Isaac Newton kept his experiments in search of the “Philosopher’s Stone” a secret. It was the kind of thing that might have lead him to be imprisoned, or worse, having his whole academic career dismissed as the writings of a quack.
Newton was no quack, though he did experiment with alchemy for over two decades. He honestly thought there might be something in it, and believed the secret to finding the “Philosopher’s Stone” was hidden in ancient Greek mythology.
Olde clever clogs Newton worked out that these Greek tales were possible ciphers for alchemical equations. He worked out that the story of the god Vulcan, who found his wife Venus in bed with the god Mars, created a net with which he intended to hang the adulterous couple form the ceiling.
Newton discovered this was indeed an alchemical equation in which Venus was the alchemical symbol for copper, while Mars was the alchemical symbol for iron, and Vulcan was fire. Mixing the copper and iron together at very high temperatures, Newton created an alloy that had striations reminiscent of a “net.”
With such Harry Potter-like results, Newton felt more than encouraged enough to continue his alchemical investigations. It obsessed him right up to his nervous breakdown (probably caused by exhaustion), but was forgotten soon after. However, his dabbling in alchemy helped Newton with his more important scientific insights.
Newton’s Dark Secrets examines Sir Isaac’s work and inventions, as well as his covert studies in alchemy.
In 1936, the renowned economist, John Maynard Keynes bought a selection of Newton’s papers at an auction. Keynes was surprised to discover in amongst these papers Newton’s secret alchemical writings. It turned the image of the man of Reason and Enlightenment into a bit of a crackpot, or as Fritz Leiber more eloquently said:
“Everyone knows Newton as the great scientist. Few remember that he spent half his life muddling with alchemy, looking for the philosopher’s stone. That was the pebble by the seashore he really wanted to find.”
Newton was also quite religious, though he did not believe in the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost or that Jesus Christ was an equal to God. Instead he saw God as the only supreme being. This kind of belief was considered heresy, and punishable by gaol, or execution.
He also worked out, by interpreting the Book of Revelation, that world will end in 2060, or thereabouts. In his calculations, Newton wrote:
”So then the time times & half a time are 42 months or 1260 days or three years & an half, recconing twelve months to a yeare & 30 days to a month as was done in the Calendar of the primitive year. And the days of short lived Beasts being put for the years of lived [sic for “long lived”] kingdoms, the period of 1260 days, if dated from the complete conquest of the three kings A.C. 800, will end A.C. 2060. It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner.”
Again, the proponents of “Science as the answer to all our problems” attempted to have this superstitious mumbo-jumbo—albeit the superstitious mumbo-jumbo of a towering scientific genius—excised from history. It wouldn’t do to have a hero scientist inspired by fantasies or following delusional superstitions, now would it? Personally, I think that kind of well-meaning censorship is the worst kind of censorship. I prefer my heroes and heroines to be human, and seen in their entirety as real people, faults, failings, warts and all, rather than as exemplars of indoctrination.
Newton was probably a reclusive, dry and snobbish individual, who despite his genius, had no social skills, and was emotional immature. He certainly knew how to hold a grudge and get his revenge, as rival (and know-it-all) Robert Hooke found out.
Yet, without Newton the advances in modern science would have far taken longer, and no scientist until Albert Einstein has had such an important role in its advancement as did Sir Isaac Newton.
Isaac Newton: The Last Magician is a 60-minute biography based on the writings of Newton and his contemporaries, which examines the complexities of the “greatest genius of all time.” It’s a rewarding and informative watch, and touches on Newton’s heretical views and his work in alchemy.