Alchemy: History of Science #10


These days, alchemy gets a bad rap. In fantasy stories, charlatans in fancy robes
promise to turn lead into gold. But real alchemists weren’t just mystical
misers. They were skilled experimentalists, backed
by theories of matter. And they played a huge role in the development
of knowledge about one of our fundamental questions: “what is stuff?” Do chemists today spend a lot of time trying
to turn lead into gold? No—but, in part they are the inheritors of a
wealth of knowledge created by alchemists who were trying to turn lead into gold! Why did they keep doing that? Did they really think it would work? Was it some science experiment? Or a religious ritual? Yes! All of those things. Today, we’ll meet some alchemists and consider
just what the heck they were doing all day with metals, and how they sought to understand
stuff. [Intro Music Plays] The word “alchemy,” which is where we
get the word “chemistry” from, is a bit of mystery. It might mean “the black earth,” symbolizing
Egypt, but it might not. Either way, all of these words were used in
Europe before 1600 to describe the same system. Let’s define alchemy as a way of thinking
philosophically about stuff by changing it. This included older astrological ideas alongside
new ones derived from experiment and observation. Alchemy parallels the Scholastic medical tradition
we looked at last time. Both systems spanned across Eurasia and relied
on books. But the alchemists had different social norms,
or ideas about how someone creating knowledge should act. Alchemists did publish books, but typically
encoded their philosophies in complicated allegories, or stories wherein the characters
and actions stand for something other than what they appear. This essentially rendered whole alchemical
systems secret except to their own friends. They used code words called Decknamen: so
“tin” might literally mean the metal tin in one book, but serve as a code word for
silver in another. The books were illustrated, but many of the
images were symbols masking their true meanings. The good and bad thing about the Decknamen
system was that anyone could read any proto-scientific treatise on “what is stuff?” and come
away with almost any conclusion. Good thing today we have the internet to help everyone agree on scientific questions based on evidence… right? A lot of alchemical books focused on transmutation,
or changing metals into other metals. In theory—all the way back to Aristotle—transmutation
mimicked a natural process: metals were compounds, formed deep in the earth when different quantities
of sulfur and mercury were crushed together. Miners had been working with metals for years—digging
them up and then heating them to purify them. The difference for alchemists though was that
transmutation meant “hacking” this whole process by doing it artificially. But… the alchemical metals are not compounds
of anything—they’re elements! So how did the alchemists take non-compounds
and “read” them as compounds? The alchemists had problems obtaining pure
samples. When they heated up chunks of metal, these
would bubble and change color based on impurities, meaning tiny bits of other elements. But, alas—metals, when isolated, don’t
actually break down into sulphur and mercury. There were two kinds of alchemical metals:
the noble metals were gold, which represented the sun. And silver, which represented the moon. The base metals included mercury, which represented
the planet Mercury, copper for Venus, iron for warlike Mars, tin for Jupiter, and lead
for slow sad Saturn. In fact, our name for the metal “mercury”
comes from this alchemical association with the Greek messenger god! Agents of transmutation also fell into two
categories: particulars, which only did one thing—for example, change copper into silver—and
universals, meaning the “philosopher’s stone.” That’s philosopher’s stone—no sorcerers
involved, American Harry Potter. This mysterious stone could change any base
metal into gold. The quest for the universal transmutation
agent was called chrysopoeia, or, literally, “make into gold.” To get started, a “chrysopoeian” would
combine the right ingredients in an egg-shaped vessel called an alembic, and then heat the
mixture up for a long time. What were the right ingredients to make the
philosopher’s stone? Alchemists disagreed. The fact that they didn’t even agree on
what the philosopher’s stone actually was, pretty much symbolizes the whole system. Chrysopoeia required fine-tuning the practice
of metallurgy: alchemists had to heat ingredients for days on end, controlling the temperature
precisely without the aid of modern lab equipment, or even a thermometer! It was difficult, sweaty work. Eventually, the mix of ingredients would turn
black, then white, then yellow, and finally red. At this point, if your oven hadn’t exploded—you
won! You now had a lump of red substance that,
when heated up with base metals, changed them into gold. Supposedly. The search for the philosopher’s stone produced
new alchemical theories and felt like a wonder, inspiring generations of experimenters, even
if it never quite “worked.” Alchemy persisted because transmutation clearly
produced something, including new compounds. The problem is that we don’t always know
what it produced, because of the whole secret code thing. “Luna fixa”, for example, was a dense
white metal, that was corrosion resistant, had a high melting point, and was pretty soft. Was it platinum, white gold, or something
else entirely? But alchemy was never only about metals. The human body, for example, was understood
as an alchemical workshop: chemical reactions happened in the organs,
transmuting one kind of stuff into another. This is still pretty amazing! We eat stuff that is not at all human—at
least hopefully—and then that stuff somehow becomes us. In an alchemical framework, illnesses were
reactions gone wrong. So while the alchemists included metallurgists,
mine directors, goldsmiths, and natural philosophers, they were often physicians, interested in making efficacious compounds
called pharmaceuticals, or chematria. In fact, alchemy was a system for producing
useful materials from chematria to alcohol, alloys, pigments, perfumes, and cleaning products. Noblewomen alchemists, tasked with caring
for the health of the workers in their husbands’ manors, played a major role in producing therapeutics. These noblewomen set up production facilities—proto-labs—and
expanded the repertoire of alchemical products which could be sold. And the system itself was heavily gendered,
metaphorically, which we can see in many gorgeous illustrations of allegorical kings and queens
of heaven, the kings and queens of stuff. One of the wackier life-sciencey practices
that came out of the ancient and medieval search to understand therapeutic compounds was palingenesis, or “life again”: the
idea that you could bring things back to life by burning them, and then freezing their ashes. Alchemists spent a lot of time burning and
freezing leaves. Did palingenesis work? Why don’t you go try it and see if you get
better results!? At least, it might make you pay careful attention
to living things and what stuff they seem to be made out of. On second thought I’m not gonna encourage you to go burn stuff. Just as there are multiple sciences today,
there were multiple “alchemies” in medieval Eurasia. Chinese alchemy was tied into ideas about
the earth itself. Remember how, in Chinese natural philosophy,
the earth was one living organism? Chinese alchemists detected its vital channels
of energy transmission using magnets, formalizing that system of earth magic called feng shui. This work eventually led to the invention
of gunpowder. Chinese alchemy also included a search for
immortality called waidan. But still no “sorcerers,” sadly. Mostly, waidan was about self-experimentation
and diet. Indian alchemy focused on medicine, on forms
of mercury, and on how to preserve health and hopefully create an undecayable body. We’ve talked before about how an Ayurvedic
textbook or samhita had a whole chapter on aphrodisiacs and another on toxicology. Alchemy supplied a way of developing these
love potions and poisons. Islamicate alchemy, meanwhile, blended Aristotelian,
Chinese, and Indian alchemical practices. Jābir ibn Hayyān, born in Persia in 721
and known in Europe as “Geber”, was credited with authoring three thousand
texts! These included a version of the Emerald Tablet,
a supposedly ancient Greek text that included a guide to creating the philosopher’s stone. Hayyan also worked on mineralogy, transmutation,
and medicinal elixirs and invented new equipment. Like many alchemists, Hayyan often wrote allegorically,
trying in his own words to intentionally “baffle” most readers except those “whom God loves.” But the person most famous today for his work
in alchemy is the Swiss physician and iconoclast Paracelsus, born in 1493, who also was called Theophrastus
Bombastus von Hohenheim. Think Gregory House meets Victor Frankenstein
meets Miss Cleo. In addition to his general irascibility, Paracelsus
is famous today for the phrase “the dose makes the poison.” Paracelsus also believed that the philosopher’s
stone was a “universal solvent” called the alkahest, which was derived from lime, alcohol, and
carbonate of potash and could theoretically dissolve anything, even gold. And, most radically, Paracelsus introduced
salt as a third element that made up all metals. Paracelsus was a critic of university natural
philosophers and physicians. He saw these Scholastics as likely to mistake
textual generalizations for truths. He admonished his alchemical colleagues not
to trust the words of the ancient masters. But then he became a master himself—someone
you could write books in the style of. You could say that alchemy, like other knowledge-making
systems, was torn between text and experiment— that is, between loyalty to tradition and
iconoclasm, and a return to basic observation. Thus, even if alchemical books were often
secret-concealing gibberish, they were important in supporting a long-term
rational debate about the true nature of stuff. In fact, the most famous product of alchemy
was a wondrous invention that most people don’t think of as alchemical. Help us out, ThoughtBubble: Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg,
born in Germany in 1468, was a metallurgist who invented a process for mass producing
movable type. Gutenberg made his type from an alloy of lead,
tin, and antimony, creating a more durable system. He also pioneered working with oil-based ink
and made tweaks to the common cheese press to make his printing press. His real achievement, though, was bringing
all of these together into a system that made printing books economical. And I mean way more economical than having
rooms full of monks hand-copying manuscripts. Economical printing meant better-duplicated
texts with fewer errors.! Knowledge circulated not simply thanks to
personal travel, which was slow and somewhat random, but as discrete knowledge. Some of this knowledge was intentionally secret
code—which presents a problem for historians today. How do we figure out what the alchemists meant
when they wrote things like, “The wind blows over the marriage of the moon and Saturn?” How do we interpret alchemical recipes encoded
entirely in pictures? Thanks Thought Bubble! So what happened to alchemy? Parts of it became chemistry, which we’ll
get to later. But alchemy also became increasingly seen
as dirty, dangerous, unsavory, low-class, and lacking a classical pedigree, unlike,
say, astronomy. And, in Europe, alchemy was tied to a geocentric
cosmology that goes out of fashion in the sixteenth century. There were notable alchemists in the seventeenth
century, including Isaac Newton. But by this time, chemists wanted a more scientific
society. Publicly, alchemy was attacked as superstition,
even as practitioners keep doing it in private. Alchemy went underground for most of the eighteenth
century, maintained in secret societies, before dying out. The once-famous book De re metallica, or Concerning
the Nature of Metals, was first translated into English by classicist Herbert Hoover— who was also a president—and his wife, Lou
Henry Hoover, in 1912. Fascinating! Next time—pack your mortarboard hats and
masonry tools: we’re tracking the rise of the university and the cathedral! Crash Course History of Science is filmed
in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney studio in Missoula, Montana and it’s made with the help of all
this nice people and our animation team is Thought Cafe. Crash Course is a Complexly production. If you wanna keep imagining the world complexly
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