Who attains this treasure can never fade away
I leave thee here now our secrets to attain
There needs no blowing at the coals business nor pain
Old writers shall teach thee to pass it to bring
– Sir George Ripley, Augustinian canon, author, and alchemist.
These words were found transcribed in Sir Isaac Newton’s library. They refer to a lifelong obsession of Newton’s, and many other great scientists before him – the creation of the philosopher’s stone.
Who was Isaac Newton?
To describe Sir Isaac Newton as a man like any other would be a fallacy.
Regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all time, Newton was a marvel in his time as well as ours. Born on Christmas day 1642 in Lincolnshire, England, he would grow up to become a key figure in the scientific revolution, contributing to the fields of mathematics, astronomy, physics and theology. He formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation that formed the dominant scientific viewpoint until the arrival of Albert Einstein in the 20th century; he built the first practical reflecting telescope; made the first theoretical calculation of the speed of sound; and, created theories to account for tides and the trajectories of comets, all of which and more earned him a knighthood and the prestigious position of president of the Royal Society.
Yet, for all his great achievements, it was to the then illegal study of alchemy that Isaac Newton dedicated much of his time. Of his surviving ten million words, more than one million of them are dedicated to the subject of alchemy. 1
Aiming to purify, mature, perfect and even transmute matter, the study had been outlawed in England since 1404, with monarchs fearing the debasement of the national currency should an alchemist learn how to create unlimited amounts of gold or silver from common metals. In the seventeenth century, the threat of alchemy was taken so seriously that, if discovered, it was punishable by death, to the extent that offenders were hanged on a gilded scaffold, decorated with tinsel to mock the alchemist’s pursuit. 2 It was for this reason that Newton’s extensive alchemical writings remained a secret until they were published long after his death. His Great Work was the philosopher’s stone.
What is the philosopher’s stone?
The legendary stone has not only been a subject of European study – it has occupied minds across the world.
In Buddhist and Hindu traditions, the stone is known as the Cintāmaṇi. In Tibetan Buddhism it is a precious jewel believed to have been in the possession of the Buddha himself. 3
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Arabic scholars were also inundated with scores of alchemists attempting to harness the might of the stone. 4 With such a long and prestigious academic lineage, it should not be too surprising that a man like Newton would have an interest in – or indeed obsession with – the philosopher’s stone.
So, what exactly was this much coveted object?
Whispered to be a legendary substance, the philosopher’s stone is said to be a stone able to harness the prime material used to create everything in the universe. A symbol of absolute perfection with the power of transmutation, according to legend the one who holds the philosopher’s stone can be immortal, with the power to manipulate time, turn quartz into diamond, iron to gold, return life to the dead, banish illness from the sick, and much more. 5 Its appearance has been much disputed. To some it was a physical object, an actual stone that was either white or red. To others it was something more ethereal. Amongst Newton’s writings there is an alchemical work by an unknown author, translated by Newton, which describes the stone as:
“an earth heavy & light being in its nature a watry
earth or earthly water. In respect of the colour it is
pleasant & abominable, stinking & smelling acceptably. It
lies openly & deeply hidden, it is found on hills & dales
in fields & streets in gardens & pastures in cellars & shops
& yet is found & known by none who is not very wise.” 6
This more metaphorical viewpoint depicted the stone as something present everywhere and in every form, possibly physically attainable by those who are able to find it. This interpretation may well have been the viewpoint of Isaac Newton.
A divine substance: God and the philosopher’s stone
Whilst there exist many interpretations as to what the philosopher’s stone actually is, in the time of Newton it was generally agreed that it was God who bestowed knowledge of it upon the wise.
Indeed, the stone was described as having a strong theological character. Elias Ashmole, a prominent English antiquarian, politician, soldier, astrologer and alchemist of the seventeenth century, claimed that the stone’s knowledge was given to Adam and passed down to other Biblical patriarchs, and thus accounted for their long lives. Indeed, in Genesis the “father of many nations” Abraham is said to have “lived a hundred and seventy-five years”. 7
Some have even proposed that the philosopher’s stone is a significant part of Psalm 118.
“The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone.
This was the Lord’s doing;
It is marvelous in our eyes.” 8
This verse has been interpreted as referring to the stone as the cornerstone of the entire universe, implying an intrinsic holiness to the stone.9 It was such references that made the philosopher’s stone the alchemists’ Holy Grail – a divine mission that seemed very almost impossible to achieve. For Newton, a man of science and religion, the stone would have embodied the perfect marriage of philosophical and theological truths.
Is the philosopher’s stone scientifically possible?
Despite the ban on alchemy in Britain, many of the most eminent scientists and academics of Newton’s time – including great early pioneers of chemistry, medicine and astronomy – nurtured an interest in alchemy. It would not be an overstatement to say that modern science may never have been born without those fanatical pursuers of the philosopher’s stone.
Whilst this may seem incompatible with a more modern notion of science, historically, the act of movement and animation were synonymous with life. Therefore, when an alchemist would combine different substances to create a visible, physical reaction, such as the reaction of silver with mercury in a Diana’s tree, it was regarded as an act of lifegiving.
“Dissolve an ounce of pure silver in a sufficient quantity of aqua fortis, exceedingly pure, and of a moderate strength, and having put the solution in a jar, dilute it with about twenty ounces of distilled water. Then add two ounces of mercury, and leave the whole at rest. In the course of forty days, there will rise from the mercury a kind of tree, which throwing out branches will represent natural vegetation.” 10
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Thus, seen through this lens, the notion of some sort of material being able to animate living beings in a similar manner as some substances do when they are combined is not such a ridiculous idea.
The Emerald Tablet
To those who sought the philosopher’s stone there was one piece of writing which was considered to hold the secret of its creation – the Emerald Tablet.
The origin of this tablet, or indeed whether it ever truly existed, is a mystery. The earliest documented source is an Arabic writing from the 6th to 8th century, in which the tablet is transcribed and described as an ancient tablet that was found in a vault in what is now Turkey. 11
Translated into Latin in the 12th century, it has since been seen as one of the principal alchemical texts. Newton himself translated the contents of the Emerald Tablet into English in the 17th century. The text’s description of the philosopher’s stone is cryptic.
“the wind [which] hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse […] ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior[…] Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing[…] So was the world created [by it].” 12
For Newton, then, the philosopher’s stone may have been considered a material which was present everywhere, keeping the universe together and in operation.
Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation
Interestingly, it could be said that Newton’s obsession with the philosopher’s stone influenced his most famous work – his law of universal gravitation.
A periodical from his lifetime has Newton describing the matter which causes gravity in a similar way to the philosopher’s stone.
“The matter causing gravity must pass through all the pores of a body. It must ascend again, for either the bowels of the Earth must have large cavities and inanities to contain it, or else the matter must swell the Earth.”13
Newton describes the “matter” which causes gravity as being able to “pass through all the pores of a body”, similar to how the philosopher’s stone is described in the Emerald Tablet as having the ability to “penetrate every solid thing”. Newton speaks of the “bowels of the Earth” containing the matter, much the same as how the Emerald Tablet describes the philosopher’s stone as being “nurse[d]” within the Earth. In both descriptions, the matter “ascends” toward the heavens.
Newton’s seeming proposition that the force behind gravity and the matter of the philosopher’s stone are one and the same, or similar, appears shocking at first. However, when one considers the implications of gravity, there appear to be some intriguing similarities between its power, and the proposed abilities of the legendary stone.
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If the matter that causes gravity could be harnessed fully, then in theory it could do almost everything which the philosopher’s stone is purported to be able do.
Science currently works according to the theory that time is related to gravity. The closer something is to a gravitational force, the slower time flows; the further something is away from a gravitational force, the faster time flows. This means that, if the matter causing gravity could be manipulated, time could be controlled. This, in turn, could be used to affect lifespan. Living cells degrade over time, due to gravity causing time to pass at a particular speed. If time could be slowed, so could cell degradation, and therefore, excessively long lifespans could become a reality.
Similarly, gravitational pressure could alter elements, for example increasing the speed at which base carbon transforms into diamond.14
In these examples, the matter causing gravity sounds remarkably similar to the powers of the philosopher’s stone. And, these are only the tip of the iceberg of what would be possible with the ability to manipulate gravity.
Perhaps Newton’s alchemical experiments then were proto-scientific attempts to harness the matter which causes gravity. It is a possibility that, in his mind, the philosopher’s stone and the matter causing gravity were the same thing. After all, some of the metals with which alchemists commonly experimented with, such as iron, have strong magnetic properties that visibly affect the gravity of other matter around them.15 All of this makes the legendary and fantastical philosopher’s stone seem much more scientifically tangible than may first appear.
In the decades after Newton’s death, scientists moved away from alchemy to the more analytical and empirical approach to science which is now predominant. Regardless, Newtonian science remains one of the cornerstones of the modern world. Thanks to Newton, mankind has put rockets and satellites into space and men on the moon, and with those achievements global communication and navigation have become a reality. 16 Newton was fundamental in broadening mankind’s horizons to what they are today, and whatever they may be in the future. This is a true transmutation. If one were to look from his times and have seen the world which he has helped to create now, it would be difficult not to see the incredible imagination of an alchemist at work.
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