Article from the Smithsonian, “Newton’s Vice,” about Sir Isaac Newton’s long passion for alchemy. It’s eye-opening to see how this paragon of scientific thought devoted years of his life to alchemical transmutation.
- We should care about alchemy
- Alchemists were not buffoons
- The wisdom of the alchemist applies to us
Around the year 1350, a poor Parisian scrivener named Nicholas Flamel spent two florins on a strange but beautiful brass-bound book filled with curious diagrams. Extensive study revealed it to be an alchemical treatise on the art of making gold.
He spent most of his life trying to decipher the contents, and finally on April 25th, 1382 at around five in the afternoon, he succeeded in turning half a pound of mercury into pure gold. Armed with this secret knowledge, he achieved spectacular wealth. Happily enough, he spent his money charitably, building fourteen hospitals, three chapels, and seven churches.
Alchemy is about making gold. Take something inexpensive and easy to come by, like mercury or lead, and by means of obscure knowledge, transmute it into gold. You can see why people would want to do this, but now we know that it’s an absurd task.
We know today that uranium 235 decays (through an improbable number of intervening isotopes like actinium 227 and radon 219) into lead. But unless you are a physicist, you will probably just nod your head and say, sure, okay, despite the fact that you have no direct observable reason to believe such a thing. Radioactive decay is transmutation in the most straightforward alchemical sense. So consider that, given the state of fourteenth century science, it was perfectly reasonable for fools and philosophers, for peasants and kings to believe that iron could be turned into gold. Provided, of course, you had mastered the arcane art of alchemy. But mastering the art was not easy; it was messy, time-consuming, and extremely expensive. Why would anyone do it? Why does anyone bother in any age to study the mysterious and the arcane? Three short answers come to mind.
- wealth (economic motivation)
- knowledge (scientific motivation)
- enlightenment (spiritual motivation)
We can learn from the alchemist who was motivated by each of these desires. First consider the practitioner who is only interested in filthy lucre.
It goes without saying that anybody who could spin lead into gold would be fabulously wealthy and powerful. But there are some interesting implications regarding this kind of hot intellectual property. Alchemy was an accepted fact of life for the great majority of people; most not only believed that the transmutation of base metals into gold was possible, but that people were successfully doing it. If you could find a successful alchemist and steal his formula, you would gain the key to the same riches. Sound familiar? The value of such alchemical secrets was not lost on your average serf in the street, and many suspected alchemists were beaten to death by angry mobs who demanded to know the recipe for gold. On top of this, most rulers were naturally suspicious of alchemists and jealous of their knowledge, and so they tended to proscribe the practice of alchemy altogether or only allow certain scholars to practice it on behalf of the court. As in any age, the innovator was often punished for his efforts.
Our dubious little story about Monsieur Flamel notwithstanding, most practical alchemists had a rough time of it. The best were tireless and meticulous, yet succeeded only in exhausting their fortune and their health (there were no fume hoods in the fourteenth century). Nobody could reliably manage the transmutation trick. Why did they keep at it? They must have been terribly disappointed with the results, yet since they were the first people to rigorously perform feats of laboratory chemistry, their practical knowledge was prodigious, all failures at gold manufacture to the contrary. The first true chemists in the 18th century acknowledge their debt to the groundwork laid by alchemists. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) compared alchemists to a father, who on his deathbed told his lazy sons of a sum of money hidden underground in his garden. After his death they began digging in hopes of finding the treasure. They didn’t find any, because in truth there was none to be found, yet they enriched themselves with a large crop that their inadvertant plowing made possible.
Regarding our most recent scientific advances, much is made of how well eastern religions, in particular Buddhism, harmonize what sophisticated physics and chemistry tell us about the universe. Alchemy, from the western tradition, can serve much the same role, just as it helped launch our scientific tradition in the Renaissance. Alchemy is about making gold, and Buddhism is about finding jewels. The famous “Om” mantra of Avalokiteshvara, the Lotus-Bearing Buddha, goes “Om mani padme hum,” or “Hail the jewel in the lotus.” Ultimately, the jewel and the gold are the same thing: enlightenment. As a science, alchemy largely failed. As a springboard for the western scientific tradition, it succeeded wildly.
Much as astrology is now associated only with the frothiest part of a rich tradition, so too we find that alchemy is now identified only with the thoroughly debunked notion of turning lead into gold. If we persist in viewing it only as a lapsed proto-chemistry, we are wiping out a vast store of accumulated wisdom with implications far beyond metallurgy. What we call alchemy today is only the discredited part of a much richer, more compelling tradition that is fundamentally about putting man into harmony with a living, interconnected universe.
A wonderfully eloquent conclusion on this topic is supplied by the renowned Dutch chemist Boerhaave (1668-1738), who on being asked his opinion of alchemy replied:
“I should answer, that the wise Socrates, after reading a most abstruse book of Heraclitus, being ask’d what he thought of it, replied, that where he understood it, he found it excellent, and believ’d it to be so in those other parts he could not comprehend. So wherever I understand the alchemists, I find them describe the truth in the most simple and naked terms, without deceiving us, or being deceived themselves. When therefore I come to places, where I do not comprehend the meaning; why should I charge them with falsehood, who have shown themselves so much better skill’d in the art than myself? I therefore rather lay the blame on my own ignorance than on their vanity.
Thus much I have long ago had a mind to say, concerning the knowledge of the true alchemists in physics; lest such skilful artists should be condemn’d by incompetent judges…. Credulity is hurtful, so is incredulity: the business therefore of a wise man is to try all things, hold fast what is approv’d, never limit the power of God, nor assign bounds to nature.”