What you didn’t know about alchemists

Chances are, you’re not like me: you cringe when someone says the word “chemistry.” Your memory of it vaguely harkens back to an undergrad class whose knowledge you flushed once you finished the final. That’s okay — my goal for this series is to change that paradigm, make it understandable to all, and provide some entertainment.

Alchemy gets a bad rap. For centuries, it was characterized as what some would call “malarkey” because the writings of its practitioners were so esoteric. The mysterious nature of their notes coupled with their laughable goal of turning various metals into gold (and failing, obviously) resulted in them essentially being outcast by society, so they became a cult. Our modern definition of cult (Charles Manson?) unfairly prejudices our initial impression of the alchemists, and it’s time to set the record straight. That starts with the natural philosophers.

Now, what exactly is a “natural philosopher,” why were they so critical of alchemists, and who cares what they said (i.e., why did people listen to them)? Back in the day (e.g., think ~300 BC, when Aristotle lived, to about ~1800 AD), the word “philosopher” had quite a different meaning than it does today. Without going too far down that path, a natural philosopher was essentially a theoretical scientist — he wanted to understand the ‘nature’ of how stuff worked. Well-known philosophers typically were sponsored by high society (i.e., nobles) as well as monarchs and acted as science advisors. Alchemists were hired by monarchs, too, and ultimately, a battle royale would ensue when they went head-to-head with the court natural philosopher. Because natural philosophers had the monarch’s ear, they could easily spread their messages and influence the way people thought. So, when alchemists repeated attempts to turn iron into gold came up bupkis, that only reinforced the natural philosophers’ position that these dudes were whack.

But the alchemists were not whack — just misunderstood. If natural philosophers were the first theoreticians, then alchemists were the first empiricists (an empiricist is someone who uses tangible knowledge to form the basis of science, that’s my definition anyway). Recently, their work has been re-examined and re-evaluated, and while the interpretation is still somewhat objective, it seems that even though they favored flowery descriptions of their work, they still understood how to work metal. See for yourself:

Atalanta fugiens

I’ll be the first to admit, that tells me nothing about metallurgical processes.

But I don’t have the mindset of 16th century cult member! If I did, I’d know that that passage is a procedure for the purification of gold from its alloys. Briefly, it is believed that ‘King’ and ‘grey wolf’ is a references to gold and antimony sulfide, respectively. Mixing antimony sulfide (the grey wolf) with molten gold (the King) causes any metal sulfides to form and float to the surface like slag. That can be skimmed off, and the resulting gold/antimony mixture can be heated to temperatures that will cause the antimony to evaporate (‘consuming the grey wolf’) leaving pure gold (‘restoring the King’). As an aside, this process of gold purification is very similar to a gilding technique that uses mercury and is probably worth an article on its own.

Further, I absolutely would protect my empirical knowledge from the nay-saying philosophers (eff those guys) while still making it readable to fellow cult members. Furthermore, I may as well embrace the “those dudes are crazy” sentiment to keep my beliefs and practices alive as well as to spread new knowledge.

I say “eff those guys” to the natural philosophers facetiously, okay? They are considered by most to be the founders of knowledge, but in all fairness, they get all the limelight. Chemistry really was built on empiricism simply because the first observations were made on bulk materials — it was impossible to observe what was happening on an atomic or molecular scale (it still is to some degree), which is what natural philosophers were concerned with. On second glance, it now makes sense that first theories of chemistry proposed by philosophers were just as wild as the alchemist text presented above. Subsequently, philosophers became the more influential of the two because of the more tangible (and public) alchemist failures. Nonetheless, a full grasp of that ‘1v1 me bro’ required putting our minds into the heads of the early chemists.

That is partially what I hope to pursue here: to present an entertaining history of chemistry that doesn’t just transport your mind, but transplants it so that we can properly explore the magnitude of chemistry discoveries, achievements, and breakthroughs in context. For example, the atomic mass of oxygen is commonly taught in high school (maybe even junior high), so it’s hard for us to imagine a world where grown men are fighting over whether it’s 8 or 16 (it’s 16, yes, I know you were about google it).

Hopefully, this blurb gave you some insight that wasn’t totally boring and enigmatic about a discipline that is traditionally regarded as just that.

Works consulted:

Brock, William H. The Chemical Tree: A History of Chemistry. New York: Norton and Co, 2000.

I’m a former chemistry assistant prof that is out to prove that chemistry is both interesting and entertaining

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