Isaac Newton and alchemy
We tell you about a side that perhaps you didn’t know about the physicist. (Photo: iStock)

Using copper cauldrons, Isaac Newton (one of the most passionate seekers of truth), made mixtures of smoking substances. He meticulously made notes on papers that almost three centuries later, in the first half of the 20th century, were bought at auction by John Maynard Keynes.

The British economist had the following to say about the man:

“He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.”

Now, it’s known that that alchemist had dedicated more than three decades of his life to the experiments whose results were recorded in the auctioned papers, which have a greater extension than that of his world-famous work.

This was the self-named Jeova Sanctus Unus, the pseudonym with which he signed his alchemy documents, and whose real name was Isaac Newton, the discoverer of the law of universal gravitation.

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King Solomon’s admirer

“This side of Newton is often unknown. His alchemist name was Jeova Sanctus Unus, which is a derivation of Isaacus Newtonus, the Latin name for the genius of physics,” says Camilo Camhaji García, specialist in philosophy of science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), in an interview for Tec Review.

In the documents signed by Jeova Sanctus Unus, according to this expert, processes of transmutation of matter (from lead to gold, for example) are described in terms of four main elements: earth, water, air and fire, as well as the search for the fifth element in a spiritual sense.

In a 1669 document signed by Jeova Sanctus Unus, we can read the following: “For alchemy does not trade with metals as ignorant vulgars think, which error has made them distress that noble science; but she has also material veins of whose nature God created handmaidens to conceive and bring forth its creatures…”

“This philosophy both speculative and active is not only to be found in the volume of nature but also in the sacred scriptures (…) In the knowledge of this philosophy God made Solomon the greatest philosopher in the world.”

In the context of alchemy, it’s essential to take into account the religiousness that was deeply rooted in Newton from childhood.

“His father died before Newton was born and, in addition, he grew up without his mother. He was educated by his uncle and the butler of the estate where he lived, both very religious people,” says Camhaji García.

Newton was heterodox in matters of faith, as he denied the dogma of the Trinity, according to Camhaji, who also explains that partly because of this he never accepted the position of director of Trinity College (one of the most prestigious educational institutes in the world to date), which as its name indicates, was built in honor of the Trinity. He, contrary to his Anglican formation, believed in a God, but not a triune one.

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Today’s pseudoscience was true science

The genius of physics lived in a time when people believed in the existence of substances such as phlogiston, related to oxidation; caloric, associated with heat transmission; and ether, which supposedly filled all the empty space in the universe.

Modern science confirms that these contrivances don’t really exist but recognizes that they were valid explanatory models of the theoretical scheme accepted in those times.

“It has to do with substances that don’t have a measurable mass, but that were attributed effects on the natural processes studied by science,” explains Camhaji.

Newton believed that his metaphysical studies made him even more of a scientist. This is because the supposed battle between religion and science didn’t exist in his time.

“There was a differentiation between the studies that Newton did in support of pre-contemporary scientists, such as Galileo or Descartes, and the other studies he did in alchemy, but there was no comparison like the one that would be interpreted from the middle of the 20th century,” points out this UNAM specialist.

It’s crucial to clarify that the distinguished English scientist, who was born in 1643 and died in 1727, didn’t get to witness the birth of modern chemistry, since its founder, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, was born a short time after, in 1743. So for Newton, alchemy was as worthy a discipline as physics.

For this reason, although in terms of physics Newton had already broken to a great extent with Aristotelian ideas, in the field of alchemy this break didn’t happen.

“Newton was batting for everyone. In physics, he was batting for Copernicus, but on the alchemical side, he was batting for Aristotle. Furthermore, at that time there was still no evidence to deny the existence of the four elements. Nowadays, we know that there are more than 100 elements, and those four aren’t included in the periodic table,” concludes Camhaji.