Alchemy: Then and Now
Ruth Kassinger--The Washington Post--March 22, 1999
Sir Isaac Newton: mathematician, physicist, astronomer, alchemist.
Yes, the man who invented calculus and derived the law of universal gravitation also practiced alchemy, the
ancient and secretive pseudo-science of turning base metals into gold. Newton spent years working at his furnace
with dangerous and smelly combinations of the raw materials of alchemy -- mercury, silver, lead and sulfur.
He was convinced that not only could gold be made but also that ancient alchemists had done so. Their secret
knowledge, he believed, although largely lost, might be teased from 2,000 years of accumulated ancient Greek,
Egyptian and Arab writings, many of which he had read and copied.
After one experiment, Newton wrote in an unpublished manuscript that he thought he had the "great secret of
Alchemy," a sort of "living" mercury that "makes gold begin to swell . . . . and also to spring forth in sprouts
and branches." The process didn't pan out, but the secret, he felt, was nearly within his grasp.
It wasn't. But mercury can, indeed, be turned into gold. The secret lies in understanding the structure of the
atom's nucleus and the technology of accelerating atomic particles. That knowledge wouldn't arrive, however,
until 250 years after Newton and 20 centuries after alchemists first sought the recipe for gold.
Gold is soft enough to cut with a knife, so it has never been useful as a material for tools. Although its
malleability makes it easy to shape into jewelry, it also dents and scratches easily, which is why even a
high-quality, 18-karat "gold" ring is 25 percent other metals.
Gold is extremely heavy. A gold bar is twice as heavy as the same-sized bar made of lead. After plundering Persia
of its gold in 334 B.C., Alexander the Great decided to bury portions of the treasure along the trail to lighten
the burden on his soldiers. Nonetheless, many early civilizations treasured gold and silver for its value as