A kemet on the banks of the Nile, an Arab in the Sahara, a Germany in the Renaissance Holy Roman Empire and Sir Isaac Newton all could have practiced the same science. What science could tie all these people that lived hundreds and even thousands of years and miles apart together? This science would be alchemy. Does it seem incredible? Perhaps it seems that way, but it is not. Alchemy has a unique history and place among the sciences. Some would claim that alchemy has no place in the realm of “real” science. Far from it, alchemy, or as it could be called transformative chemistry, not only is a “real” science but also theoretical practicability in the modern world.
Firstly, one should have a basic understanding of the history of alchemy. Alchemy began in Egypt in about 3000 B.C. and was spread by the Arabs. The Greeks came into the area and picked up the study. Empedocles, in c.450 B.C., stated that there are four natural elements, air, earth, fire and water. In c. 440 B.C., Democritus purposed the idea of the indivisible atom, later it was discovered by Rutherford that the atom was divisible. Plato, in c.360 B.C., made the term ‘elements’ and claimed that each had a specific shape. In c.350 B.C., Aristotle stated that there are five elements, air, earth, ether, fire and water. From c. A.D. 800 to c. 1220 alchemy was not practiced in Europe and only in the Arabian world. In 1605 Michał Sędziwój published A New Light of Alchemy, one of the first alchemy books in Europe. From Robert Boyle’s 1661 publication of The Sceptical Chymist, the sciences of alchemy and chemistry have been clearly distinguished, with the latter overcoming the former.
The goals of alchemy are widely misunderstood. Most believe that turning ordinary objects to gold was the main or sole goal of the alchemist. This is untrue, though gold was a goal it was not the main one of the alchemist. Their goals were an understanding of the workings of the world, an elixir of life and often spiritual enlightenment. The first and the last goals could be reached through the mere practicing of the craft; however the creation of gold and the Elixir of Life have a very specific process to achieve them.
The Elixir of Life could be made through a few different methods; however, there are common characteristics to all of the processes. Gold creation also has a few methods that share commonalities. In fact the creation of Gold and the Elixir of Life share commonalities. There are essentially three things need to create both, “water of sulfur,” salt and mercury. These three things are used with other chemicals to create the philosopher’s stone, which can make things into gold and create the Elixir of Life. Though it may seem for from scientific to say that a stone can make things transform, it does not have to be so.
Theoretically, a “philosopher’s stone’ could be made that acts as a chemical catalyst to transform other substance. It must be noted that the Stone would be unable to make true gold, but the substance would by golden. However, it may be possible to transform substances into gold. To do this one would need either extreme heat of extreme cold, the cold would likely need to be about absolute zero. After arriving at these extreme temperatures one would then have to modify the atomic structure of the substance. This would be highly dangerous because if one did something even slightly wrong then one could cause a nuclear explosion or possible something worse. Thus, true transformative chemistry, changing the atomic structure and not the mere combination of elements, would need a large amount of time, energy and space. It would also be very dangerous.
Though it has attracted some less than scientific followings, alchemy is a science that should be study and understood. It plays a fundamental role in the history of science and the atom. Presently, there is a great amount of knowledge about the inner works of atoms that could breathe new life into transformative chemistry. Once, alchemy was seen as dangerous and, therefore, it was illegal yet scientist still practiced it in secret. Perhaps it is the idea of man can control nature that draws people to the science.
Albertus, F. (1978). The Alchemist’s Handbook. Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.A.: Paracelsus Research Society.
Kopp, H. (2012). Die alchemie in älterer und neuerer zeit. Reprinted, Berkley, California, U.S.A.: University of California Press
Principe, L. (2013). The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.