A collection of notes by Sir Isaac Newton, thought by experts to be lost forever, have recently been rediscovered at the Royal Society and goes on display to the public for the first time next week at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition.
The notes are written about alchemy, which some scientists in Newton’s time believed to hold the secret for transforming base metals, such as lead, into the more precious metals of gold or silver. Much of the text consists of Newtons notes on the work of another alchemist of the seventeenth century, Frenchman Pierre Jean Fabre. But one page of the notes presents a more intriguing prospect it offers what may be Newton’s own thoughts on alchemy, written almost entirely in English and in his own handwriting.
Although the notes were originally uncovered following Newton’s death in 1727, they were never properly documented and were thought to be lost following their sale for £15 at an auction at Sotheby’s in July 1936. During the cataloguing of the Royal Society’s Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection the notes were discovered and, with the help of Imperial College’s Newton Project, were identified as being the papers which had disappeared nearly 70 years before.
The notes reflect a part of Newton’s life which he kept hidden from public scrutiny during his lifetime, in part because the making of gold or silver was a felony and had been since a law was passed by Henry IV in 1404. Newton is famous for his revolutionary work in many areas including mathematics and the fields of optics, gravity and the laws of motion. However, throughout his career he, and other scientists of the time, many of whom were Fellows of the Royal Society, carried out extensive research into alchemy.
The text is written in English, but it is not easy to work out what Newton is actually saying. Alchemists were notorious for recording their methods and theories in symbolic language or code in order that others could not understand it. An excerpt demonstrates the elusive style of the writings:
“It is therefore no wonder that – in their advice lay before us the rule of nature in obtaining the great secret both for medicine & transmutation. And if I may have the liberty of expression give me leave to assert as my opinion that it is effectual in all the three kingdoms & from every species may be produced when the modus is rightly understood: only mineralls produce minerals & sic de calmis. But the hidden secret modus is Clissus Paracelsi wch is nothing else but the separation of the principles thris purification & reunion in a fusible & penetrating fixity.”
Stephen Cox, Executive Secretary of the Royal Society, said: “Such an intriguing find highlights the sheer volume of fascinating materials contained in the Royal Society’s library and archive. Our ongoing task is to ensure that the materials we hold are all identified and catalogued. This will allow historians and the public to fully access our great wealth of papers and artefacts from some of the most famous scientists in history. At the Summer Science Exhibition, alongside the many exhibits featuring the cutting-edge science of today, people can find displays throughout the building of the legacy that past Fellows have left behind, including these papers from Isaac Newton.”
Dr John Young from the Newton Project said: “This is a hugely exciting find for Newton scholars and for historians of science in general. It provides vital evidence about the alchemical authors Newton was reading, and the alchemical theories he was investigating, in the last decades of the seventeenth century. The whereabouts of this document have been unknown since 1936 and it was a real thrill to see it preserved in the Royal Society’s archives.”