BCC welcomes guest blogger AdamS!.
I am currently finishing a PhD in chemistry, with an emphasis on chemical physics. To avoid graduating too soon, I spend my time reading up on the history of science or exploring some new thing.
In 1691 the “Father of Modern Chemistry”, Robert Boyle, passed away leaving behind a legacy of experimental science. Many of you may know him through his much memorized equation for gasses, and fewer of you may know of his canonical text, The Sceptical Chymist. What had been absent from the history books for many years, however, is that he was an enthusiastic practitioner of alchemy. In fact he and other founding members of the Royal Society were actively pursuing the Philosopher’s Stone. Their search was not peripheral, but formed an integral piece of their science and search for truth. One recently reported anecdote is that shortly after Boyle’s death, Sir Isaac Newton wrote an enthusiastic letter to John Locke, who had been given custody of Boyle’s papers and laboratory notes. He demanded that Locke reveal Boyle’s recipe for the philosopher’s stone. Newton was sure that Boyle had the recipe for the “red earth”, and that he had been deliberately keeping it from him.
These revelations regarding the founders of modern science have led to a revolution in the history of science. I’ve made a sort of hobby out of reading historical summaries and alchemical texts from the 14-16th centuries. As a chemist I am fascinated at the mystical world-views that lead to such ground-breaking science. As a Mormon, I am equally fascinated by the inventive ways that the alchemical adepts searched for truth. They seemed obsessed with peering behind the natural veil in order to assemble a deeper explanation for the world and using that knowledge directly in their laboratory practices.
Alchemy as a word bears a heavy burden. It is at once used in a list of occult systems of belief, and yet somehow describes a historical precursor to modern chemistry. Even in the centuries before Newton and Boyle, alchemy incorporated a diverse set of ideas and goals that can be divided into three practical arenas. The first is broadly described as spagyria, or laboratory chemistry. It includes things like distillation chemistry and the search for the alkhest, or the universal solvent. A second area was iatrochemistry, or medicinal chemistry, which was championed by Paracelsus, who was instrumental into bringing medicinal chemistry into the academic world. The third area, chrysopeia, is the most well known. This was the search for the Philosopher’s Stone with the final goal of turning base metals into gold.
It is not hard to imagine how these practical laboratory pursuits simultaneously developed a spiritual dimension. How can one watch a liquid turn to a gas and float away without imagining the relationship between the physical realm on earth and the spiritual realm of the angels? Something as simple as an egg, mainly consisting of two elements a yolk and white, somehow grows into a living organism. Why couldn’t it follow that all elements could be reproduced from gold and silver? These correspondences led to a rich literature, ranging from kitchen alchemy manuals to spiritual/philosophical explications of complex cosmologies.
Here and in the next few posts, I am going to explore a few of my favorite themes in alchemy. Of course, my Mormon-ness influences the way I approach the subject, and in the end I plan to briefly address the relationship between alchemy and early Mormonism. For discussion, what do you know about alchemy? What images does it bring to mind?
1. Principe, L., The aspiring adept: Robert Boyle and his alchemical quest. 1998, Princeton University Press.
2. Read, J., Prelude to chemistry; an outline of alchemy, its literature and relationships. 1966, M.I.T. Press.