A handwritten manuscript from nearly 400 years ago has revealed a glimpse of the recipe for the mythical ‘philosopher’s stone.’
The 17th century document was penned by Isaac Newton, and is a copy of another known alchemist’s text.
After decades in a private collection, the text was purchased by the Chemical Heritage Foundation in the US, which has revealed the early steps in a process alchemists thought could turn lead to gold.
In the text, the alchemist describes the process for making ‘philosophic mercury,’ according to Chemistry World.
Shortened as ‘sophick,’ philosophic mercury was thought to be a key substance in the creation of the philosopher’s stone, researchers say.
‘Philosophic mercury was [thought to be] a substance that could be used to break down metals into their constituent parts,’ James Voelkel, the CHF’s curator of rare books, told Chemistry World.
‘The idea is if you break the metals down you can then reassemble them and make different metals.’
Translated from Latin, the title of the manuscript reads ‘Preparation of the [Sophick] Mercury for the [Philosophers’] Stone by the Antimonial Stellate Regulus of Mars and Luna from the Manuscripts of the American Philosopher.’
While researchers aren’t sure if Newton ever actually tried to make the substance, Voelkel says it would not have been ‘out of character for him,’ and he likely used the text as a reference.
The Philosopher’s stone is such a popular myth it even featured in the Harry Potter films.
Newton is well known for his influence to physics and mathematics, but documents similar to this one reveal he was also an enthusiastic alchemist.
The text also describes one of Newton’s own experiments, and the expert says this is just a minute example of the scientist’s massive ‘alchemical output.’
‘It’s often the case with Newton’s manuscripts that if they lie around long enough he turns them over and writes something else on the back,’ Voelkel told CW.
‘In this case there is a note of an experiment that he did. It’s a recipe for distilling a volatile spirit out of lead ore…which corresponds nicely with Newton’s interpretation with various alchemical authors.’
The experts say the text was originally authored by a Harvard-educated chemist named George Starkey, who wrote under the penname Eirenaeus Philalethes, before the publishing of a printed copy in 1678.
Starkey was one of the first published scientists in the United States.
‘Starkey found having this alter ego was really useful because he didn’t have to b that person he attributed these writings to,’ Voelkel told CW.
‘He could publish under another name, and he could completely control people’s ‘access’ to that person because he didn’t exist!’
The manuscript was sold by his descendants at Sotheby’s in London in 1936, and has just been made public for the first time.
The text will be added to ‘The chymistry of Isaac Newton’ project, an online database from Indiana University.