History : May-Jun 2018
ALCHEMICAL DISK FROM THE 18TH CENTURY. MUSEUM OF THE HISTORY OF MEDICINE, PARIS 50 MAY/JUNE 2018 BRIDGEMAN/ACI Over the course of his life, Newton wrote more than one million words on the subject of al- chemy. After publishing his landmark work Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (better known as the Principia) in 1687, he was quick to return to his alchemical pursuits at Cambridge University in England. Today the word“alchemy”evokes magical im- ages of wizened men surrounded by dusty books and bubbling potions, but in Newton’s time, it fell in the realm of legitimate scientific inquiry. Much like astrology attempted to explore the ef- fects of the cosmos on humanity, alchemy aimed to understand the fundamental relationship be- tween the life force and inert matter. It blended wisdom gleaned from practical arts—such as metallurgy, medicine, and glassmaking—with abstract ideas from philosophy and religion. Through experimentation, alchemists hoped to learn how the mystical spark of life could change or“transmute”matter to improve it. Base metals, like lead, could change to higher metals, like gold. The spark of life could perhaps thwart disease, prolong human life, or grant immortality. Much like astrology would give way to astronomy, so alchemy would eventually lead to chemistry. While alchemy’s exact origins are difficult to pin- point (many civi- lizations explored the relationship among matter, spirit, and life), historians have traced the discipline’s Western history to scholars in Harran in Syria and in ancient Egypt around the time of Alexander the Great’s conquest. The roots of the word “alchemy” re- main obscure. Some scholars believe the word blends Greek and Arabic, reflecting the influ- ence of both cultures. The Greek word for Egypt, Khemia, was paired with the Arabic prefix al- t o create a new name for the region: al-Khemia. Many early alchemists studied in Alex- andria, Egypt, but their texts were lost to the West for centuries until scholars in Spain and Sicily translated them from Arabic and Greek into Latin in the 12th century. Renewed access to these texts ignited interest in alchemy. Schol- ars in the coming centuries would pursue these lines of thinking with great interest. Alchemy 101 Many of these translated texts did not provide step-by-step instructions for re-creating the work of ancient alchemists. Manuscripts were laden with arcane terms: Green Lion, Sophick Mercury, the Horned Head, Doves of Diana, Divine Water, and Universal Spirit. They were often illustrated with beautiful but obscure sym- bols and images. These mysterious symbols, cryptic codes, and religious images drove scholars to decipher what they believed was the wisdom of the ancient world. To protect their work, they guarded their findings and even coded their terminology. De- spite this willful attempt to conceal their art, it has been possible to extract some common ideas from texts that point to the main theoretical concepts in Western alchemy. One 17th-century manuscript handwritten by Isaac Newton came up for auction in 2016. It contained cryptic instructions for preparing “sophick mer- cury,” an alchemist’s potion. Isaac Newton, the scientist, literally wrote the book on the fundamental laws of mo- tion, but his interest in the more mystical side of science was well documented. It turns out, this scientist was also an alchemist.