Alchemy is one of those pieces of history that refuses to stay in the past. Remnants of alchemy lurk all around us today, in astrological signs, the classical four elements (air, water, earth, and fire), and the recently repopularized Philosopher’s Stone. Most of these are tiny details, fragments of what was once an incredibly complex philosophy millennia in the making and has now been transmuted into a collection of cultural references.
Most of us have a vague idea of alchemy as a bunch of wizardly-looking people in robes with stars on them, performing arcane chants over a chunk of lead in an attempt to turn it into gold. There’s an element (har har) of truth to this, since alchemy has represented many things over the centuries, including the quest to transmute substances, or turn them into something higher and nobler. However, there are multiple traditions of alchemy—China and India both have distinct alchemical histories—that paint a very different picture than that of the crackpot, would-be sorcerer.
To illustrate, let’s play a little game of “Chemist or Alchemist”!
Consider the semi-mythical Mary the Prophetess, who lived sometime between the first and third centuries AD. She is said to have invented the bain-marie (a type of double boiler) and equipment for distillation and extraction, as well as discovering hydrochloric acid. The fragments of works we have that are attributed to her include the first known description of an acid salt, along with other acids. All of these alchemical discoveries and inventions are still used today in chemistry labs.
Skip forward a few centuries and take a look at Jabir ibn Hayyan, a leading alchemist of the eighth century. What survives of his work describes a methodical experimentalist, committed to logical description and classification. In fact, many people consider him the father of chemistry, a title contested by relative latecomers like Antoine Lavoisier. Jabir is credited with the discovery of aqua regia, a mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acid that dissolves gold and platinum. Aqua regia is still used in labs today in etching and gold purification.
Shortly after Jabir’s work, alchemists in China invented black powder as the culmination of centuries of alchemical work with saltpeter. Chinese alchemy was different from Western alchemy in some ways, focusing more strongly on medicine than its Western counterpart (the Chinese word for gunpowder means “fire medicine”!), but this particular invention transcended all cultural boundaries. In a few centuries, it made the leap from medical research to fireworks to the revolutionary technology that changed wars forever.
These examples show how much we miss when we treat alchemy as just the black sheep of the scientific family, the embarrassing third cousin who won’t shut up about weird conspiracy theories and has personally been abducted by aliens at least seven times. There’s a reason chemistry and alchemy come from the same word—chemia or chemeia, from the Greek name for Egypt, filtered through Arabic as al-kimiya and then into Romance languages. In fact, the two disciplines weren’t even seen as separate enough to merit different names until about 1720. Both sides of the divide have tried to sweep it under the rug, but they have a common origin, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
All of this isn’t to say that alchemy is totally misunderstood and deserves a place among our modern sciences. There’s a large mystical component to a lot of alchemical writings, making the quest for chemical transmutation both a metaphor and a prerequisite for the achievement of immortality and spiritual perfection. No, it’s fairer to say that alchemy was a good protoscience that inspired and gave birth to later fields that refined the empirical scientific method.
Given the explosion of modern science and the discrediting of many of the fundamental ideas of alchemy, how do we explain its enduring influence, especially on Western culture? Personally, I think we can credit the fact that no alchemy student ever had a teacher happily sing “Chem is TRY!” as they tried to balance chemical reactions.
Really, though, alchemy’s staying power seems to be in its hold on the imagination. The integral mysticism of alchemy makes it a strange quasi-science that’s fascinating to us, since the philosophy behind it has been replaced by a sharp distinction between the scientific and the supernatural. To modern eyes, it’s a hybrid of science and magic that represents both ingenuity and ignorance.
I think the persistence of alchemy in our imaginations is a good thing, especially when it’s used as an imaginative element in fiction. The desire for wealth and immortality is a great motivator for all kinds of stories and a fantastic way to explore the contradictions and limits of human nature. It’s also just cool! I mean, come on—we all know Fullmetal Chemist wouldn’t be the same without Al.
Beyond pop culture, the role of alchemy in the history of science should inspire us to keep examining our own assumptions and methods. Just like us, alchemists aspired to knowledge and techniques that seemed totally reasonable given what they knew of the world. It’s only with today’s understanding of the universe that the Philosopher’s Stone sounds unscientific.
As K says in Men in Black, “Imagine what you’ll ‘know’ tomorrow.”