History : May-Jun 2018
Anxious About Alchemy A LONG WITH scholars who experimented with optics or magnets, alchemists fell under suspicion for presuming to understand the secrets of God’s creation. Antipathy toward alchemists was also bound up with their knowledge of met- allurgy: In the third century a.d. Emperor Diocletian ordered the alchemical texts of the Egyptians to be destroyed, fearing that the gold they might produce could undermine the empire’s economy. Although some early Christian authors criticized alchemy, large numbers of alchemical texts were being copied by monks by the 1300s. Even so, anxiety over the compatibility of faith and science persisted, expressed in the story of Doctor Faustus (shown here in his study in Rembrandt’s 1652 engraving). Wearied by the slow pace of virtuous experimentation, Faustus turns to the dark arts to make a deal with the devil that will consign his soul to eternal perdition. QUINTLOX/ALBUM claimed to have witnessed the changing of a large quantity of mercury into gold. Twenty years later the German Johann Friedrich Schweitzer claimed a stranger gave him a sulfur-colored powder capable of transmuting lead into gold. A book published in 1784 selects 112 similar cases. Science’s Golden Age As interest in alchemy rose between the 16th and 18th centuries, science was also experiencing a golden age, dubbed the “scientific revolution.” Huge strides were made in scientific understanding—from Copernicus’s theory of heliocentrism to Newton’s description of the laws of motion. Many of these advances came about, in part, because of better scientific standards, like those developed by scholar Francis Bacon (no relation of Roger). A nobleman in the court of Elizabeth I and later James I, Bacon wrote that “The best proof by far is experiment.” This idea became the cornerstone of the scientific method, by which theories are proposed after direct observation and experimentation rather than being based on tradition, superstition, or religion. When Francis Bacon was developing his new ESSENTIAL WORK Alchemists carried out distillations in glass vessels such as this 17th-century retort, to extract the “quintessence.” National Museum of Science and Technology, Milan LEEMAGE/PRISMA recipes circulated, each trying to solve the conundrum of dissolving gold for safe consumption, but with little success. At this time, an astonishingly large number of witnesses were prepared to testify to having seen metals such as mercury and lead turned into gold or silver. The process was always the same: The alchemists melted the metal to be transmuted in a crucible. They ook a small fragment of a philosopher’s stone, wrapped in wax aper, and rubbed it against the metal until it transformed old. Numerous transmutaof this type were apparently arried out in front of qualified sses. Early chemist and sicist Robert Boyle claimed to en it happen on three sepaoccasions. In 1648 the Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand III 54 MAY/JUNE 2018 idea, alchemy still fell into the realm of science. While alchemists attributed mystical causes to results, they did carry out scientific experiments that resulted in genuine discoveries. John Dee, a gifted Elizabethan mathematician, astronomer, and alchemist, is a good example of this duality. Caught between magic and science, Dee taught navigational skills to the sailors who would embark on voyages of discovery, while he also claimed the ability to communicate with angels. Elsewhere in Europe at the time, interest in alchemy intrigued people at all levels of society, whether physicians, apothecaries, peddlers, nobles, or priests. The Medici rulers of Tuscany financed alchemical research. Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was as fascinated by alchemy as he was by astronomy. Rudolf attracted Elizabethan alchemists and occultists to his court in Prague, including Edward Kelley and John Dee. Those in the upper echelons of power remained cautious: The ability to create gold would be marvelous—but only, of course, if the knowledge remained in the “proper hands.” In the wrong hands, power could be lost, or anarchy could result. Even so, fascination with alchemy was not all about wealth; many of its practitioners were genuinely motivated by the quest for physical healing and spiritual enlightenment.