Good as gold: What alchemists got right





Three hundred years ago, more or less, the last serious alchemists finally gave up on their attempts to create gold from other metals, dropping the curtain on one of the least successful endeavors in the history of human striving.

Centuries of work and scholarship had been plowed into alchemical pursuits, and for what? Countless ruined cauldrons, a long trail of empty mystical symbols, and precisely zero ounces of transmuted gold. As a legacy, alchemy ranks above even fantasy baseball as a great human icon of misspent mental energy.

But was it really such a waste? A new generation of scholars is taking a closer look at a discipline that captivated some of the greatest minds of the Renaissance. And in a field that modern thinkers had dismissed as a folly driven by superstition and greed, they now see something quite different.

Alchemists, they are finding, can take credit for a long roster of genuine chemical achievements, as well as the techniques that would prove essential to the birth of modern lab science. In alchemists' intricate notes and diagrams, they see the early attempt to codify and hand down experimental knowledge. In the practices of alchemical workshops, they find a masterly refinement of distillation, sublimation, and other techniques still important in modern laboratories.

Alchemy had long been seen as a kind of shadowy forebear of real chemistry, all the gestures with none of the results. But it was an alchemist who discovered the secret that created the European porcelain industry. Another alchemist discovered phosphorus. The alchemist Paracelsus helped transform medicine by proposing that disease was caused not by an imbalance of bodily humors, but by distinct harmful entities that could be treated with chemicals. (True, he believed the entities were controlled by the planets, but it was a start.)

Alchemists might have been colossally wrong in their goals, but they were, in some fundamental way, part of the story of science, these scholars say. Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton, fathers of modern chemistry and physics, were also serious students of alchemy. And the fact that alchemists have been marginalized as hand-waving mystics says less about alchemists themselves than about modern society's need to separate itself from the supposedly benighted past.



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