Sir Isaac Newton has been referred to as the last of the great magicians, and the first of the great scientists; the truth of this statement can be found in his copious notes on alchemy, which rival his works on calculus, optics and gravitation.
(for more on that, check our earlier post on the subject, Isaac Newton, Alchemist).
Now, it can be argued that during his lifetime, science was alchemy, and there is truth to that claim. However, the ground rules of alchemy contain many magical assumptions about the nature of reality, assumptions that simply do not fit in with what we now call the scientific method. Let’s consider the so called philosopher’s stone, the goal of alchemy. Its primary purpose: transforming lead into gold.
While the notion of searching for the philosopher’s stone as a psychological quest still exists (C.G. Jung being a prime proponent), the idea of producing a physical object that can transform baser elements into gold is an idea whose time has long gone.
Today, science can transform base metals into gold. It merely takes a particle accelerator and a lot of money – somewhere on the order of “one quadrillion dollars per ounce” (Nobel Prize winner Glenn Seaborg, senior study author on the 1980 experiment that realized the alchemist’s dream). It’s either that, or you have to wait for modern physics’ own unobtainable quest, cold fusion.
Back to Sir Isaac: his goal was to create a working philosopher’s stone. So where does one start?
With the father of alchemy, the fabled Hermes Trismegistus, and “his” just as mysterious text of fourteen lines, called the Emerald Tablet.
Alchemists and occultists up through the Victorian age took its authorship at face value, placing its origins in antiquity, a product of Hellenic-Egyptian magic. Less romantically and more historically, it was probably written between the 6th and 8th centuries C.E. in Arabic. Thought to be a compendium of earlier works, it went under the title Kitāb sirr al-ḫalīqa (Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature). Newton himself would be working from a Latin translation of the Arabic original.
Here is Newton’s translation of the Emerald Tablet, into English, currently housed at King’s College Library, Cambridge University:
- Tis true without error, certain & most true.
- That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
- And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
- The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
- The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
- Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
- Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
- It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
- By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
- & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
- Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
- So was the world created.
- From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
- That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.
If the many come from the one, it makes sense that any material, when returned to that oneness (through chymical means) can then be transmuted into any other substance, including the philosopher’s stone. The stone, in turn, essentially serves as a catalyst for further transmutations. In a sense, the logic works – unfortunately, the energy levels required are on the magnitude of supernovas; indeed, the stellar explosions that occasionally light up the night (occasionally even day) sky are truly philosopher’s stones in action.
Given Newton’s interest in the orbits of planets and comets (his masterpiece, Principia Mathematica, was written at the bequest of Edmond Halley, who needed a new kind of math to predict the orbit of the object we now refer to as Halley’s comet), he might have enjoyed the fact that his work with optics, calculus and gravity finally allowed us to peer into the very hearts of stars, the crucibles in which hydrogen and helium are violently fused together to form ever heavier compounds.
In the end, Newton never found his philosopher’s stone. But thanks to his work, science did, in those raging furnaces that adorn the night sky. Above us burn the dying stars who shower the heavens with all of the elements we know, from lead to…
The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.
Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Or to paraphrase the Emerald Tablet, line two:
As Above, So Below.
Image: NASA, Veil Nebula Supernova Remnant