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Looking for the Philosopher's Stone

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Chaz Mottinger | Inside

Professor William Newman is replicating Isaac Newton's attempt to discover the philosopher's stone.

Published on Apr. 9, 2012 | Print | Share | Recommend ()

Harry Potter’s quest for the sorcerer’s stone might not be so far from reality. Deep in a laboratory at IU, history and philosophy professor William Newman is replicating Isaac Newton’s secret alchemical attempt to discover the philosopher’s stone. Newton believed this substance could turn any metal into gold and make the user immortal. No wonder he had to be so secretive.

Can you explain the work you’ve done recreating Newton’s experiments?
Newton kept laboratory notebooks that extend through about 30 years, and in them are recorded a huge number of experiments having to do with alchemy. It’s not always easy to figure out what the processes actually involve in modern terms because he uses code names for chemical substances.

So why was Newton so secretive about his chemical processes? Why did he need to code everything?
It’s clear that by the time Newton was working on alchemy, the subject had begun to fall into a sort of disrepute. There were also stories about alchemists being persecuted by various rulers who wanted to extract those secrets from them. Alchemy promised great power over nature if you discovered the philosopher’s stone.

Alchemy is known as a pseudoscience today. Was that the case when Newton was experimenting?
The modern concept of alchemy as a pseudoscience was not the idea back in the 17th Century. They typically didn’t distinguish between alchemy and chemistry. I like to think of it in the way that scientists nowadays write grant proposals.

What has been the hardest part about recreating Newton’s experiments?
The hardest part by far is figuring out exactly what he’s doing and what’s the relationship between his reading notes and the laboratory notebooks. It’s quite clear that he’s interpreting texts and trying to see if their processes actually work.

What do you find most interesting about Newton?
One of the things that is interesting is the fact that Newton does alchemy for about 30 years and then he goes and becomes the master of the mint, and it is a bit incongruous to think that this guy is put in charge of the currency of England. Beyond that, this guy is one of the supreme intellects of all time and made absolutely brilliant scientific discoveries.

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