While we tend to remember Isaac Newton primarily for his contributions to theoretical physics, the late 17th-early-18th Century scientist and mathematician spent a lot of time delving into the shadowy supernatural, from alchemy to apocalyptic predictions. But as detailed in an coming program, “Secrets of the Dark Arts,” which airs at 9 p.m. on January 24, a coded manuscript containing details of Newton’s investigations of the dark arts may yet yield the location of the long-lost Ark of the Covenant of the ancient Israelites and truth about the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, which in legend could change base metals to gold.
In context, the renowned scientist’s fascination with the occult is not really so surprising. As Newton’s biographer James Gleick writes, the great man “was born into a world of darkness, obscurity and magic,” when the lines were not so sharply drawn between rational science and meditation upon the otherworldly. Newton not only saw no contradiction in having a foot in each sphere, but saw a connection between the two. When Leibnitz accused him of implying in his mathematical work that God was imperfect, Newton responded:
But must the constant and universal laws of Nature, if derived from the Power of God or the Action of a Cause not yet known to us, be called Miracles and occult qualities?
Newton particularly was interested in alchemy, the dark art whose practitioners sought to convert one metal to another. He pursued his inquiries in solitude, and for good reason: practice of that art was outlawed by the British government, which feared that the ability to create gold might undermine its use as currency. (And Newton, as the official in charge of the Royal Mint, was in a particularly delicate position.)
The Newton Project, an online collection of Newton’s notes and manuscripts, contains 136 different documents on alchemy, including Newton’s handwritten notes from experiments in December 1678, in which he mixed iron with other chemicals and subjected the combinations to heat, in the attempt to produce precious metals. Newton’s laboratory methods were a bit crude by modern standards–at one point, he noted that one of the mixtures “tasted also sweet.”
Recently, scholars have discovered in these papers indications that Newton thought he was close to the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone, which was not an object but rather the process that alchemists ultimately hoped to achieve–the transmutation of lead, iron or other common metals into gold. One of the researchers, Oxford University scientific historian Anna Marie Roos, has spent time in pursuit of that secret. It is no easy task; Deciphering Newton’s work can be extremely challenging, because he recorded his observations and theories in a mishmash of Latin, ancient Greek and 17th Century English, and used a variety of odd symbols whose meaning is still not entirely understood.
One possible key to the mystery: Newton’s papers contain numerous references to a “hunting of the Green Lyon,” which was the alchemists’ allegorical code-phrase for the search for the Philosopher’s Stone process. (From a 16th Century German work, The Booke of the Rosary of Philosophers, here’s an image of the “Greene Lyon” consuming the Sun.)
Newton’s curious mind also delved into the historical mystery surrounding the fate of the Ark of the Covenant. As detailed in the Hebrew Bible, the Ark was the vessel created by the Hebrews, according to God’s detailed instuctions, to contain the tablets of the Ten Commandments. When King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem, he created a special inner chamber, called the Holy of Holies, for storing it. The Ark was said to have miraculous powers; in 1 Samuel 6:19, the men of Bethshemesh–all 50,310 of them–were struck dead merely for being so bold as to look directly at the sacred object. When the Temple was destroyed during the Babylonian sacking of Jerusalem in the Sixth Century B.C., the Ark disappeared, and its fate and/or wherabouts have been unknown since then, though numerous theories abound. The Ark repears in Scripture in the New Testament’s Revelation 11:19, which states that
And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was was seen in His temple the ark of his testament, and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail.
Newton’s papers contain multiple references to the Ark of the Covenant, and Newton wrote extensively about Solomon’s Temple in his 87,000-word manuscript The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms, which was published postumously in 1728. The book contains this diagram of the temple made by Newton, which includes the sanctum in which the Ark was kept.
Since then, some have speculated that Newton, who was interested in the apocalyptic, actually sought to solve the mystery and locate the Ark. In a 2008 book, Temple at the Center of Time: Newton’s Bible Codex Finally Deciphered and the Year 2012, author David Flynn suggests that Newton believed that the Scriptures contained a hidden code revealing the Ark’s location, and that the measurements of the First Temple were the key to solving the equation. Skeptics, it should be mentioned, have raised doubts about Flynn’s hypothesis. But in any case, those who continue to search for the Ark hope that Newton’s work will eventually yield useful clues.