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History of Chemistry

I. Alchemy is where modern day Chemistry came from.

A. Alchemy was proto-scientific: It had some features of science, but not all.

B. Alchemy covered many scientific topics, including what we now call: astronomy, chemistry, medicine metallurgy, physics

C. Also included many religious, non-scientific concepts: astrology, magic, mysticism

II. Etymology (History of words)

A. alchemy comes from the Arabic al kmiya or al khmiya

B. Probably formed from the article al and the Greek word chumeia meaning “cast together”, “alloy” (from khumatos, “that which is poured out, an ingot”).

III. The methods of Alchemy

A. Followed some parts of the scientific method, but not all.

B. It was more of a belief based system – alchemists often came up with conclusions, and then performed experiments to prove that their conclusions were true.

1. They rarely admitted that they were incorrect. They rarely changed their opinions.

2. They did take notes. Later alchemists built upon the findings of the earlier ones. Slowly, some scientific knowledge was developed.

IV. Beliefs

A. Alchemists believed everything in the world was made of only four elements:

1. Earth, Air, Fire, and Water

B. By combining these elements in different ways, they thought that everything we see in the world around us could be created.

V. The goals of Alchemy

A. Transmutation of any metal into either gold or silver.

They never proved that this was possible. Rather, they just assumed that it must be
so. Psychologists know this is a common phenomenon: When people want
something to be true, they convince themselves that it must be real.

We now know that this is impossible. No chemical reaction can convert one metal
into another metal.

However, it’s possible for a nuclear reaction to convert one metal into another metal.
This would never happen by mixing chemicals. This would only happen inside an
exploding star, or inside a particle accelerator.

B. “Panacea”, a remedy that supposedly would cure all diseases, and prolong life.

The “Philosopher’s stone” was believed to be a key ingredient in these goals.
They never proved that this was possible. Rather, they just assumed that it.

C. They wanted to find a way to mix chemicals to create animals – even human life.

They never proved that this was possible. They assumed that it must be so.

D. They wanted to find ways to transform common rocks (“ores”) into useful metals.

1. This is a part of real science; this is possible. However, what we do is
extract small amounts of useful metal from the rocks they are within.

VI. The transmutation of base metals into gold symbolized an endeavour toward perfection.

A. Believed that the universe was tending towards a state of perfection

B. Gold, due to its immunity to decay, was considered to be the most perfect material.

C. By attempting to transmute base metals into gold, they were trying to give the universe a
helping hand.

VII. Reinterpretation: Over time, the goals of alchemy were understood in new ways.

A. Some people came to believe that these goals of alchemy were really metaphors for a spiritual transformation of one’s own self. These books redefined old words in new ways:

the Philosopher’s Stone = a gift that every man potentially has unto himself

Transmutation = the process that transform the alchemist by studying sciences

Panacea = the true meaning of love and science.

VIII. Up to the 18th century, alchemy was considered real science

A. Isaac Newton devoted more of his time alchemy than he did to physics

B. The decline of alchemy began in the 18th century with the birth of modern chemistry

1. We realized that we had to make fewer assumptions

3. Just because we want something to be possible, doesn’t mean that it is possible.

4. No more assuming that one could turn base metals into gold. One could ask if this
was possible, but one could not simply say that it must be true.

5. No more assuming that there was some magical philosopher’s stone.

6. Everything was due to strict cause and effect: if something happens, then there
should be a step-by-step explanation that is rational.


Related reading:

Alchemy May Not Have Been the Pseudoscience We All Thought It Was

Although scientists never could quite turn lead into gold, they did attempt some noteworthy experiments

By Richard Conniff, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2014




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