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The Scientific Revolution’s Unexpected Debt To Alchemy

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 22, 2014

The wisdom of the crackpots (Illustration: Engraving after a painting by David Teniers)

The wisdom of the crackpots (Illustration: Engraving after a painting by David Teniers)

My latest, for Smithsonian Magazine, where it appears in slightly different form:

The dark art of alchemy is the sort of thing you were, until recently, more likely to find in a Harry Potter novel than in one of the world’s great scientific research facilities.  The alchemist’s perennial dream of transmuting base metals, or almost anything else, into gold was of course hopeless. All the attendant trappings—the strange language and the paranoid secrecy–sounded to modern scientists like fanciful nonsense.

They considered alchemy a ”pathology of thought,” and even “the greatest obstacle to the development of rational chemistry.”  Those who dared merely to write about it, the historian Herbert Butterfield once warned, end up “tinctured with the kind of lunacy they set out to describe.”

But to a few revisionist scholars in the 1990s, trying to decipher the coded language of the alchemists and even replicate their experiments turned out to be a useful exercise.  Trial-and-error in the lab, combined with close reading of the historical context, revealed, for instance, that a deliberately opaque instruction like “introduce to the eagle the old dragon” meant simply “mix ammonium chloride with potassium nitrate.”  A “cold dragon” who “creeps in and out of the caves” was code for saltpeter (potassium nitrate), a crystalline substance found on cave walls that tastes cool on the tongue.

This painstaking process of decoding allowed researchers for the first time to attempt entire alchemical experiments.  A recipe for the “Philosophical Tree,” for instance, would supposedly yield a precursor to the more celebrated and elusive “Philosopher’s Stone.”  And for alchemists, the “Stone,” if they could ever attain it, would have been the elixir of life, health, wealth, and power.

One day in the mid-1990s, following a recipe for the “Philosopher’s Tree” cobbled together from obscure texts and scraps of eighteenth-century laboratory notebooks, chemist and science historian Lawrence Principe mixed mercury and gold into a buttery lump at the bottom of a flask. Then he buried the sealed flask with this “egg” in a heated sand bath, in his laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

For several weeks, nothing happened.  He varied the temperature, and the egg began to swell a little and become “partly covered with warty excrescences.”  For alchemists, the ambition was to produce a golden product, and using gold to produce more gold would have seemed entirely logical, Principe explains, like using germs of wheat to grow an entire field of wheat.

One morning soon after, Principe came into the lab to discover to his “utter disbelief” that the bulb of the flask had filled, as the recipe had promised, with “a glittering and fully formed tree” of gold.  (In photographs, it looks like a head of coral, or like the branching canopy of a tree minus the leaves.)  For an early alchemist, Principe writes, in his recent book The Secrets of Alchemy, it would have been “vivid and unquestionable proof that he had found the ‘entrance to the place of the king,’ that is, the crucial threshold leading to the Philosophers’ Stone.”

What intrigues Principe and his fellow revisionists, though, is the tantalizing idea that the alchemists might actually have known what they were doing.  Their theories, their language, and their relentless quest for gold may have been far-fetched. Yet the alchemists now seem to have performed legitimate experiments, manipulated and analyzed the material world in interesting ways, and reported genuine results.  And many of the great names in the canon of modern science took note, says William Newman, a science historian at Indiana University and a leader of the revisionist movement.

Robert Boyle, one of the eighteenth-century founders of modern chemistry, “basically pillaged” the work of the German alchemist Daniel Sennert, says Newman, When Boyle’s French counterpart Antoine Lavoisier substituted a modern list of elements (oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and others) for the ancient four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), he built on an idea that was “actually widespread in earlier alchemical sources,” Newman writes. The concept that matter was composed of several distinctive elements, in turn, inspired Sir Isaac Newton’s work on optics—notably, his demonstration that the multiple colors produced by a prism could be reconstituted into white light.  (Newton even authored his own alchemical manuscript.)  Francis Bacon, revered as the inventor of the experimental method, likewise drew on experimental precedents established by alchemists.

Instead of representing an intellectual dead end, alchemy has increasingly come to look like the beginning of modern science.  Other scholars have at times responded to this idea with outrage.  Once at an academic conference in the 1990s, a member of the audience confronted Principe “literally shaking with rage that I could defame Boyle in this way.” More recently, a reviewer criticized the revisionists for “trying to airbrush out of the record elements that seem to us less attractive” about alchemists, notably their tendency to fraud, bankruptcy, and the occult.

But younger scholars have taken up alchemy as a hot topic.  The early revisionist research, says Principe,  “cracked open the seal and said ‘Hey, look everybody, this is not what you thought it was,’ And it’s really taken off. It was a surprise, and people like a good historical surprise.”

In a mark of that new acceptance, the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, Germany, will present a show, beginning this April, on “Art and Alchemy–The Mystery of Transformation.” Along with alchemy-influenced art works from Jan Breughel the Elder to Anselm Kiefer, it will include an exhibit on Principe’s “Philosopher’s Tree” experiment.

Does this new view of alchemy make the great names in the early history of modern science seem more derivative and thus less great?  “We were just talking in my class about the rhetoric of novelty,” says Principe, “and how it benefits people to say that their discoveries are completely new.”  But that’s not how scientific ideas develop. “They don’t just sort of come to someone in a dream, out of nowhere.  You learn what exists as a young person, and then you develop and change it gradually.”

From that perspective, the scientific revolution may have been a little less revolutionary than we imagine.  Better to think of, it like changing lead to gold, as a transmutation

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