[Marxism] What alchemists got right
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Fri Apr 10 10:01:11 MDT 2009
Good as gold
What alchemists got right
By Stephen Heuser | March 15, 2009
THREE HUNDRED YEARS ago, more or less, the last serious alchemists
finally gave up on their attempts to create gold from other metals,
dropping the curtain on one of the least successful endeavors in the
history of human striving.
Centuries of work and scholarship had been plowed into alchemical
pursuits, and for what? Countless ruined cauldrons, a long trail of
empty mystical symbols, and precisely zero ounces of transmuted gold. As
a legacy, alchemy ranks above even fantasy baseball as a great human
icon of misspent mental energy.
But was it really such a waste? A new generation of scholars is taking a
closer look at a discipline that captivated some of the greatest minds
of the Renaissance. And in a field that modern thinkers had dismissed as
a folly driven by superstition and greed, they now see something quite
Alchemists, they are finding, can take credit for a long roster of
genuine chemical achievements, as well as the techniques that would
prove essential to the birth of modern lab science. In alchemists'
intricate notes and diagrams, they see the early attempt to codify and
hand down experimental knowledge. In the practices of alchemical
workshops, they find a masterly refinement of distillation, sublimation,
and other techniques still important in modern laboratories.
Alchemy had long been seen as a kind of shadowy forebear of real
chemistry, all the gestures with none of the results. But it was an
alchemist who discovered the secret that created the European porcelain
industry. Another alchemist discovered phosphorus. The alchemist
Paracelsus helped transform medicine by proposing that disease was
caused not by an imbalance of bodily humors, but by distinct harmful
entities that could be treated with chemicals. (True, he believed the
entities were controlled by the planets, but it was a start.)
"We've got people who are trying to make medicines, which are
pharmaceuticals; we've got people who are trying to understand the
material basis of the world - very much like a modern engineer, or
someone in technology," says Lawrence Principe, a professor of chemistry
and the history of science at Johns Hopkins University who is a leading
thinker in the revival of alchemy studies.
The field has begun to coalesce as its own academic specialty. Last
fall, alchemy scholars gathered at their second academic conference in
three years, and in January, Yale University opened an exhibit of rare
alchemical manuscripts. For the first time, the leading academic journal
of scientific history is planning to publish a special section on alchemy.
To Principe and his colleagues, there is a larger goal. Beyond
rehabilitating the reputation of the historical thinkers who considered
themselves alchemists, they hope to encourage a broader view of science
itself - not as a starkly modern category of human achievement, but
rather as part of a long and craftsmanlike tradition of trying to
understand and manipulate nature.
Alchemists might have been colossally wrong in their goals, but they
were, in some fundamental way, part of the story of science, these
scholars say. Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton, fathers of modern
chemistry and physics, were also serious students of alchemy. And the
fact that alchemists have been marginalized as hand-waving mystics says
less about alchemists themselves than about modern society's need to
separate itself from the supposedly benighted past.
The roots of alchemy appear to touch nearly every developed culture -
alchemists worked in the Far East, India, and the Islamic world. But it
was in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries when alchemy reached its
peak of influence, a network of respected and often well-paid
specialists laboring in the towns and princely courts of Germany and
Italy, as well as in Britain and France. Some alchemists were
independent operators, perhaps an assayer in a mining town who hoped to
create a little gold on the side; some ran workshops with a dozen
apprentices under the patronage of aristocrats. "It's really a
surprising range of people who got involved in alchemy in the 16th
century," says Tara Nummedal, a historian of alchemy at Brown
University. "Alchemy was really part of the popular culture."
What they all shared was a belief that one natural substance could be
transmuted into another. An ancient theory of nature held that all
matter was in a process of slow but constant change, and the mission of
alchemy was to nudge that process along. The highest and purest state of
matter was gold, and gold is what alchemists prized most. But even a
partial success could yield a valuable material like tin, copper, or silver.
In many ways the alchemists made it easy for later scientists to dismiss
them as tall-hatted cranks. Their notebooks are deliberately cryptic;
they wrote under arcane pseudonyms and invented fictional authorities.
They assumed vast, secret connections between planets and the spiritual
world; they saw metals as an expression of the divine.
Even their most serious research was infused with beliefs and terms that
sound more like wizardry than like modern lab science - the
Philosopher's Stone, the Chemical Wedding, an invisible "vegetative
spirit" that suffuses the earth. It is hard to imagine a modern
scientist choosing to express his lab findings, as the distinguished
German alchemist Michael Maier once did, in a set of 50 musical fugues
for three voices, in which mythological characters represented the
That might seem impossibly distant from the idea of modern science, a
world of hard data about discrete physical problems, ruled by observable
and reproducible fact. But as scholars reexamine the roots of chemistry,
they are now seeing less of a clean break than a subtle evolution from
one craft to another. Alchemists tried and discarded theories, like
scientists did; despite their occult reputation, they often saw
themselves less as conduits to the supernatural than as analytical
thinkers trying to accelerate and manipulate real physical processes.
"They were essentially pursuing philosophy and pursuing the
investigation of nature in a way that makes sense in the context of the
time," says Bruce Moran, a science historian at the University of Nevada
at Reno who has become a leading scholar in the reconsideration of
It is alchemists who gave Europe some of its key discoveries. Alchemists
discovered zinc and metallic arsenic. A German alchemist named Hennig
Brand isolated phosphorus in 1669. The alchemist Johann Bottger, working
for the Dresden court, stumbled on a material that allowed German
workshops to make their own porcelain and break China's monopoly on one
of the world's most lucrative industries.
If alchemy's achievements can sometimes seem accidental, its practices
and their approach were deliberate, and often notably scientific in
spirit. "We see for example some wonderful cases when an alchemical
writer is really observing a laboratory phenomenon - some reaction, some
operation - and racking his brains, trying to figure out what's going on
under the surface," says Principe. "And that, in a way, is what chemists
Without alchemy, it's unlikely chemistry could have happened at all.
Influential early chemists, such as Georg Ernst Stahl and Robert Boyle,
were either practicing alchemists or former alchemists. A chemistry lab
in the 18th century would have been almost indistinguishable from an
Principe and Indiana professor William Newman found a deeply scientific
mind at work when they edited and published the notebooks of George
Starkey, a Harvard-educated alchemist whose teachings influenced Boyle.
The federal government has allocated nearly $1 million in grants for
Newman to translate and publish Sir Isaac Newton's immense body of
alchemical writings, which are slowly being put online.
These scholars have occasionally been taken to task by historians who
see them as apologists for alchemy, saying they ignore its shortcomings
in the effort to reclaim it as a close cousin of modern science. The
British historian Brian Vickers recently published a harsh critique of
both Principe and Newman, saying their new published histories of
alchemy willfully "airbush out of the record" alchemy's embarrassing
qualities - its obsession with the occult; its long history of public
failures. Unlike experimental scientists, he says, alchemists were
unwilling to abandon their opaque ancient texts; and even in their own
time, alchemists were derided as charlatans.
Newman says such criticism overemphasizes alchemists' occult interests,
mistaking one piece of their belief system for the whole field. The
evidence leaves no doubt that alchemists were practicing science, he
says, and many early chemists were alchemists who had simply renounced
the quest for gold.
Principe, for his part, says that trying to find crisp distinctions
between material science and alchemical beliefs is just a modern
preoccupation. "Alchemists, like everyone else in the pre-enlightenment
world, didn't separate studies that were going on in the laboratory from
larger issues in philosophy and theology," he says.
Bringing alchemy under the tent of science does more than illuminate a
turning point in a distant history, however: It suggests a different way
to think about science in our own time. Science might be the most
productive tool ever invented for understanding the world, but despite
its claims on truth, it is still just that: a tool, and a man-made one.
Alchemy is an important reminder that modern science has a context, says
Bernard Lightman, a historian and editor of the science-history journal
Isis, and to grant scientists an exclusive claim on truth only ensures
that our view of the world is limited to the scientific prejudices of
"Science is a human creation, like a lot of other human creations. It's
like art, it's like literature," says Lightman.
The early chemists often drew conclusions no more accurate than those of
the alchemists who had preceded them. Georg Stahl, for instance,
renounced alchemy but then explained fire by proposing that a fanciful
substance called "phlogiston" infused all combustible objects.
Science in the modern era can still be seduced by a reigning metaphor -
the tree of evolution, the wave theory of light, the "selfish gene," all
deeply influential ideas whose limits have been exposed. Science is also
no stranger to alchemy's immensity of ambition. Isaac Newton, the first
great physicist, reached for alchemy when he tried to formulate a theory
of the universe that could account for everything from plant life to
gravity. Albert Einstein tried, and failed, to cap his career by
formulating a single theory that explained all the universe's forces.
And at the cutting edge of modern physics, string theory purports to
offer a complete but possibly unprovable explanation of the universe
based on 11 dimensions and imperceptibly tiny strings.
Alchemists wouldn't recognize the mathematics behind the theory. But in
its grandeur, in its claim to total authority, in its unprovability,
they would surely recognize its spirit.
Alchemy: the gathering
HISTORIANS AREN'T THE only ones resuscitating alchemy. A 40-year-old
organization called the International Alchemy Guild attracts people who
purport to be practicing alchemists, and holds an annual conference
where speakers share wisdom on herbal elixirs, life extension, and the
"psyche-matter continuum." Its catalog (online at crucible.org) sells
alchemical distillation equipment and helpful scrolls. Last year, the
"Complete Idiot" line of guidebooks released a how-to volume on alchemy
aimed at much the same constituency.
This revival of hands-on alchemy may seem profoundly New Agey, or at
best a Harry Potter mania gone overboard, but it has its own history.
The Victorian fad for the occult, which gripped much of Europe and
America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, claimed alchemy for
itself, appealing to people who saw alchemy's mystical transformations
as a metaphor for the purification of the soul, and who wanted to find a
font of deep wisdom outside the science of the time.
How does a historian see today's practicing alchemists? Says Lawrence
Principe, a trained chemist who researches historical alchemy at Johns
Hopkins University: "You can just put me down as a groan."
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