Gold! Some people think that the only thing that alchemists ever tried to do was turn common metals into gold. Other people think that alchemists were only concerned with finding a panacea to cure all diseases and allow us to live forever. But alchemy throughout history has been much more than just charlatans looking to perform magic tricks. Most were intelligent scholars, and included among them are illustrious scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton. Many were innovators who wanted to investigate the true nature of chemical substances, and who developed experiments, coupled with their own lateral and speculative thinking, to uncover the mysteries of the universe. Modern science owes much to these broad minded individuals.
The search for the Philosopher’s Stone was one of the great pursuits of the alchemists. Like in the first Harry Potter book, the Philosophers Stone was a substance of immense importance, and alchemists believed that the philosophi lapis could turn inexpensive metals into gold and/or make humans younger and prolong life.
The vast majority of people these days do not believe in the existence of a physical stone that could achieve these amazing results. It may seem these days that historical alchemists must have been rather mad to believe that they could turn one metal into another, however it is easy to draw this conclusion from our point in history. Alchemists suspected that something was being conserved in chemical reactions beyond the obvious changes in physical states and appearances of the substances involved. They thought that there were some “principles” that were hidden within a chemical that could be unveiled through proper manipulation, and perhaps through this, they could turn one chemical into another. We know these days that indeed mass and energy are conserved in chemical reactions but alchemists struggled to understand the nature of these principles.
It is not surprising that alchemists struggled to come to terms with the true nature of the science they were investigating since there was never any context for separating the physical aspects of their calling from the metaphysical. Indeed, until quite recently, there were no common words for chemical concepts and processes, and so alchemists had to borrow terms from biblical and pagan mythology, astrology and other esoteric fields. Alchemists sought in those fields the theoretical frameworks into which they could fit their experimental findings. No wonder their writings often seemed like enchanted tales.
After the Middle Ages, some alchemists came to view chemical substances, physical states, and the reactions they undertook as metaphors for spiritual entities, states and transformations. They thought that the turning of common metals into gold and finding a cure for all human ills represented evolution from an imperfect, corrupted and mortal state into a perfect, healthy, and everlasting state. The Philosopher’s Stone represented the spiritual key that would unlock the secret to this transformation.
Chinese alchemy has had an interesting history, with a more obvious connection to medicine than European alchemy. Chinese alchemists sought the Grand Elixir of Immortality. “Black powder”, a type of gunpowder, is thought to be an important invention of Chinese alchemists in the 9th century, and it quickly spread around the world.
Alchemists were often held in high regard by society, though not necessarily for their quest to uncover the mysteries of the universe, nor their philosophical insight. It was their rather more uninteresting contributions to industry of the day that brought them acclaim. Such industries include metalworking, ore testing and refining, production of ink, dyes, paints, and cosmetics, leather tanning, ceramics and glass manufacture, and liqueur preparation, and they all owe a debt to the alchemists of the past. So next time you sit down to drink your special dessert liqueur, you can thank the alchemists.
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