Being a genius doesn't mean you'll always be right. Isaac Newton may have been the most transformative individual in the history of science, but he had some deeply wrong ideas, one of which we can now examine in unprecedented detail with the acquisition of one of his manuscripts.
Long before JK Rowling revived the fame of the philosopher's stone, alchemists sought to make this fabled object for its supposed capacity to convert base metals to gold and provide immortal life. The quest was not entirely in vain. Hydrochloric, sulfuric and nitric acids, each of them essential to modern industrial processes, were the product of early Islamic alchemists. It's hard to put a price on eternal life, but certainly the world is much richer today for those discoveries than it would be with a process for producing gold.
Nevertheless, Newton was entranced by the idea. He is estimated to have written a million words on alchemy, and in the 1670s he hand-copied (and corrected) a set of instructions whose Latin title translates to "Preparation of the [Sophick] Mercury for the [Philosophers'] Stone by the Antimonial Stellate Regulus of Mars and Luna from the Manuscripts of the American Philosopher."
The American philosopher in question was the appropriately named George Starkey, who after moving to England published the work under the pseudonym Eirenaeus Philalethes.
“Sophick,” or philosophic, mercury was considered a step to making the philosopher's stone. The confidence in its existence came from the standard belief at the time that what we now consider elements were not elemental at all. Rather they were products made up of earth, water, fire and air, then seen as the true elements. A substance that could break materials into these constituents could surely reassemble them, the reasoning went.
Newton, who overthrew so many errors, was convinced of this one, spending vast quantities of his time on the topic, although his laboratory notebook doesn't mention an attempt to follow Starkey's instructions.
Newton's manuscripts were kept by members of his family (he had no direct descendants) until being broken up and sold in 1936. Intellectuals and public institutions have been trying to retrieve as many of them as possible ever since, but many have proven hard to find.
His work on philosophic mercury re-emerged in 2004, and has now been bought by the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF). James Voelkel, the CHF's curator of rare books, told Live Science: "This manuscript is of great interest to us because it is part of Isaac Newton's alchemical activity. It's a sign of his readings, interest and experiments in alchemy." The same manuscript includes one of Newton's own experiments.
The CHF have announced their intention to copy the document and place it online in The Chymistry of Isaac Newton archive.
Just as other alchemists produced work of great value while chasing the impossible dream, the archive includes evidence that Newton's success in breaking white light into a spectrum, the basis of modern optics, was inspired by his alchemic experiments.