The word alchemy has a long history – from late Greek to Arabic to Medieval Latin to Old French, and finally to its current English form. In its oldest (late Greek) form, it refers directly to Egypt’s ‘black earth’, the fertile ground surrounding the Nile (chēmeía being the Greek equivalent of the Egyptian word kēme). So, the word alchemy points both to its Greco-Egyptian roots, and its passage through the Middle East (the “al” in alchemy being the Arabic for “the”).
The word was not done evolving there – our word chemistry comes from alchemy. Still, anyone with a scientific bent is probably skeptical of anything or anyone associated with the word. This begs the question: etymology aside, what exactly is alchemy?
Alchemy is typically described as having two components – exoteric (outward, visible), and esoteric (inside, hidden). Exoteric alchemy is linked with pharmacy, proto-chemistry, and the quest for the “philosopher’s stone”, which may grant the ability to transmute substances like lead into gold. In theory, it might also grant immortality.
For the esoteric alchemist, the philosopher’s stone is about internal transformation, be it spiritual, magical, or artistic. Psychologists like C.G. Jung, magical societies like the Golden Dawn (which included the poet W.B. Yeats as well as the “world’s most wicked man”, Aleister Crowley), and artists like the Surrealists (including Salvador Dali) all took inspiration from esoteric alchemical literature and art (and yes, there’s quite a bit of alchemical art).
So how does this relate to Sir Isaac Newton?
Let’s recap Sir Newton. A brilliant though quite irate genius whose work underpins classical physics as we know it. Author of what is generally considered one of the greatest mathematical works ever conceived, the Principia Mathematica. The reason some of us had to take calculus (yup, that one’s on Newton as well). The man who inadvertently gave us the cover to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album. And if none of that rings a bell, there’s that fable that we’ve all been taught: how Isaac, sitting under an apple tree, was clobbered on the head by a falling fruit and discovered the laws of planetary motion (gravity). That Isaac Newton.
Let’s consider that last bit. In shorthand, one of the great alchemical teachings is “As above, so below”. This is rule two from the book, the Emerald Tablet, attributed to a Hermes Trismegistus, the shadowy figure considered the father of alchemy (which is why the term Hermeticism is sometimes used interchangeably with alchemy). Of the copious number of alchemical texts in Newton’s possession was a copy of the Emerald Tablet; here is the full form of the second dictum from his version:
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.
Apples indeed! Alchemy had primed Newton to look for patterns, above and below, and patterns he found aplenty. If there was an apple, it was a very alchemical apple indeed.
In the 1930’s, economist John Maynard Keynes purchased a box of Newton’s lost writings on alchemy; over one million hand inked words. A few years later, he made the following statement:
Newton was not the first scientist of the age of sense. He was instead the last of magicians, the last of Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind to have stopped on the world of thought and of the visible with the same eyes of those who began to build our intellectual heritage little less than ten thousand years ago. (Keynes, open address to the Royal Society Club, 1942)
Or to put it another way: hey science, how do you like them apples?