Harry Potter's Nicolas Flamel - who, by the way, had existed in real life during the 14th century - was an alchemist believed to have discovered the "philosopher's stone."
The Philosopher's stone is an alchemical substance that is said to be capable of turning base metals into silver or gold. Some also believe that it is an elixir of life.
Fast-forward to the 17th century, another curious mind in Europe dabbles in alchemy and studies a recipe that is supposedly an essential precursor to the philosopher's stone. This is something that would change the way we view the man today.
A Fervent Interest In Alchemy
Sir Isaac Newton, a renowned physicist and mathematician whose work laid the foundations for classical mechanics, was actually quite a fan of alchemy.
A 17th-century manuscript handwritten by Newton detailing a recipe for "sophick mercury" is now in the safe hands of the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) in Philadelphia.
One of the foundation's curators, James Voelkel, said Newton was strongly engrossed in alchemy during his lifetime. He said Newton's manuscripts contain a million handwritten words.
Sophick mercury is a substance considered as the main ingredient for creating the philosopher's stone. The recipe to create sophick mercury involved repeatedly distilling mercury and then heating it with gold. With this process, the substance eventually becomes an alloy with delicate growths.
Newton copied the recipe from a text by Harvard-educated alchemist George Starkey. Experts said this occurred long before Starkey printed his take on the process.
Here comes the interesting part: alchemists like Starkey typically used cryptic language to obscure their work, a kind of thinking that suggested that only those who are worthy would comprehend. Such is the case for the sophick mercury recipe.
Although there is no evidence that Newton himself decoded the sophick mercury recipe, Voelkel said Newton scribbled his own notes on the back of his copied text - a natural habit of his. He had then decided to compile giant concordances that classified those coded terms.
They Say Alchemy Is A Pseudoscience
Why is this discovery so important? Indiana University's William Newman, an expert in the history of science, said the ancient manuscript will help modern scholars understand how Newton interpreted alchemy's often deeply complex recipes.
Newman said the manuscript also highlights the fact that Newton - a father of classical physics and co-discoverer of calculus - was strongly influenced by alchemy and his work with other alchemists.
Voelkel said Newton is a fascinating alchemist because of the systematic process in which he worked. He said Newton would reference to an individual alchemist, which page they had used the term, and then do a data-driven analysis.
Some say that Newton's interest in alchemy was driven by the hope to use ancient knowledge to better explain the nature of matter, but other scholars have dismissed alchemy as a mystical pseudoscience filled with fanciful and discredited processes.
Even Newton's biographer in 1855 questioned how such a mind like Newton's could seriously take the "obvious production of a fool and a knave."
What's more, the sophick mercury recipe that is in the CHF's possession only resurfaced now in part because Newton's alma mater Cambridge University turned down the chance to archive the alchemy recipes. The recipes were then sold at a 1936 auction, and have remained in private hands.
But the discovery of this manuscript is truly important because this meant that Newton did "magic" the same way he studied science. As far as Newton was concerned, alchemy was a science.
Although some scholars do not believe alchemy is practical or empirical, Newman said alchemists were the first ones to grasp the idea that compounds could be deconstructed into parts and then recombined - a principle recognized today.
This is something that Newton applied into white light, which he broke down into basic colors and recombined, said Newman.
It is safe to say that without Newton the alchemist, Newton the physicist wouldn't have formed his breakthroughs.
Meanwhile, Voelkel said something that was left out of the narrative was how chemistry developed in the 16th and 17th century, unlike physics. He said that just like other academics during the 17th century, Newton was struggling with chemistry.
"In some ways," he added, "it's so difficult that even Newton couldn't solve it."