Not quite exclusive to the world of Harry Potter, the search for the alchemical Philosopher’s Stone, which was supposed to be capable of turning other metals into gold, was very much alive in Isaac Newton’s time.
We love Newton for what he meant to the development of modern science. Lots of internet memes now use his many achievements before he so much as turned thirty years of age to make us feel insignificant about our own lives and achievements. If that sort of thing gets you down, it may please you to know that the man didn’t exactly have a perfect record.
Yeah, that’s right, Newton was once an alchemist, and a written recipe alluding to a Philosopher’s Stone has just been released from a private collection, for us all to peruse.
Sure, it’s easy to deride the idea now, and write it off as pseudoscience. I mean, nowadays pseudoscience has been pretty much expunged from all corners of science and medicine, right? (Oh … right.)
It’s important to realise that during the time when Newton was alive and active, there wasn’t really anything resembling modern science and chemistry. Indeed, he himself founded many of the principles that still underlie science today. And all that, despite the incorrect assumptions about the nature of matter that dominated among academics in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
This Smithsonian Magazine report gives an idea of how alchemical principles actually lay at the root of some of Newton’s earlier discoveries:
“Alchemists were the first to realize that compounds could be broken down into their constituent parts and then recombined. Newton then applied that to white light, which he deconstructed into constituent colors and then recombined,” science historian William Newman tells Michael Greshko for National Geographic. “That’s something Newton got from alchemy.”
To me, this makes the genius of Newton all the more impressive. Being able to turn prevalent inaccurate assumptions around to produce actual science is no mean feat, and we have so much else to be thankful for. Here’s to you, Mr. Newton!
Check out Smithsonian Magazine’s coverage here.