Recipe for Insanity in Philadelphia City Paper

April 7, 2005 - Philadelphia, PA

 By Bruce Schimmel

Professor Lawrence M. Principe was browsing through a sheaf of science experiments dating from the 17th century when he found a single scrap of paper that he says is tantamount to a handwritten confession from one of the world’s greatest scientists.

Principe, a Johns Hopkins University professor of the history of alchemy and chemistry, immediately recognized the handwriting as that of Sir Isaac Newton, and the scrap paper was an experiment in alchemy. Here was Newton’s own secret chemical recipe, calling for copious amounts of mercury to change silver into gold.

Here was the missing piece of evidence, says Principe, that also linked Newton’s obsession with alchemy with the scientist’s well-documented bout of insanity. Principe calls it “a coincidence bordering on the miraculous” because he believes that this incriminating evidence may, at one time, have been overlooked intentionally.

Principe is a tweedy, soft-spoken young man. But his green eyes blaze and he giggles with delight as he describes the full impact of what he found last year in the library of Philadelphia’s Chemical Heritage Foundation in Old City. The recovered alchemical recipe, he says, reveals a side of Newton that previous generations may have tried to hide.

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