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Alchemy

From Academic Kids

Alchemy is an early science practice combining elements of chemistry, physics, astrology, art, semiotics, metallurgy, medicine, mysticism, and religion. There were three main goals many alchemists sought for. The most renowned goal of alchemy is the transmutation of any metal into either gold or silver. Also they tried to create universal panacea, a remedy that would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. The philosopher's stone was the key in these goals. This mythical substance, which could just as well be powder or liquid as a stone, had the ability to do both. The third goal was creating human life. Alchemy can be regarded as the precursor of the modern science of chemistry prior to the formulation of the scientific method.

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Contents

Etymology

The word alchemy comes from the Arabic al-kīmiyaˀ or al-khīmiyaˀ (الكيمياء or الخيمياء), which is probably formed from the article al- and the Greek word khumeia (χυμεία) meaning "cast together", "pour together", "weld", "alloy", etc. (from khumatos, "that which is poured out, an ingot"). Another widely reported etymology claims the Arabic word al-kīmiyaˀ literally means "the Egyptian [science]", borrowing the Coptic word kēme (or from the mediaeval Bohairic dialect of Coptic, which wrote the word khēme), meaning "Egypt". The Coptic word derives from Demotic kmỉ, itself from ancient Egyptian kmt. The ancient Egyptian word referred to both the country and the colour "black" (Egypt was the "Black land", by contrast with the "Red land", the surrounding desert), so it is thought that such a borrowing in Arabic was appropriate for "Egyptian black arts". However, a decree of Diocletian, written about 300 CE in Greek, speaks against "the ancient writings of the Egyptians, which treat of the khēmia [transmutation] of gold and silver". The Arabic therefore could derive from a purely Greek word, not Coptic, and have been later connected with ancient Egypt through what linguists term a "folk etymology."

Overview

The common perception of alchemists is that they were pseudo-scientists who attempted to turn lead into gold, believed all matter was composed of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and dabbled around the edges of mysticism and magic. From today's perspective, their endeavours and beliefs have limited validity, but if we are to be objective we should judge them in the context of their times. They were attempting to explore and investigate nature before many of the most basic scientific tools and practices were available, relying instead on rules of thumb, traditions, basic observations, and mysticism to fill in the gaps.

To understand the alchemists, it is helpful to consider how wonderfully magical the conversion of one substance into another, which had formed the basis of metallurgy since its inception at the end of the Neolithic, would seem in a culture with no formal understanding of physics or chemistry. To the alchemist, there was no compelling reason to separate the chemical (material) dimension from the interpretive, symbolic or philosophical one. In those times a physics devoid of metaphysical insight would have been as partial and incomplete as a metaphysics devoid of physical manifestation. So the alchemical symbols and processes often had both an inner meaning referring to the spiritual development of the practitioner as well as a material meaning connected to physical transformation of matter.

The transmutation of base metals into gold symbolized an endeavour toward perfection or the utmost heights of actual existence. The alchemists believed that the whole universe was tending towards a state of perfection; and gold, due to its immunity to decay, was considered to be the most perfect of substances. By attempting to transmute base metals into gold, they were, in effect, trying to give the universe a helping hand. It was also logical to think that understanding the secret of gold's immutability might provide the key to ward off disease and organic decay; hence the intertwining of chemical, spiritual and astrological themes that was characteristic of medieval alchemy.

Thus, the naïve interpretations of some alchemists, or the fraudulent hopes fostered by others should not diminish the undertakings of the more sincere practitioners. Further, the field of alchemy evolved greatly over time, beginning as a metallurgical/medicinal arm of religion, maturing into a rich field of study in its own right, devolving into mysticism and outright charlatanism, and in the end providing some of the fundamental empirical knowledge of the fields of chemistry and modern medicine.

Up to the 18th century, alchemy was actually considered serious science in Europe; for instance, Isaac Newton devoted considerably more of his time and writing to the study of alchemy than he did to either optics or physics, for which he is famous, (see Isaac Newton's occult studies). Other eminent alchemists of the Western world are Roger Bacon, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Tycho Brahe, Thomas Browne, and Parmigianino. The decline of alchemy began in the 18th century with the birth of modern chemistry, which provided a more precise and reliable framework for matter transmutations and medicine, within a new grand design of the universe based on rational materialism.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, one established chemist, Baron Carl Reichenbach, researched on concepts similar to the old alchemy, such as the Odic force, but his research did not enter the mainstream of scientific discussion.

Matter transmutation, the old ideal of alchemy, enjoyed a moment in the sun in the 20th century when physicists were able to convert lead atoms into gold atoms via a nuclear reaction. However, the new gold atoms, being unstable isotopes, lasted for under five seconds before they broke apart. More recently, reports of table-top element transmutation — by means of electrolysis or sonic cavitation — were the pivot of the cold fusion controversy of 1989. None of those claims could be reliably duplicated. In either case, the required conditions were well beyond the reach of the old alchemists.

Alchemical symbolism has been occasionally used in the 20th century by psychologists and philosophers. Carl Jung reexamined alchemical symbolism and theory and began to show the inner meaning of alchemical work as a spiritual path. Alchemical philosophy, symbols and methods have enjoyed something of a renaissance in post-modern contexts, such as the New Age movement. Even some physicists have played with alchemical ideas in books such as The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters.

The history of alchemy has become a vigorous academic field. As the obscure — hermetic, of course — language of the alchemists is gradually being "deciphered", historians are becoming more aware of the intellectual connections between that discipline and other facets of Western cultural history, such as the Rosicrucian society and other mystic societies, witchcraft, and of course the evolution of science and philosophy.

History

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Extract and symbol key from a 17th century book on alchemy. The symbols used have a one-to-one correspondence with symbols used in astrology at the time.

Alchemy encompasses several philosophical traditions spanning some four millennia and three continents, and their general penchant for cryptic and symbolic language makes it hard to trace their mutual influences and "genetic" relationships.

One can distinguish at least two major strands, which appear to be largely independent, at least in their earlier stages: Chinese alchemy, centered in China and its zone of cultural influence; and Western alchemy, whose center has shifted over the millennia between Egypt, Greece and Rome, the Islamic world, and finally back to Europe. Chinese alchemy was closely connected to Taoism, whereas Western alchemy developed its own philosophical system, with only superficial connections to the major Western religions. It is still an open question whether these two strands share a common origin, or to what extent they influenced each other.

Alchemy and astrology

See the main article at astrology and alchemy

Alchemy in the Western World and other locations where it was widely practiced was (and in many cases still is) closely allied and intertwined with traditional Babylonian-Greek style astrology; in numerous ways they were built to complement each other in the search for hidden knowledge. Traditionally, each of the seven planets in the solar system as known to the ancients was associated with, held dominion over, and ruled a certain metal.

Chinese alchemy

Whereas Western alchemy eventually centered on the transmutation of base metals into noble ones, Chinese alchemy had a more obvious connection to medicine. The philosopher's stone of European alchemists can be compared to the Grand Elixir of Immortality sought by Chinese alchemists. However, in the hermetic view, these two goals were not unconnected, and the philosopher's stone was often equated with the universal panacea; therefore, the two traditions may have had more in common than it initially appears.

Black powder may have been the most important invention of Chinese alchemists. Described in 9th century texts and used in fireworks by the 10th Century, it was used in cannons by 1290. From China, the use of gunpowder spread to Japan, the Mongols, the Arab world and Europe. Gunpowder was used by the Mongols against the Hungarians in 1241, and in Europe starting with the 14th century.

Chinese alchemy was closely connected to Taoist forms of medicine, such as Acupuncture and Moxibustion, and to martial arts such as Tai Chi Chuan and Kung Fu (although some Tai Chi schools believe that their art derives from the Hygienic or Philosophical branches of Taoism, not the Alchemical).

Indian alchemy

Little is known in the West about the character and history of Indian alchemy. An 11th century Persian alchemist named al-Biruni reported that they "have a science similar to alchemy which is quite peculiar to them, which is called Rasavātam. It means the art which is restricted to certain operations, drugs, compounds, and medicines, most of which are taken from plants. Its principles restored the health of those who were ill beyond hope and gave back youth to fading old age." The best example of a text based on this science is The Vaishashik Darshana of Kanad (fl. 600 BC), who described an atomic theory over a century before Democritus.

Alchemy in Ancient Egypt

Western alchemists generally traced the origin of their art to Ancient (Pharaonic) Egypt. Metallurgy and mysticism were inexorably tied together in the ancient world, as the transformation of drab ore into shining metal must have seemed to be an act of magic governed by mysterious rules. It is claimed therefore that Alchemy in Ancient Egypt was the domain of the priestly class.

Practically no original Egyptian documents on alchemy have survived. Those writings, if they existed, were likely lost when the emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of alchemical books after suppressing a revolt in Alexandria (292), which had been a center of Egyptian alchemy. Egyptian alchemy is known mostly through the writings of ancient (Hellenic) Greek philosophers, which in turn have often survived only in Islamic translations.

Legend has it that the founder of Egyptian alchemy was the god Thoth, called Hermes-Thoth or Thrice-Great Hermes (Hermes Trismegistus) by the Greek. According to legend, he wrote what were called the forty-two Books of Knowledge, covering all fields of knowledge — including alchemy. Hermes's symbol was the caduceus or serpent-staff, which became one of many of alchemy's principal symbols. The "Emerald Tablet" or Hermetica of Thrice-Greatest Hermes, which is known only through Greek and Arabic translations, is generally understood to form the basis for Western alchemical philosophy and practice, called the hermetic philosophy by its early practitioners.

The first point of the "Emerald Tablet" tells the purpose of hermetical science: "in truth certainly and without doubt, whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing." (Burckhardt, p. 196-7). This is the macrocosm-microcosm belief central to the hermetic philosophy. In other words, the human body (the microcosm) is affected by the exterior world (the macrocosm), which includes the heavens through astrology, and the earth through the elements. (Burckhardt,p. 34-42)

Following this, the Greek-speaking Macedonians conquered Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria in 332. This brought them into contact with Egyptian ideas.

Alchemy in the Greek world

The Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt was a center of Greek alchemical knowledge, and retained its preeminence through most of the Greek and Roman periods. The Greeks appropriated the hermetical beliefs of the Egyptians and melded with them the philosophies of Pythagoreanism, ionianism, and gnosticism. Pythagorean philosophy is, essentially, the belief that numbers rule the universe, originating from the observations of sound, stars, and geometric shapes like triangles, or anything from which a ratio could be derived. Ionian thought was based on the belief that the universe could be explained through concentration on natural phenomena; this philosophy is believed to have originated with Thales and his pupil Anaximander, and later developed by Plato and Aristotle, whose works came to be an integral part of alchemy. According to this belief, the universe can be described by a few unified natural laws that can be determined only through careful, thorough, and exacting philosophical explorations. The third component introduced to hermetical philosophy by the Greeks was gnosticism, a belief prevalent in the Christian and early post-Christian Roman empire, that the world is imperfect because it was created in a flawed manner, and that learning about the nature of spiritual matter would lead to salvation. They further believed that God did not "create" the universe in the classic sense, but that the universe was created "from" him, but was corrupted in the process (rather than becoming corrupted by the transgressions of Adam and Eve, i.e. original sin). According to Gnostic belief, by worshipping the cosmos, nature, or the creatures of the world, one worships the True God. Gnostics do not seek salvation from sin, but instead seek to escape ignorance, believing that sin is merely a consequence of ignorance. Platonic and neo-Platonic theories about universals and the omnipotence of God were also absorbed.

One very important concept introduced at this time, originated by Empedocles and developed by Aristotle, was that all things in the universe were formed from only four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. According to Aristotle, each element had a sphere to which it belonged and to which it would return if left undisturbed. (Lindsay, p. 16)

The four elements of the Greek were mostly qualitative aspects of matter, not quantitative, as our modern elements are. "...True alchemy never regarded earth, air, water, and fire as corporeal or chemical substances in the present-day sense of the word. The four elements are simply the primary, and most general, qualities by means of which the amorphous and purely quantitative substance of all bodies first reveals itself in differentiated form." (Hitchcock, p. 66) Later alchemists (if Plato and Aristotle can be called alchemists) extensively developed the mystical aspects of this concept.

Alchemy in the Roman Empire

The Romans adopted Greek alchemy and metaphysics, just as they adopted much of Greek knowledge and philosophy. By the end of the Roman empire the Greek alchemical philosophy had been joined to the philosophies of the Egyptians to create the cult of Hermeticism. (Lindsay)

However, the development of Christianity in the Empire brought a contrary line of thinking, stemming from Augustine (354-430 AD), an early Christian philosopher who wrote of his beliefs shortly before the fall of the Roman Empire. In essence, he felt that reason and faith could be used to understand God, but experimental philosophy was evil: "There is also present in the soul, by means of these same bodily sense, a kind of empty longing and curiosity which aims not at taking pleasure in the flesh but at acquiring experience through the flesh, and this empty curiosity is dignified by the names of learning and science." (Augustine, p. 245)

Augustinian ideas were decidedly anti-experimental, yet when Aristotelian experimental techniques were made available to the West they were not shunned. Still, Augustinian thought was well ingrained in medieval society and was used to show alchemy as being un-Godly. Ultimately, by the high middle ages, this line of thought created a permanent rift separating alchemy from the very religion that had fostered its birth.

Much of the Roman knowledge of Alchemy, like that of the Greeks and Egyptians, is now lost. In Alexandria, the centre of alchemical studies in the Roman Empire, the art was mainly oral and in the interests of secrecy little was committed to paper. (Whence the use of "hermetic" to mean "secretive".) (Lindsay, p. 155) It is possible that some writing was done in Alexandria, and that it was subsequently lost or destroyed in fires and the turbulent periods that followed.

Alchemy in the Islamic world

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the focus of alchemical development moved to the Middle East. Much more is known about Islamic alchemy because it was better documented: indeed, most of the earlier writings that have come down through the years were preserved as Islamic translations. (Burckhardt p. 46)

The Islamic world was a melting pot for alchemy. Platonic and Aristotelian thought, which had already been somewhat appropriated into hermetical science, continued to be assimilated. Islamic alchemists such as al-Razi (Latin Rasis or Rhazes) contributed key chemical discoveries of their own, such as the technique of distillation (the words alembic and alcohol are of Arabic origin), the muriatic, sulfuric, and nitric acids, soda (al-natrun) and potash (alkali) – from which derive the international names of Sodium and Potassium, Natrium and Kalium – and more. The discovery that aqua regia, a mixture of nitric and muriatic acids, could dissolve the noblest metal — gold — was to fuel the imagination of alchemists for the next millennium.

Islamic philosophers also made great contributions to alchemical hermeticism. The most influential author in this regard was arguably Jabir Ibn Hayyan (Arabic جابر إبن حيان, Latin Geberus; usually rendered in English as Geber). Jabir's ultimate goal was takwin, the artificial creation of life in the alchemical laboratory, up to and including human life. He analyzed each Aristotelian element in terms of four basic qualities of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. (Burkhardt, p. 29) According to Geber, in each metal two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was externally cold and dry, while gold was hot and moist. Thus, Jabir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result. (Burckhardt, p. 29) By this reasoning, the search for the philosopher's stone was introduced to Western alchemy. Jabir developed an elaborate numerology whereby the root letters of a substance's name in Arabic, when treated with various transformations, held correspondences to the element's physical properties.

It is now commonly accepted that Chinese alchemy influenced Arabic alchemists (Edwards pp. 33-59; Burckhardt, p. 10-22), although the extent of that influence is still a matter of debate. Likewise, Hindu learning was assimilated into Islamic alchemy, but again the extent and effects of this are not well known.

Alchemy in Medieval Europe

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The Alchemist in Search of the Philosophers Stone. By Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771

Because of its strong connections to the Greek and Roman cultures, alchemy was rather easily accepted into Christian philosophy, and Medieval European alchemists extensively absorbed Islamic alchemical knowledge. Gerbert of Aurillac, who was later to become Pope Silvester II, (d. 1003) was among the first to bring Islamic science to Europe from Spain. Later men such as Adelard of Bath, who lived in the 12th century, brought additional learning. But until the 13th century the moves were mainly assimilative. (Hollister p. 124, 294)

In this period there appeared some deviations from the Augustinian principles of earlier Christian thinkers. Saint Anselm (10331109) was an Augustinian who believed faith must precede rationalism, as Augustine and most theologians prior to Anselm had believed, but Anselm put forth the opinion that faith and rationalism were compatible and encouraged rationalism in a Christian context. His views set the stage for the philosophical explosion to occur. Saint Abelard followed Anselm's work, laying the foundation for acceptance of Aristotelian thought before the first works of Aristotle reached the West. His major influence on alchemy was his belief that Platonic universals did not have a separate existence outside of man's consciousness. Abelard also systematized the analysis of philosophical contradictions. (Hollister, p. 287-8)

Robert Grosseteste (11701253) was a pioneer of the scientific theory that would later be used and refined by the alchemists. He took Abelard's methods of analysis and added the use of observations, experimentation, and conclusions in making scientific evaluations. Grosseteste also did much work to bridge Platonic and Aristotelian thinking. (Hollister pp. 294-5)

Albertus Magnus (11931280) and Thomas Aquinas (12251274) were both Dominicans who studied Aristotle and worked at reconciling the differences between philosophy and Christianity. Aquinas also did a great deal of work in developing the scientific method. He even went as far as claiming that universals could be discovered only through logical reasoning: this ran contrary to the commonly held Platonic belief that universals were found through divine illumination alone. Magnus and Aquinas were among the first to take up the examination of alchemical theory, and could be considered to be alchemists themselves, except that these two did little in the way of experimentation. One major contribution of Aquinas was the belief that since reason could not run in opposition to God, reason must be compatible with theology. (Hollister p. 290-4, 355)

The first true alchemist in Medieval Europe was Roger Bacon. His work did as much for alchemy as Robert Boyle's was to do for chemistry and Galileo's for astronomy and physics. Bacon (12141294) was an Oxford Franciscan who explored optics and languages in addition to alchemy. The Franciscan ideals of taking on the world rather than rejecting the world led to his conviction that experimentation was more important than reasoning: "Of the three ways in which men think that they acquire knowledge of things: authority, reasoning, and experience; only the last is effective and able to bring peace to the intellect." (Bacon p. 367) "Experimental Science controls the conclusions of all other sciences. It reveals truths which reasoning from general principles would never have discovered." (Hollister p. 294-5) Roger Bacon has also been attributed with originating the search for the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life: "That medicine which will remove all impurities and corruptibilities from the lesser metals will also, in the opinion of the wise, take off so much of the corruptibility of the body that human life may be prolonged for many centuries." The idea of immortality was replaced with the notion of long life; after all, man's time on Earth was simply to wait and prepare for immortality in the world of God. Immortality on Earth did not mesh with Christian theology. (Edwards p. 37-8)

Bacon was not the only alchemist of the high middle ages, but he was the most significant. His works were used by countless alchemists of the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. Other alchemists of Bacon's time shared several traits. First, and most obviously, nearly all were members of the clergy. This was simply because few people outside the parochial schools had the education to examine the Arabic-derived works. Also, alchemy at this time was sanctioned by the church as a good method of exploring and developing theology. Alchemy was interesting to the wide variety of churchmen because it offered a rationalistic view of the universe when men were just beginning to learn about rationalism. (Edwards p. 24-7)

So by the end of the thirteenth century, alchemy had developed into a fairly structured system of belief. Most importantly, the alchemists were all true Christians. They believed in the macrocosm-microcosm theories of Hermes, that is to say, they believed that processes that affect minerals and other substances could have an effect on the human body (e.g., if one could learn the secret of purifying gold, one could use the technique to purify the human soul.) These men believed the philosophers' stone was a substance that was capable of purifying base metals (and thereby transmuting them to gold) as well as purifying the soul. They believed in the four elements and the four qualities as described above, and they had a strong tradition of cloaking their written ideas in a labyrinth of coded jargon set with traps to mislead the uninitiated. Finally, the alchemists practiced their art: they actively experimented with chemicals and made observations and theories about how the universe operated. Their entire philosophy revolved around their belief that man's soul was divided within himself after the fall of Adam. By purifying the two parts of man's soul, man could be reunited with God. (Burckhardt p. 149)

In the fourteenth century, these views underwent a major change. William of Ockham, an Oxford Franciscan who died in 1349, attacked the Thomist view of compatibility between faith and reason. His view, widely accepted today, was that God must be accepted on faith alone; He could not be limited by human reason. Of course this view was not incorrect if one accepted the postulate of a limitless God versus limited human reasoning capability, but it virtually erased alchemy from practice in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (Hollister p. 335) Pope John XXII in the early 1300s issued an edict against alchemy, which effectively removed all church personnel from the practice of the Art. (Edwards, p.49) The climate changes, Black plague, and increase in warfare and famine that characterized this century no doubt also served to hamper philosophical pursuits in general.

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Nicholas Flamel had these mysterious alchemical symbols carved on his tomb in the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris.

Alchemy was kept alive by men such as Nicolas Flamel, who was noteworthy only because he was one of the few alchemists writing in those troubled times. Flamel lived from 1330 to 1417 and would serve as the archetype for the next phase of alchemy. He was not a religious scholar as were many of his predecessors, and his entire interest in the subject revolved around the pursuit of the philosopher's stone, which he is reputed to have found; his work spends a great deal of time describing the processes and reactions, but never actually gives the formula for carrying out the transmutations. Most of his work was aimed at gathering alchemical knowledge that had existed before him, especially as regarded the philosophers' stone. (Burckhardt pp.170-181)

Through the high middle ages (1300-1500) alchemists were much like Flamel: they concentrated on looking for the philosophers' stone and the elixir of youth, now believed to be separate things. Their cryptic allusions and symbolism led to wide variations in interpretation of the art. For example, many alchemists during this period interpreted the purification of the soul to mean the transmutation of lead into gold (in which they believed elemental mercury, or 'quicksilver', played a crucial role). These men were viewed as magicians and sorcerers by many, and were often persecuted for their practices. (Edwards pp. 50-75; Norton pp lxiii-lxvii)

One of these men who emerged at the beginning of the sixteenth century was named Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. This alchemist believed himself to be a wizard and actually thought himself capable of summoning spirits. His influence was negligible, but like Flamel, he produced writings which were referred to by alchemists of later years. Again like Flamel, he did much to change alchemy from a mystical philosophy to an occultist magic. He did keep alive the philosophies of the earlier alchemists, including experimental science, numerology, etc., but he added magic theory, which reinforced the idea of alchemy as an occultist belief. In spite of all this, Agrippa was still a Christian, though his views often came into conflict with the church. (Edwardes p.56-9; Wilson p.23-9)


The decline of Western alchemy

The demise of Western alchemy was brought about by the rise of modern science with its emphasis on rigorous quantitative experimentation and its disdain for "ancient wisdom". Although the seeds of these events were planted as early as the 17th century, alchemy still flourished for some two hundred years, and in fact may have reached its apogee in the 18th century.

Robert Boyle (16271691), better known for his studies of gases (cf. Boyles law) pioneered the scientific method in chemical investigations. He assumed nothing in his experiments and compiled every piece of relevant data; in a typical experiment, Boyle would note the place in which the experiment was carried out, the wind characteristics, the position of the sun and moon, and the barometer reading, all just in case they proved to be relevant. (Pilkington p.11) This approach eventually led to the founding of modern chemistry in the 18th and 19th centuries, based on revolutionary discoveries of Lavoisier and John Dalton — which finally provided a logical, quantitative and reliable framework for understanding matter transmutations, and revealed the futility of longstanding alchemical goals such as the philospher's stone.

Meanwhile, Paracelsian alchemy led to the development of modern medicine. Experimentalists gradually uncovered the workings of the human body, such as blood circulation (Harvey, 1616), and eventually traced many diseases to infections with germs (Koch and Pasteur, 19th century) or lack of natural nutrients and vitamins (Lind, Eijkman, Funk, et al.). Supported by parallel developments in organic chemistry, the new science easily displaced alchemy from its medical roles, interpretive and prescriptive, while deflating its hopes of miraculous elixirs and exposing the ineffectiveness or even toxicity of its remedies.

Thus, as science steadily continued to uncover and rationalize the clockwork of the universe, founded on its own materialistic metaphysics, Alchemy was left deprived of its chemical and medical connections — but still incurably burdened by them. Reduced to an arcane philosophical system, poorly connected to the material world, it suffered the common fate of other esoteric disciplines such as astrology and Kabbalah: excluded from university curricula, shunned by its former patrons, ostracized by scientists, and commonly viewed as the epitome of charlatanism and superstition.

These developments could be interpreted as part of a broader reaction in European intellectualism against the Romantic movement of the preceding century. Be as it may, it is sobering to observe how a discipline that held so much intellectual and material prestige, for more than two thousand years, could disappear so easily from the universe of Western thought.

Modern 'alchemy'

In modern times, progress has been made toward achieving the goals of alchemy using scientific, rather than alchemic, means.

In 1919, Ernest Rutherford used artificial disintegration to convert nitrogen into oxygen. This process of bombarding the atomic nucleus with high energy particles is the principle behind modern particle accelerators, in which transmutations of elements are common. Indeed, in 1980, Glenn Seaborg transmuted lead into gold, though the amount of energy used and the microscopic quantities created negated any possible financial benefit.

As of 2005, a universal panacea remains elusive, though futurists such as Ray Kurzweil believe sufficiently advanced nanotechnology may prolong life indefinitely. Some say the third goal of alchemy, has been fulfilled by IVF and the cloning of a human embryo, although these technologies fall far short of creating a human life from scratch.

The aim of artificial intelligence research could be said to be creating a life from scratch, and those philosophically opposed to the possibility of AI have compared it with alchemy, such as Herbert and Stuart Dreyfuss in their 1960 paper Alchemy and AI.

Alchemy in literature

Many authors lampooned alchemists and used them as the butt of satirical attacks. The most famous of these is the play The Alchemist by Ben Jonson and, two hundred years earlier, Geoffrey Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman's Tale.

In the Harry Potter children's books and movies, a "Philosopher's Stone" (in the American edition, a "sorcerer's stone") is mentioned. This stone was created by alchemists within the world created by J.K. Rowling. This stone could turn any metal into pure gold, and created an "Elixir of Life" that enabled the drinker to live much longer than usual. The alchemist Nicholas Flamel also appears in the novel, and he is given credit for creating the Stone. In the story, to remain immune to natural death, one must have a constant supply of this elixir.

An alchemist named Melquíades is a character in Gabriel García Márquez's classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. The alchemical motifs add a magical sense to the novel (see magical realism).

In the second part of Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe portrays Faust's servant Wagner using alchemy to create a homunculus.

Doctor Illuminatus, The Alchemist's Son by Martain Booth talks about alchemy and a homunculus.

Alchemy, the Philosopher's Stone, homunculi, and numerous alchemical symbols (including Flamel's crucified serpent) play key roles in the anime/manga series Fullmetal Alchemist (Hagane no Renkinjutsushi). Other anime/manga series following Hagane no Renkinjutsushi, such as Busou Renkin, also include alchemy references.

The ways and methods of Alchemy were also essential to Paulo Coelho's best-selling novel, The Alchemist.

The term 'alchemical' is sometimes used to refer to a study that is stumbling toward becoming science but has not reached that state yet. For instance, Larry Niven in his Known Space stories describes twentieth century psychology as being 'in its alchemical stages', before it is perfected by later generations into a true science.

An Alchemical Laboratory, from The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry
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An Alchemical Laboratory, from The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry

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References

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  • Pilkington, Roger (1959). Robert Boyle: Father of Chemistry. London: John Murray.
  • Weaver, Jefferson Hane (1987). The World of Physics New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Wilson, Colin (1971). The Occult: A History. New York: Random House.
  • Zumdahl, Steven S. (1989). Chemistry. 2nd ed. Lexington, Maryland: D. C. Heath and Co.
  • Greenberg, Adele Droblas (2000) Chemical History Tour, Picturing Chemistry from Alchemy to Modern Molecular Science Wiley-Interscience ISBN 0471354082

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