8. "Thus You May Multiply to Infinity"

THERE IS A FAMOUS picture of Trinity College made during Newton's tenure there. In the foreground, just before the college gate, two men talk while a couple of dogs wrangle. A few members of the college walk the paths of the Great Court, and near the northwest corner of grounds, someone tends a small bonfire. The architecture looks familiar, much the same as now, but there is one detail that has long since been lost: a crude little structure tucked against the choir end of the college chapel, close beside Newton's rooms. Almost certainly, this cramped, dark shed was where Newton kept his alchemical laboratory.

Newton's first alchemical research began in 1668. He returned to it for extended periods over the next quarter century. He kept the work quiet, fully committed to the alchemical tradition of secrecy. When Robert Boyle announced that he planned to publish some of his results in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, Newton was horrified by the breach of security. There were practical reasons for his caution: as Ben Jonson's gibes demonstrated, alchemy looked an awful lot like counterfeiting to the uninitiated. In fact, such experiments were against the law, England's Act Against Multipliers, a statute whose repeal Boyle himself arranged in 1689. But worse, from Newton's point of view, was the notion of exposing potentially divine (and hence extremely powerful) secrets to the vulgar masses. If the process Boyle described had applications beyond heating gold, its description could cause "immense damage to ye world." Newton added—or rather warned—"I question not but that ye great wisdome of ye noble Author will sway him to high silence."

As measured by the time, effort, and accuracy of his laboratory trials, Newton was by far the most sophisticated and systematic alchemist in history. Most other genteel alchemists, even Boyle, relied on assistants to do the messy side of the work. Newton himself performed the tedious sequences of grinding, mixing, pouring, heating, cooling, fermenting, distilling, and all the other manipulations required. He even designed and built with his own hands the furnaces within which his alchemical reactions took place.

Above all, he demanded a level of empirical precision that no other alchemist had ever attempted, and he pursued that experimental rigor with manic, total devotion. Humphrey Newton described what went on there as a continuous, almost industrial operation: "About 6 weeks at Spring and 6 at ye fall, the fire in the Elaboratory scarcely going out either Night or Day, he siting up one Night, as I did another till he had finished his Chymical Experiments." For every experiment, Newton recorded to the grain the amount of each input, and measured its products to the limit of his instruments to resolve. Newton repeated his experiments as often as necessary, Humphrey Newton reported—never mind the heat, the fumes, the choking smoke that alchemical trials routinely produced. Through it all he never violated the adept's code of secrecy, even to his own servant: "What his Aim might be, I was not able to penetrate."

Newton even broke away from writing the Principia in 1686 and again in 1687 to keep his regular spring appointment with his fires and crucibles. Looked at one way, for much of the 1680s Newton was most concerned with his urgent study of the mutability of metals, and that little detour into physics and mathematics after Halley's visit in 1684 was merely a distraction, a break in the flow of the true course of his work. He did pause at last, once the fame that followed the Principia consumed him. But then, in 1691, after his return to Cambridge, Boyle died. Some weeks after that, Locke wrote to Newton about that mysterious red earth, and once the samples arrived, the furnaces seized hold of Newton once more.

That summer, he recorded the first in a new series of experiments. Over the next two years, he chased Boyle's process through his laboratory in a sustained frenzy of work, one that would prove to be his last major attempt to coax the vital spirit into revealing the secret of the transformation of base mixtures into gold.

Every document Newton wrote offers a probe of his mind, each one a partial view, a snapshot. Some, like the papers that lead up to the Principia, give us the Newton of popular memory. We recognize the brilliant, logical, dispassionate thinker, working more or less systematically, discarding failed, older conceptions as he moved toward a goal that became ever more clearly defined over time.

Newton's alchemical writing offers another view. As ever, he wrote, with his near-graphomane's determination to draft and redraft until he achieved the precise shade of meaning he wanted. One survey of his writings between the completion of the Principia and his final departure from Cambridge in 1696 counted at least 175,000 words in Newton's own hand on the theory and traditions of alchemy, and another 55,000 words of experimental notes.

Something of the familiar Newton appears in all that text. He began his Index Chemicus in the early 1680s and put it into its final form in the first years of the 1690s. Ninety-three pages long, with almost nine hundred entries—from Abaranaos Arnold to Zengiufer—it was the most comprehensive listing of alchemical ideas, writers, and concepts ever composed. It reached back to the ancient—perhaps purely legendary—founders of alchemy, traced medieval developments, and duly noted the work of some of Newton's own contemporaries, including Robert Boyle. It was the same kind of list Newton wrote time and again as he organized his thoughts for any research program he undertook.

But then there is Praxis—"Practice"—completed at the same time as the Index in its final form. Praxis records what Newton thought his experiments meant. There, straightforward laboratory records ("antimony melted wth tin 5pts in calido [heats, melts] wth mercury not very difficulty; wth 8 pts it amagalms very easily") evoke passages like this: "The rod of Mercury reconsciles the two serpants & makes them stick to it ... wch bond is Venus."

Or this: "This salt or red earth is therefore Flamels male Dragon wth out wings, for after it is thus extracted out of its native earth it is one of the thre substances wch the Sun & Moons bath is made."

Or this: "Tis the minera of Gold even as or Magnet is ye mineral of this or Chalkybs.... Tis a spirit highly volatile, or ffiery Draon, our infernal secret fire."

Nonsense, seemingly, the stuff of fever dreams. That is what (more or less) the syndics of Cambridge University Library concluded in 1888 when they declined to accept the Earl of Portsmouth's donation of a trove of Newton's alchemical writings as "of being very little interest in themselves." And yet the committee did accept much of what Portsmouth offered, including the Index Chemicus. The distinction was simple: the real Newton, the official Newton, compounded antimony and mercury in precise proportions and carefully wrote down his results. The other Newton was an embarrassing uncle to be kept in the attic lest he walk unsteadily down Trumpington Street, muttering just a little too loudly about wingless dragons and infernal fire.

Except, of course, the chemical Newton of the lab notebooks and the alchemical Newton who pondered the bathing habits of the sun and moon are the same man. That single thinker was not, almost all of the time, a lunatic. The language in Praxis appears opaque, even bizarre, only when it is extracted from its context. Newton in 1693 remained deeply committed to the alchemist's duty to prevent the vulgar from gaining access to knowledge too powerful to be trusted to just anyone. Praxis, handwritten, never destined for publication, demanded that its few, carefully selected readers share that deep immersion in the practice and private language of the alchemical tradition. For those who could read past the menstruum of Venus and the salts of wise men, the document does reveal fundamental insights into what Newton believed he knew in the late spring of 1693.

That June, Newton was convinced he had discovered something of transcendent importance. It had been sparked by the hint Boyle had left for Locke to find. Boyle's work implied that there was a process, what alchemists called a kind of fermentation, that could take a base mixture charged with a seed of gold and transform the whole mass into precious metal.

Once Newton jettisoned his lingering skepticism, he began to chase down Boyle's hints about this fermentation, termed the "wet way" of alchemical action. As he felt himself getting closer, his already furious pace intensified, until he was seemingly chained to his furnace, working and reworking his experiments in a reprise of the alchemical frenzy Humphrey Newton had witnessed almost a decade before.

Then he rested. In one of the last passages of Praxis, he reported what he had done. He listed a dizzying series of steps, interactions involving sulfur, mercury, and several other compounds. The procedure produced a range of products—a black powder that Newton described as "our Pluto, ye God of wealth or Saturn who beholds himself in the looking glass"; then, later in the sequence, the "Chaos ... that is ye hollow oak"; and later still, "the blood of the Green Lyon." Each step, each chemical product carefully concealed behind this fantastic imagery, took Newton closer to his actual goal, the ability to make the final product that could drive the transformation of matter from one form into another. At last, he wrote, he succeeded, forging the legendary "stone of the ancients."

With that, Newton allowed his most extravagant language to fall away and simply recorded what happened next. "You may ferment them wth [Image] [gold] & [Image] [silver] by keeping the stone & metal in fusion together for a day, & then project upon metals." This stage, "the multiplication of the stone in vertue," created a kind of catalyst, the ultimate goal of millennia of alchemical investigation. Then, as Newton wrote, a touch of color returning to his prose, "You may multiply it in quantity by the mercuries of wch you made at first, amalgaming ye stone wt ye [Image] [mercury] of 3 or more eagles and adding their weight of ye water, & if you desgine it for mettalls you may melt every time 3 parts of [Image] wth one of ye stone ... Thus you may multiply to infinity" (italics added).

The philosophers' stone. Power without limit—and knowledge too. It was the alchemist's dream, realized at last. Praxis ends with a discussion of whether his newly formed philosophers' stone was the "quintessential matter or Chaos out of which man and all yeworld was made." Newton now possessed, or thought he did, what he had looked for with such hunger throughout his decades of alchemical hard labor: a direct connection to an omnipotent God. He had pursued the same goal in all his work, of course. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, Newton wanted to know what choices God made when He created the world. More deeply, he wanted to understand what comes next—what the divinity is doing now in the physical cosmos of space and time. And here, at last, he thought he had the answer: in multiplying gold at the laboratory bench he had achieved the ultimate act of imitatio dei, an imitation of God's will in the world. It was the moment when Newton, and Newton alone, peered into the mechanism of divine action this side of heaven.

This vision he kept to himself. One or two other men may have read a version of Praxis, though it is not known whether he showed the final version to anyone. With Boyle dead and Locke sworn to silence, Newton's result—whatever he had truly achieved—remained his and solely his to ponder.

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