Indiana University project releases more of Sir Isaac Newton’s alchemy manuscripts
The Chymistry of Isaac Newton project at Indiana University Bloomington has released digital editions of 30 previously unedited manuscripts written around 300 years ago by the great British scientist Sir Isaac Newton, the founder of modern physics.
The project, devoted to the editing and exposition of Newton's work involving alchemy, the dream of transmuting base metals into gold, is directed by William R. Newman, Ruth N. Halls Professor of History and Philosophy of Science in the IU College of Arts and Sciences.
The newly edited manuscripts contain notes and commentaries on numerous alchemical authors, including the mysterious "Eirenaeus Philalethes" (a peaceful lover of truth) or George Starkey, arguably America's most influential scientist before Benjamin Franklin. Under his pen name of Philalethes, Starkey wrote works that Newton excerpted and analyzed over a period stretching more than 30 years -- all the way from his youthful studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, until his move to London as Warden of the Mint in 1696.
The manuscripts all belong to the collection assembled by the economist John Maynard Keynes during and after a sale of Newton's manuscripts held by the auction house of Sotheby's in 1936, and now kept at King's College, Cambridge. With the release of these documents, the Chymistry of Isaac Newton project has achieved the important milestone of editing all 59 of the Keynes alchemical manuscripts that are written in Newton's hand.
Keynes not only collected these manuscripts but was also the first to study them systematically. Their surprising content led the famous economist to the controversial conclusion that Newton was not "the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians."
A closer look at the manuscripts, however -- now easily accomplished in their online form -- makes it possible to challenge Keynes's claim that Newton's alchemical endeavors were somehow unscientific. The immense labors that Newton devoted to the decipherment of his alchemical authorities are evident in an extraordinary document that he titled Index Chemicus, which is now available in five separate versions on the Chymistry of Isaac Newton site. Going through multiple drafts during the 1680s, Index Chemicus culminated in a document of 94 closely written folios.
The Chymistry of Isaac Newton site also contains editions of two laboratory notebooks written by Newton and kept in the Portsmouth Collection, also at Cambridge University. A comparison of these experimental notebooks with the Index Chemicus shows that Newton employed the same painstaking combination of reason and experiment in alchemy that he did in his other scientific pursuits. A number of the Latin headwords in the Index Chemicus, such as "Green Lion," "Caduceus," "Sceptre of Jove," "Hollow Oak" and "Net of Vulcan," are also found in the laboratory notebooks, demonstrating the close coordination between Newton the decoder of alchemical texts and Newton the experimenter.
A number of these "chymical" products have been reproduced in the labs of Indiana University's Chemistry Department, following Newton's precise and accurate instructions. According to Newman, general editor of the project, attention will now turn to editing the remainder of Newton's alchemical manuscripts, which are scattered across the world, from Jerusalem to Pasadena, Calif.
Originally published Oct. 6, 2011.