Alchemy Without The Shame

John Noble Wilford has a long, interesting article in today’s New York Times on the rehabilitation of the alchemist. Once the icon of the bad old days before the scientific revolution, alchemy has been emerging in recent years as more of a proto-science. Indeed, a fair number of the heroes of the scientific revolution were dyed-in-the-wool alchemists. Robert Boyle, one of the founders of chemistry, wanted to reform alchemy, not destroy it. He chased after the philsopher’s stone for his whole life. Many of his papers were destroyed in the eighteenth century because they were loaded with discussions of alchemy–which by then had acquired its bad reputation. Boyle’s legacy had to be protected.

Wilford reported from a recent meeting of historians of chemistry in Philadelphia. From his report (as well as this one from the New York Sun and this one from Chemical and Engineering News), it seems as if the meeting neglected one of the most interesting sides of alchemy: its role in the history of bio-chemistry. Alchemists believed that the life was the greatest transmutation of all, and they believed that the philsopher’s stone would serve as the ultimate medicine. While a lot of alchemists dealt in Kevin-Trudeau-style hogwash, some did important work.

Jan Baptist van Helmont, a sixteenth-century Belgian alchemist, carried out a classic experiment on biological growth. He put a five pound willow sapling in a tube of 200 pounds of earth. For five years he gave the tree nothing but water, and then weighed both tree and earth. The tree had grown to 169 pounds, while the earth had lost a few ounces. “Hence one hundred and sixty-four pounds of wood, bark, and roots have come up from water alone,” he announced. Van Helmont believed that the willow was nothing more than transmuted water, given form by the willow’s inner soul.

I first came to appreciate the importance of alchemy in the rise of biochemistry while working on my book Soul Made Flesh, on the history of neurology. Thomas Willis, the first neurologist, started out as an alchemist, deeply influenced by Van Helmont. He came into contact with Robert Boyle through their shared interest in alchemy. And his first important work was a book that used alchemy to reinterpret physiology. Instead of the four humours, Willis saw body being made up of corpuscles of different sorts, borrowing concepts of Van Helmont and other alchemists. These corpuscles interacted with one another to produce changes, just as ferments made bread rise and grape juice turn to wine.

Willis later did groundbreaking work on the anatomy and function of the brain, which until his time had generally been considered a pretty useless organ. Willis envisioned the brain as an alembic, the distilling container of alchemy, in which some of the corpuscles of the blood were distilled into the animal spirits, which then flowed through the nerves. While some of Willis’s language and concepts are now hopelessly old-fashioned, he set the study of the brain–and thus the soul–on a new foundation.

The intersection of alchemy and biology is just further evidence that science does not advance by simply wiping the slate clean and starting completely from scratch. Some of the most dramatic revolutions were born within systems of thought that today seem hopelessly backwards. I wonder how twenty-ninth cenutry historians will look back at our own revolutions today. Who will be cast aside as the new alchemists?

0 thoughts on “Alchemy Without The Shame

  1. If “alchemy” is shorthand for “doing something that’s maybe a little wrong-headed, but which leads to important insights in the fullness of time,” then, ah…

    Nanotechnology comes to mind as an area where we hear claims that are too good to be true. I can’t believe all the hype, but I wouldn’t be surprised if nanotech led to some amazing stuff (just not quite the almost-magical images it conjures up when some people speak of its promise, now).

  2. The intersection of alchemy and biology is just further evidence that science does not advance by simply wiping the slate clean and starting completely from scratch. Some of the most dramatic revolutions were born within systems of thought that today seem hopelessly backwards.

  3. When I was in college I came across a 1951 biography of the alchemist and physician Paracelsus called “Magic into Science.” The book had a big influence on me, to the point when I was on a choir tour in Salzberg I went to see Paracelsus’ grave instead of going with my music nerd friends to view all the Mozart iconography of the town. The book struck me because the author, Henry Pachter, portrays Paracelsus as a keen observer with many fundemental insights, but so bound by the philosopies and limits of knowledge of the day that he became frustrated when his theories that worked well in one situation proved useless in another. While many of his ideas seem prescient, they didn’t really have much influence after his death. I think this was because his insights were drawn from his philosophy for which he sought observations for support (confirmation bias) and the idea of systematic observation and rigorous analysis were still decades in the future. Pachter says, “In all the fields he pioneered, Paracelsus contributed more intuition than observation, more ideas than knowledge. There is no point, therefore, in tracing modern discoveries back to him.” I still find him a fascinating character for his flaws and how they illustrate how much of the public fails to understand science.

  4. Medical science started with homeopathy. Hmm, I never thought about this before, but there are no more alchemists, and we all know alchemy is fundamentally flawed. OTOH, there are plenty of homeopaths…

    As an aside, I’ve put “Alchmist” as my occupation on my tax return for almost a decade now.

  5. There seems to be quite a lot of enthusiasm for rehabilitating alchemy, but I have to admit I don’t understand it. Everything I’ve read about alchemy suggests it was a based in a mystical search for hidden knowledge, that it was heavily tied into ancient textual authority, and that it was generally wrong-headed on just about every level. For a long time it was the only game in town that was anything like what we would call chemistry, and some very smart people had a go at it. But it’s like astrology – yes, medieval astrology encouraged lots of people to look at the stars, but to call it ‘proto-astronomy’ would kind of miss the point, wouldn’t it? Or to call exorcism ‘proto-psychiatry’?

    Science only started making progress when it finally broke with the bad habits of thought typical of astrology and alchemy – the search for ancient mystical wisdom, the supernatural explanations, the continual reliance on textual authority over experiment. These weren’t somehow precursors to science, they were the things that stopped science happening.

  6. PBS did a glorious show on Newton recently (maybe NOVA, not sure). It seems that Sir Isaac spent more of his life experimenting in alchemy than he did working on what became Principia Mathematica, Calculus, and the Laws of Motion. He never published any of this alchemical work, and his notes on the subject are so cryptic as to be indecypherable.

    This seems very very strange to me. Arguably, Sir Isaac was the smartest, most creative, most influential man that ever walked planet Earth. He must have discovered something worthwhile from all that work – wouldn’t you think? The show said that when he was working on his Principia, he would work feverishly for 4 or 5 days at a time without sleep. He knocked out the PM in a remarkably short span of time.

    If anybody ever found the elusive “Philosophers Stone”, it was surely he. I propose that his secret discovery was actually the first synthesis of smokeable crystal methamphetamine.

    (OK, so the last sentence was meant to be a joke. But the rest is serious.)

  7. Ball’s biography of Paracelsus is quite good, and includes an overview of early-modern alchemy in western Europe and a summary of Paracelsus’s influence (which was considerable for a few generations after his death in 1541, if not in his lifetime).

    Though a few of Paracelsus’s contributions were, almost accidentally, significant (his mercury-based treatment for syphilis was standard until the 20th century; his emphasis on the body’s own healing mechanisms is still widely supported; he was the first to formulate antimony chloride, and may have been the first to apply the name “alcool” to the distillation of wine; he was the first to write seriously on women’s health problems; etc, etc), his primary contribution was that of an iconoclast.

    His notorious scoffing at the authority of historical texts (including a famous bonfire of Galen’s near-sacred writings, and preferring to write & teach in German rather than Latin), and his insistence on field experience & laboratory research, helped a great deal in preparing the seedbed for real science. “Alchemy” was not a monolithic phenomenon, and should not be swept under the historical carpet.

  8. Carl Zimmer — what do you think of the late Oxford zoology professor JWS Pringle’s view that all of evolution is driven by the resonance of an asymmetrical sine-wave? That is essentially what alchemists argued as well, building on the Logos of the Tetrad. Or you can read professor Oliver L. Reiser’s alchemical masterpiece: “Cosmic Humanism and World Unity” (1975, Gordon and Beach). Reiser co-wrote the book with CIA mind-control scientist Dr. Andrija Puharich and the central concept is “the music logarithmic spiral” as an applied superstring technology.

    The term “the Matrix” is their most common reference to this plan for an extension of H.G. Well’s “World Brain” alchemy concept presented to the Round Table in the U.K.

    Reiser’s book became the manifesto for the World Institute set up to guide global technological “progress” by the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the U.N. and the L.B.J. Administration, at the best of Strauss, the promoter of “radio-eugenics.”

    Is not the Petkau Effect alchemy writ-large? for more details.

  9. HG Wells presented to the Royal Institute of International Affairs which created the Council of Foreign Relations and, according to Clinton’s mentor, professor Quigley, still rules the world.

    Alchemy as the Matrix is currently

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