New interest in alchemists





Historians of science are taking a new and lively interest in alchemy, the often mystical investigation into the hidden mysteries of nature that reached its heyday in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and has been an embarrassment to modern scientists ever since.

There was no place in the annals of empirical science, beginning mainly in the 18th century, for the occult practices of obsessed dreamers who sought most famously and impossibly to transform base metals into pure gold. So alchemy fell into disrepute.

But in the revival of scholarship on the field, historians are finding reasons to give at least some alchemists their due. Even though they were secretive and self-deluded and their practices closer to magic than modern scientific methods, historians say, alchemists contributed to the emergence of modern chemistry as a science and an agent of commerce.

“Experimentalism was one of alchemy’s hallmarks,” said Lawrence M. Principe, a historian of science at Johns Hopkins University and a trained chemist. “You have to get your hands dirty, and in this way alchemists forged some early ideas about matter.”



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