Incredible videos recreate Isaac Newton's experiments with alchemy

You may be familiar with Isaac Newton from such inventions as calculus and the law of universal gravitation. What you may not know is that he was also an avid "chymist," or alchemist. In fact, Newton actually wrote roughly a million words about alchemy and his experiments with it — as Indiana University science historian William Newman has noted, Newton probably spent more time doing alchemy than he did on any of his other scientific pursuits.


After his death, Newton's relatives suppressed his writings on alchemy, because the field had fallen into disfavor. But now, historian Newman his colleagues are working tirelessly to digitize all of Newton's suppressed "chymistry" writings at the British Library, Cambridge University, and elsewhere. As Newman points out, alchemy wasn't always the laughable idea it is today. In the seventeenth century, it was the main way people understood chemistry. And they didn't all believe they were about to transform metal into gold by magic. Alchemists' knowledge of chemistry actually helped them con their contemporaries into believing they could transform silver into gold, as you can see in the experiment above. It's a recreation of a common trick that alchemists would use 300 years ago to make it appear that a silver coin had "transmuted" into gold.

Some of Newton's experiments with alchemy were legitimate chemistry experiments, though he would have interpreted the results differently from a chemist today. In this video, and the one below, you can see two of his experiments with copper and silver recreated. Writes Newman:

The first sequence illustrates the reduction of silver from a silver nitrate solution while copper is dissolved in the solution. The second time-lapse sequence depicts the reduction of the previously dissolved copper while iron is dissolved.

He continues:

[These experiments are a] modern interpretation and reworking of a series of "elective affinities" taken from Query 31 of Isaac Newton's optical masterpiece, appropriately entitled the Opticks. In Newton's words (from the 1730 fourth edition of the Opticks), "And so when a Solution of Iron in Aqua fortis dissolves the Lapis Calaminaris, and lets go the Iron, or a Solution of Copper dissolves Iron immersed in it and lets go the Copper, or a Solution of Silver dissolves Copper and lets go the Silver, or a Solution of Mercury in Aqua fortis being poured upon Iron, Copper, Tin, or Lead, dissolves the Metal and lets go the Mercury; does not this argue that the acid Particles of the Aqua fortis are attracted more strongly by the Lapis Calaminaris than by Iron, and more strongly by Iron than by Copper, and more strongly by Copper than by Silver, and more strongly by Iron, Copper, Tin, and Lead, than by Mercury?" . . . Newton writes Aqua fortis where a modern chemist would say "nitric acid" (HNO3). He writes Lapis Calaminaris where we would say "calamine" (a mineral mostly made up of zinc oxide). The rest of his terminology is straightforward.


Learn more about Newman's work on Newton's chymistry on his Indiana University page, or watch more cool chymistry videos here.

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Dr Emilio Lizardo

I only know Newton was into alchemy because of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. of course, it's hard to know what is real history and what he made up.

Love the Lionel Hutz opening to this post.