History : May-Jun 2018
Michael Maier’s Mysterious Emblems M ICHAEL MAIER’S 1617 Atalanta fugiens presents 50 enigmatic “emblems,” each interposed with epigrams and musical scores. Considered to be the pinnacle of printed alchemical literature, this work reflects the age’s thirst for “hidden” esoteric knowledge. Its singular combination of images, text, and music—an early example of multimedia—is explained in the treatise’s introduction, in which Maier writes: “We have joined Optics to Music and the sense to the intellect,” in order to gain “a single view and embrace these three objects of the more spiritual senses.” The picture on the left is an example of the mysterious symbolism included in the work. It shows emblem 50: a dragon and a woman, drenched in blood, destroying each other. They represent opposing forces that cancel each other out, the dragon symbolizing fire and earth, while the woman is water and air. WELLCOME LIBRARY, LONDON series). Records show that Flamel died in 1418, but many theorized he faked his death and was still alive. Another example of a popular alchemical treatise of this golden age was Atalanta fugiens, published in 1617 by the German alchemist Michael Maier. It is believed Maier belonged to the Rosicrucian movement, a secret society that emerged during this period and claimed to have access to ancient secret knowledge. Alchemy had even spread to the New World. In the 1600s Harvard scholar George Starkey (using the rather more impressive pseudonym of “Eirenaeus Philalethes”) wrote alchemical works that deeply influenced Isaac Newton. Although Newton’s Principia could only be understood by a learned few when it was published in 1687, Newton’s intention was to reveal and explain the workings of the natural world using the scientific method. Among his revolutionary ideas are the three laws of motion that are fundamental to modern physics and which understand the complexity of the entire universe as a wonderfully simple set of general laws. MERE MORTAL? This 18th-century engraving depicts 14th-century scribe and alchemist Nicolas Flamel. His death was recorded in 1418, and Flamel was buried in the Paris church of Saint-Jacques-de-laBoucherie. LEEMAGE/PRISMA In the early 17th century Italian astrono- mer Galileo peered through his telescope and observed four moons orbiting Jupiter, a phenomenon that helped prove that Earth is not at the center of the universe. Galileo’s 1610 observations spurred on the scientific revolution, but even as his observations were being disseminated throughout Europe, large numbers of influential alchemical treatises were also being published. In 1612 the Book of Hieroglyphical Fig- ures was also provoking widespread interest. Attributed to Nicolas Flamel, a 14thcentury French scribe turned alchemist, the book describes how Flamel allegedly discovered the secret of the philosopher’s stone with which he went on to achieve immortality. (Flamel has made appearances in modern works of science fiction and fantasy; he and his philosopher’s stone feature heavily in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Alchemy’s Legacy As demonstrated in the case of aqua regia and nitric acid, alchemists did make important chemical discoveries and practical achievements. Modern scientists owe the discovery of the production of sulfuric acid—a key component in many chemical processes—to the experiments of a European alchemist from the early 13th century. Many instruments and techniques used in laboratories today had their origins in the workshops of alchemists. Scientific laws and maxims were developed and tested through their work as well. Such triumphs help explain why alchemy and mainstream science remained intertwined for so long. As Enlightenment values spread throughout Europe and North America in the 1700s, the alchemical notion of a “universal spirit,” began to look more like superstition and less like real science. Alchemical ideas lingered on in the form of dubious products hawked by charlatans. By then, however, most scientists had begun to accept that changes in matter took place thanks to material, not spiritual, changes. The old alchemy was on its way to being “transmuted” into the new science of chemistry. JOAQUÍN PÉREZ-PARIENTE IS A CHEMIST AT SPAIN’S NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL AND A WRITER ON THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND ALCHEMY.