What does that mean? In a nutshell, Principe is fighting a wide-spread and surprisingly persistent image of early modern alchemy as something totally different from “proper” chemistry – a misguided pursuit generally, an obscurantist quest for impossible truths typically, or maybe even something completely allegorical, like the vision of a purely “spiritual alchemy”. The latter was invented by 19th century occultists, and later “psychologized” by C. G. Jung and his followers, from where it has remarkably gained something of an upper ground on the interpretation of alchemy for a surprisingly long time. Against these various perceptions of alchemy, Principe (and his colleague Newman) argue that alchemy was a “proper science”.
In this project the Jungian interpretation becomes a natural enemy. Shortly put, the Jungian approach is to look at the seemingly incomprehensible symbolism which shows up in alchemical treatises as allegorical of higher things – psychological processes or religious aspirations. Thus lions devouring suns and the copulation of kings and queens primarily signify ”archetypical” manifestations.
No, says Principe: the intricate symbolism is about something very concrete, and it is possible to find out exactly what. They are actually veiled ways of talking about concrete laboratory practices and experimental procedures. As a double PhD in chemistry and the history of science, Principe’s project has been to take the alchemists seriously: find out what they were talking about, and carry out the experiments. Based on the results he has gathered from his own alchemical laboratory, Principe suggests that alchemical talk of trees that will grow the philosopher’s stone, or the grey wolf that springs forth are indeed quite literal attempts to describe how certain chemical reactions look like. Without the technical and analytical language of later chemistry, experimental results necessarily had to be framed within the analogical mode of description and classification which so characterized much of renaissance and early modern forms of knowledge.
Now, back to Newton. This interesting discussion is presented on the Philosophy of Science webpage:
In Dr. Newman’s view, none of the above. Sir Isaac the Alchemist, he said, was no less the fierce and uncompromising scientist than was Sir Isaac, author of the magisterial Principia Mathematica. There were plenty of theoretical and empirical reasons at the time to take the principles of alchemy seriously, to believe that compounds could be broken down into their basic constituents and those constituents then reconfigured into other, more desirable substances.Miners were pulling up from the ground twisted bundles of copper and silver that were shaped like the stalks of a plant, suggesting that veins of metals and minerals were proliferating underground with almost florid zeal.Pools found around other mines seemed to have extraordinary properties. Dip an iron bar into the cerulean waters of the vitriol springs of modern-day Slovakia, for example, and the artifact will emerge agleam with copper, as though the dull, dark particles of the original had been elementally reinvented. “It was perfectly reasonable for Isaac Newton to believe in alchemy,” said Dr. Newman. “Most of the experimental scientists of the 17th century did.”Moreover, while the alchemists of the day may not have mastered the art of transmuting one element into another — an ordeal that we have since learned requires serious equipment like a particle accelerator, or the belly of a star — their work yielded a bounty of valuable spinoffs, including new drugs, brighter paints, stronger soaps and better booze. “Alchemy was synonymous with chemistry,” said Dr. Newman, “and chemistry was much bigger than transmutation.”For Newton, alchemy may also have proved bigger than chemistry. Dr. Newman argues that Sir Isaac’s alchemical investigations helped yield one of his fundamental breakthroughs in physics: his discovery that white light is a mixture of colored rays, and that a sunbeam prismatically fractured into the familiar rainbow suite called Roy G. Biv can with a lens be resolved to tidy white sunbeam once again. “I would go so far as to say that alchemy was crucial to Newton’s breakthroughs in optics,” said Dr. Newman. “He’s not just passing light through a prism — he’s resynthesizing it.” Consider this a case of “technology transfer,” said Dr. Newman, “from chemistry to physics.”The conceptual underpinning to the era’s alchemical fixation was the idea of matter as hierarchical and particulate — that tiny, indivisible and semipermanent particles come together to form ever more complex and increasingly porous substances, a notion not so different from the reality revealed by 20th-century molecular biology and quantum physics.With the right solvents and the perfect reactions, the researchers thought, it should be possible to reduce a substance to its core constituents — its corpuscles, as Newton called them — and then prompt the corpuscles to adopt new configurations and programs. Newton and his peers believed it was possible to prompt metals to grow, or “vegetate,” in a flask. After all, many chemical reactions were known to leave lovely dendritic residues in their wake. Dissolve a pinch of silver and mercury in a solution of nitric acid, drop in a lump of metal amalgam, and soon a spidery, glittering “Tree of Diana” will form on the glass. Or add iron to hydrochloric acid and boil the solution to dryness. Then prepare a powdery silicate mix of sand and potassium carbonate. Put the two together, and you will have a silica garden, in which the ruddy ferric chloride rises and bifurcates, rises and bifurcates, as though it were reaching toward sunlight and bursting into bloom.
So Newton belonged to a group of early scientists that saw something beyond the superficial and materialistic points of view of the alchemists of the age. All this oil of vitriol, caustics, lyes and other chemicals were later used to generate purer reagents that made us generate the modern chemicals (and for which I have a job, without fear of burning on a stake for making chemicals).
Here is the transcript they made of PBS Newton's Dark Secrets:
Finally I leave with this webpage that presents how Newton used his alchemical knowledge and experimentation to combine elements of chemistry with his early optics experiments and prisms...
And some information regarding Newton's contributions to modern science:
and of course, a listing of alchemical substances with their modern names: