Alchemy gaining respect, centuries after its heyday

Our medieval ancestors had any number of habits we now find odd - among them their pursuit of a formula to turn base metals into gold. That's one reason why we often equate the word "alchemist" with "charlatan." But the often-derided practice is now getting a second look from historians, who say the popular image we have of alchemy does not accurately comport with the reality.

That topic was taken up in earnest during a recent meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science,. A chemist and historian by the name of Lawrence Principe of Johns Hopkins University talked about an "alchemical revolution" as scholars start to rethink the history of alchemy.

Turns out that alchemy was more than a pointless search for ways to create gold. Indeed, both the Irish scientist Robert Boyle,, one of the world's first chemists, and Isaac Newton, were described as avid alchemists back in the day.

Indeed, alchemists were said to assay metals, refine salts, make dyes and pigments, glass and ceramics, artificial fertilizers, perfumes, and cosmetics. So what happened?

According to Principe, alchemy's poor reputation has much to do with a change in European intellectual thought in the 17th and 18th centuries and that alchemists were anything but charlatans....

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