secret of the philosophers’ stone, can certainly help us to understand why Newton persisted in his quest for the philosophers’ stone over the greater part of his scientific career.

William R. Newman is Distinguished Professor and Ruth N. Halls Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Indiana University. His many books include Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution and Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.