24 August 2013

Alchemy Explained

Rob's Note: If it's of any interest, looking at the latest reports from Blogger, the three most-viewed Trivialities are, respectively: I (Geography), 6 (the VOC), and 8 (Alien Hand Syndrome). Least viewed? 15 (the Naming Catalog). Make of that what you will.

I've been pressed for trivia things and interest to write this week, but better late than never. Also: return of the index cards (at least one).

Today's topic: Alchemy. It's so fascinating. I don't care that it doesn't exist anymore. It's mystical, enthralling, and perfectly Romantic. And there's so much about it that's just interesting.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
 ~Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

The subject: Alchemy was basically the precursor to chemistry. It involved mixing known chemicals and solutions to achieve main goals: the philosopher's stone, base metals to gold, synthesization of alkahest, and a medicine that would cure anything.

Most people know only the whole lead-into-gold thing, but there was a lot more behind it, as explained above. Unfortunately the Interweb doesn't help because the only way to look up info is by the completely reliable Wikipedia and the mystical crockery sites that are really just mumbo-jumbo. (Google alchemy if you don't believe me.) And alchemy isn't mumbo jumbo. It was considered a real science for two millennia. It was believed as credible by many eminent peoples of the day, like Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), who cured smallpox almost 1000 years before it was eradicated. It was just a product of its day and age, like horses and carriages, the Rolling Stones, and Quantum Pads (I just always make the topic return to me, don't I...)

Back to the topic. Alchemy began with the Greeks (like most everything else out there) when they believed in what we'll call the classical elements, namely Earth, Wind and Fire Water, Air, Earth, and Fire.

To the Greeks and others, everything fell into place neatly. You burn wood, with fire and air, and earth was converted. It was remarkably simple...or so history'd have you believe. But there was so much complexity and breadth with alchemy. It wasn't just mixing potions. There were symbols that had to be used to denote chemicals. Many chemicals were synthesized and given names we use today (vitrol, ammonia, etc.)

Some famous alchemists? Isaac Newton, interestingly, who was certain that one day he'd discover the true answers to heaven and earth in alchemy. In addition, there was the most badass priest ever, Roger Bacon, who turned cryptography into an art, wrote plans for flying machines, studied the Mongols, and was jailed for "focusing on such dangerous novelties" as opposed the Church. There was Trithemius, another famous cryptographer, who invented the tableau. The more classical ones that Victor Frankenstein worshipped: Paracelsus, and Cornelius Agrippa. Finally, arguably the most famous: John Dee, Queen Elizabeth (the first's, obviously) doctor, who was a rather odd fellow. (He was an expert on the occult, crystal balls and all.)

Side Note: Nicolas Flamel, from Harry Potter and a bunch of other books, was NOT a real alchemist. He was a book publisher and printer. His "reputation" sprang up after his death, ironically. Sorry to burst anyone who's looking for him for the Stone's bubble. (Hermione...Harry...Ron...)

During the Middle Ages people didn't think highly of alchemists. In general many considered them thieves and charlatans, and of course the Church almost immediately branded them heretics. It was a very sensitive and mystical thing, alchemy...the symbols used in writing down metals and other formulas would be interpreted as signs to summon the Devil, and spirits. (Read Faust, there's a bit in the first part that proves this.)

So I stated above some pretty interesting things: the philosopher's stone, base metals to gold, synthesization of alkahest, and a medicine that would cure anything. Do they sound like things from Lord of the Rings, Narnia, or Harry Potter? Let me explain.

The philosopher's stone most everyone's heard. A stone with the power to turn base metals (lead, nickel, tin, etc.) to gold or the regal metals (silver, platinum, and copper). However, according to the Hermetic principles (basically philosophers), this represented purification, balance, and all that jazz.

Alkahest is more interesting. It was considered "the solvent of everything". For the uninitiated in chemistry, a solvent is something that dissolves something else. Think of water. That's considered the "universal solvent" because it's pretty good at dissolving. But even water has its limits (think oil and nonpolar substances). Alkahest would dissolve EVERYTHING. Even gold and other precious metals. Of course, this went nowhere, but that didn't stop Paracelsus from trying.

The medicine that cured anything...that's kinda obvious. It didn't go anywhere.

So of course, with this system that most people branded heretical, it had to end. Remember, of course, it included a mix of magic, the occult, some outdated theories (new-dated, at the time) and more. So eventually it had to go. Enter Robert Boyle (one of the many epic scientists named Robert: Robert Brown, Robert Millikan, Robert Chambers, and Robert Bunsen.) In the 1660s he published a book called The Skeptical Chemist (if you're outdated like me, The Scyptical Chymist). That was pretty much the death knell for alchemy, as everyone started rushing in and adding order and refinement. It all was a paper chain that has led to chemistry as we know it. Which is just awesome!

But of course, I wouldn't mind being a mystical alchemist...


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