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Isaac Newton and the "Philosopher's stone"

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

Not quite Harry Potter, yet a true story. While digging through the internet I came across this interesting piece of history, and thought why not share the story and consider this a continuation to one of my previous posts Not so egocentric Issac. In the 17th and 18th century Alchemy was in a diminished state. One of its more widespread goals was to find the philosophers stone, which could presumably turn lead into gold and ensured an imperishable life. The Alchemist, however, weren't especially approved in the day. One of the reasons was their means of falsely claiming to have knowledge and their highly deceptive nature. In 1688 there was even a law in place called "act against multiplication", making it a punishable offense to "multiply gold and silver".

Newton, however, couldn't care less, he conducted his experiments in secret. There are over a million words written by him on the very matter. In his perspective Alchemy was a metaphysical enterprise. The most peculiar characteristic of Newton was his way of interpreting things and his lack of interest in showing or exhibiting his findings. Most of his writing are difficult to understand not only because they are complicated, but because Newton never intended for anyone to comprehend his work. He deliberately made it difficult for the reader. No wonder, students did not attended his class and he ended up teaching to the walls of classrooms for most of his career. According to him, you truly have to be worthy to apprehending what he has discovered.

The Alchemist in this period did not communicate with their real names, but used pseudonyms. Newton called himself "Jehova Sactus Unus" which translates to a holy god. It is important to know that this was the 1600's and religion was quite dominant with regards to giving "answers". In today's world Newton is found to have believed in god, but that information is highly misinterpreted. He did believe in an existence, but never approved of the interpretation that the conventional society gave to it, also he couldn't disagree publicly, because of the fact that he could have been punished by death in that time, for such beliefs. But, he did end up conducting his research on various ancient scriptures, for he believed that he could find an answer to god in them. As a consequence, he spent most of his life studying theological and alchemistical aspects, physics was merely a hobby for him, discovering gravity, developing optics and a new branch of mathematics was merely just a hobby. Woah!

I find his story quite relatable (not exactly but with a few similarities) to that of Leonhard Euler. In 1736 Euler was grueling to develop a way to cross every single one of the seven bridges of the city of Königsberg at exactly the same time. He realized that this seemingly predictable problem was impossible to solve and in the process he created a new branch of mathematics, the graph theory. He never intentionally set out to discover something (or invent, the argument between discovering concepts and inventing them remains one big question in our conscious mind in my opinion), but yet he did end up discovering something big. In a similar instance, Newton did not intent to discover what he did discover.

Backtracking to the "Philosopher's stone", In 1693 Newton outlined his work in alchemy in a text containing more than five thousand words. With him exclaiming,

"amalgamating the stone with the mercury of 3 or more eagles and adding their weight of water..."

Whatever it was that he had written, obviously did not work, this was one of those moments when he turn out to be wrong. A huge blow to him personally, as a result it turns out he went into depressions. And by the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, alchemy was mostly dead. The depression was quite justifiable on Newton's part, the dude had just written over a million words on the subject, so that's quite a reason to be unhappy. Anyway he did come out of it and continued his work as an administrator.

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