An Angry History of Science Part 5: Alchemy isn’t just transmutation

In this series, I’m talking about big issues in how we think about our scientific past. This week I’m dealing with the thin line we drew between alchemy and chemistry. Read the first post in this series, on ancient Greece and math. Read the second post, on the Scientific Revolution. Read the third post, on astronomy and astrology. Read the fourth post, on infectious disease

It’s 2019 and everything is about efficiency. Your new phone is better than your old phone because it takes better pictures so there’s no reason to carry a camera anymore. Your new computer has more RAM so you can have a million browser windows open and it doesn’t slow you down. Even your new clothes are more efficient – your leggings are now appropriate in almost all social situations and they both keep you cool and dry while you’re working out and make your butt look toned while you’re sitting on the couch. It’s 2019, and our communal philosophy is efficiency, and we show it in everything we invent.

In the year 1319, or thereabouts, everything was about perfection. Scholars of all kinds studied what made something perfect, unable to be improved upon, because perfect things don’t decay or die. If humans could figure out what makes something perfect, they could theoretically make themselves perfect and live forever. It’s the premodern world, and everything is about perfection. In Europe, art is observational and exacting, attempting to create life out of manufactured materials and objects. Everywhere around the Mediterranean and beyond, philosophers are thinking about life and death and why it is that we live from one moment to the next. Why is it that things decay? What is inherent in their nature that makes them not last? Even metals rust. Why does copper go green, and silver tarnish? Only gold stays. What is gold? What makes it incorruptible when everything else ages? Is it possible to imitate that perfection, or reproduce it? It’s the premodern world, and alchemy, the practical study of perfection, is in the zeitgeist.

Today, alchemy is the poster child for premodern nonsense. It’s superstitious, magical, and at times inexplicably disgusting. It seems to have no connection to any kind of rational thought or scientific methodology. And yet alchemy is, more than any other premodern science, the direct precursor to modern scientific methods and structures. What makes alchemy seem so foreign isn’t the logic behind it (or lack thereof), but the philosophy. Alchemy’s goals are completely different from modern goals – they view the world in terms we as modern peoples just can’t quite relate to. But if we try to understand what alchemists thought they were doing, we get more perspective on just how arbitrary our own current technological goals are and how insightful past perspectives can be.

Alchemy as we know it today is a mystical pseudo-science focused on creating odd new forms of life and transmuting metals (turning a base metal into a precious one). Alchemy’s reputation is sealed in popular culture. Most obvious is direct depictions of alchemy, like the anime/manga Full Metal Alchemist, which takes just enough from historical alchemy to make internal sense while also running wild with its core ideas. Full Metal Alchemist focuses hard on the idea of transmutation with the show’s “laws of exchange” and also doubles down on the cryptic elements of alchemy, by making a closed military order of alchemists who seem to write largely with the strange symbols that pop up in historical alchemical texts. The plot even heavily features a character named Hohenheim, which was the real last name of historical alchemy giant Paracelsus. These elements come together to make an alchemy that is mystical and intense, while also plausible within its own world.

The other, more famous, appearance of alchemy in pop culture is similarly internally plausible, while skewing more toward benign, and that is Harry Potter. Although the first book appeared in America as “The Sorcerer’s Stone”, the eponymous stone is properly the Philosopher’s Stone, and it’s not a stone at all. The Philosopher’s Stone is a theoretical substance in alchemy that gradually became a central focus of the science into the 16th century or so. It is more accurately a potion, often referred to simply as “elixir” made up of perfect substances that would grant the drinker eternal life because it would “cure” that person of their mortality. The mechanism of the Philosopher’s Stone is almost irrelevant to the actual plot of Harry Potter – somethingsomethingVoldemortsomethingsomethingimmortality – but it drops the reader into a magical world where alchemy is true. And that’s the pop cultural importance of alchemy today – it is so synonymous with nonsense that using it immediately signals to the reader/watcher/player that a world that looks very much like ours operates on magic that anyone could perform.

But it’s sort of a shame that alchemy’s reputation has come down to “technical practical magic”, when the historical study of alchemy is what brought us a knowledge of metals, the classification of matter, the periodic table, and the practical foundations of chemistry. More than all those individual things, alchemy, far from being nonsense, was the truest form of experimental science in the Hot Zone (my unfortunate name for Europe, the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa) from ancient Egypt to the Scientific Revolution.

Alchemy’s humble origins go back to a theory and practice of metalworking in ancient Egypt. Egyptian alchemists considered the category of metal and what properties it had as a substance, and then why different metals behaved differently. Metal would continue to be the core of alchemy because its nature as a substance is both mysterious and clearly on display. Metals change phase easily and obviously, they change color in response to heat and additives and time, and they can be combined to make new metals. The premodern world only had 6 basic metals – gold, silver, copper, tin, iron, and lead. People were also aware of the existence of other metals, but they didn’t consider them metal, like mercury and zinc. They also explored in detail the creation of new alloys, such as bronze (any copper alloy, according to the premodern definition) and electrum (the alloy of gold and silver). And they explored processes that combined metals with other ingredients to substantially change them, such as steel, which, in the premodern world, involved treating iron at a particularly high heat to make it less brittle. This early form of alchemy came to be known by the Greeks as “chymia”, which in Arabic became “al-khemeea'”, which in Latin became “alchemia”, and eventually “alchemy” in modern European languages. Throughout this linguistic revolution, the science largely stayed the same – the study of metals, what they are, how they behave, and what happens when they are combined.

When Arabic readers in the early eighth century began studying Greek alchemical texts, they referred to the practitioners of this science of metals as “philosophers”. Because all of these explorations of metals served a philosophical purpose: exploring the nature of matter. It wasn’t necessary to understand metals in terms of natures and phase changes in order to work them, or even in order to innovate with them. This science was, instead, a practical philosophy. Ancient philosophy, especially metaphysics, was concerned with classifying existence and the nature of life. At a fundamental level, this meant theorizing why matter acts the way it does. Newton’s law of conservation of matter suddenly sounds very different when, instead of representing a blank slate of physics, it is the culmination of two thousand years of theorizing about whether stuff always exists or if it can be created. Alchemists explored these questions by focusing on metals in particular and then experimenting with them. Apart from the reasons I’ve already listed above, metals offer a fascinating study of matter because they can be reduced to their truest essential forms through the process of smelting. When a metal comes out of the ground, it is typically mixed with other substances in the ore. But because each metal responds differently to heat, it can be melted and separated from whatever else it was sitting next to, and then consolidated back into just itself. This idea of distilling the core nature of a substance allowed alchemists to seek both purity and perfection, where purity is a substance completely on its own and of its own essence, and perfection is that substance in stasis.

The problem with metals – or, at least, what made them fascinating – was that they still decayed, in a sense. Iron does this most obviously, since rust not only changes the color of iron from black to red, but also causes significant loss to the metal. Silver becomes less pretty when it tarnishes. Copper, an interesting example, doesn’t corrode but it does go brilliant green. Only gold remains the same. Moreover, gold is pliable and so it can form just about any shape, but it is difficult to alloy or even to cover up. These properties led alchemists to consider gold a perfect substance. It is the same, regardless of time.

The idea that gold is perfect led alchemy off in a slightly different direction. While the alchemical philosophers continued to explore the nature of substances, and even branched out into classifying other kinds of objects, some alchemists wanted to go deeper into the idea of perfection and what it meant for the relationship between life and death. These alchemists dug into the Abrahamic notion of creation – how, they wondered, could God grant life to a lump of molded earth? This questioImage result for golemn veered far into religious mysticism. In one iteration of its answer, Jewish mysticism theorized the existence of the golem, a creature made of clay by human hands that could be brought to life by writing the word “life” on its head in Hebrew. Like Newton’s law of the conservation of energy, because this creature would not decay, it could not stop moving until its momentum was halted by replacing the word “life” with the word “death”. Oddly enough, this exploration of the creation of life  was perhaps the driving force behind the scholastic studies of both gynecology and anatomy, the former of which was a tradition that had otherwise been sequestered from learned science because it was necessarily dominated by women. But as Katharine Park argued in her extraordinary book, The Secrets of Women, early-modern scientists became obsessed with the idea that women’s bodies had a unique ability to create life and so they engaged in dissection as a way to uncover this mystery.

Other alchemists of the late-medieval/early-modern era were not so much concerned with creating life as preserving it. This is where the notion of the Philosopher’s Stone came in. Rather than create a perfect being that did not decay, some alchemists theorized how an imperfect being could be made perfect. Imperfection was not just a matter of aging and dying. The fact that humans need to eat, sleep, empty their bowels, and heal are all indications of imperfection. It’s ironic how far this idea has seeped into our cultural subconscious.

Even the cartoon Steven Universe perpetuates this idea, by introducing the race of Gems – creatures who are simply projections of light from sentient gemstones, and therefore can’t die from bodily harm and don’t require any sustenance. Because alchemists framed this imperfection in terms of consumption, they were convinced that the solution was something that could be ingested – it would change the inner workings of the human body and halt all those processes to create stasis. Theorized recipes for the Philosopher’s Stone – also known as “ineffable glory” or “elixir”* – often included perfect or near-perfect materials like precious metals or gemstones, as well as materials that are the epitome of imperfection, like excrement. It’s hard to imagine that anyone ever actually made and consumed one of these mixtures, but who’s to say?

*Further side note here: elixir comes from the Arabic “al-ikseer”, meaning simply “the mixture.” An elixir is not a potion, per se, but specifically any mixture that would cause immortality or invincibility.

Even as all this bizarre immortality experimentation was going on, alchemy continued apace with its work of understanding the nature of matter. As alchemists theorized more about specific types of substances, they created systems to classify everything. While the science of the premodern world theorized that all matter could be reduced to just four basic elements (earth, air, fire, and water), alchemists were finding that it was also useful to create a tier of categorization above that to represent substances that were consistently formed of a particular ratio of the basic elements. Pure gold was always the same combination of these elements – there weren’t different mixtures of the elements that could lead to gold. So gold itself became a basic substance. And gold had a further classification, as a metal. This method of organization eventually became the periodic table, and the classical four elements stopped having much of a purpose at that point, especially after scientists started observing cells and progressively smaller building blocks.

It was at this juncture that a new branch of science developed out of alchemy: chemistry. The name “chemistry” can be misleading – because it is derived by removing the Arabic article “al” from the Latin “alkemia” to revert back to the Greek “chymia”, it makes it seem as though chemistry is some sort of pure rational science that got sidetracked and corrupted by alchemy. In reality, early-modern alchemists capitalized on the linguistic ambiguity that had always existed in Latin between chemistry and alchemy and began to assert a meaningless difference between the two. In fact, this is a distinction that could only exist in Latin, because Latin readers had both texts derived from Greek that used the word “chymia” and texts derived from Arabic that used the word “alchymia”. In Arabic, the original word “alkhemeea'” fell out of use as soon as medieval alchemy developed and it was replaced by “alkeemeea'”, which is still the word for chemistry. And, yes, those two words look as similar in Arabic as they do in English.

As William Newman and Lawrence Principe argued back in 1998, the differences between alchemy and chemistry before the 18th century were arbitrary. These different names were applied inconsistently, and the methods of the two were identical. Individual scientists could be considered either alchemists or chemists depending on the day of the week. Chemists were no more “scientific” – exacting, objective, or experimental – than alchemists. Even the aims of alchemy and chemistry were the same – as late as the 17th century, there were treatises on making gold under the heading of chemistry. As with other branches of science in this period, alchemy made a slow ideological shift toward a new method (the scientific method) and a new aim – in this case, it was exploring the building blocks of matter, rather than the macro qualities of the natures of substances. Even in summary, the differences are…nuanced.

As alchemy moved further toward microscopic studies (literally), the transmutation of metals had less to do with the field, and perhaps it was easier to relegate that undesirable aspect of the science to something else undesirable – the Arabic contribution to it. The 18th century was the height of Orientalist anxieties, when the Ottoman Empire seemed more powerful, rational, organized, and prosperous than most countries in Europe, and Europeans were desperate to assert an identity that was entirely separate from anything vaguely Middle Eastern. It would have made sense, then, to toss anything that seemed too mystical into the camp of the fearful “Orient” and be done with it. Alchemists who felt a change was in order decided to wipe the slate clean and reverted back to the Greek word as part of the impulse across Europe at this time to associate themselves with a mythically rational Greek past.

On the other side of this linguistic change, it’s obvious to us that alchemy is nonsense and chemistry is real science. But apart from the racist motivations that abruptly split alchemy and chemistry, there was an ideological shift that phased out alchemy into the realm of outdated science. With the Scientific Revolution came an obsession with the appearance of objectivity. That was the zeitgeist of the Early Modern Era (and the modern era), just as the zeitgeist of the late medieval era was purity and that of the current era (what are we now, post-post-modern?) is efficiency. It’s not that the science itself changed – there was a pretty direct continuity between alchemy and chemistry to the point that they were the same thing for about a century – but that the motivation behind the science changed. The questions changed, or, at least, the reason for asking the questions did. It’s tempting to see ourselves and our science as the best version that has ever been in a continual march of progress. But if science isn’t so much about finding objective truth as it is about finding answers to the questions that are fashionable in the moment, it’s hard to compare one era’s science to another. Like I said in Part 3 on astronomy and astrology – perspectives shifted into the modern era, and new models were required to satisfy a new worldview. When it comes to alchemy, it’s important for us to understand that what people believed about it in the late medieval/early modern period was not so much that a specific potion would grant eternal life or that lead could be turned to gold. Rather it was that those things were theoretically possible, and worth investigating because of what the answers could say about the nature of existence. Moreover, understanding what these early modern peoples thought they were doing puts our own science in perspective – what if efficiency is not the optimal future? We are already questioning what we give up in the way of privacy for the sake of efficiency. Looking back at why people did nonsense in the past can allow us to step back and examine our own current philosophies – will people of the future think that our era was full of nonsense? Will our obsessions with tidiness and multitasking and optimization be seen the same way we see transmutation and elixirs? Is what we’re doing now all that sensible in comparison to alchemy?