Give the alchemists their credit

By Carl Zimmer | February 24, 2011 8:44 pm

The Economist reports from this year’s AAAS meeting about a fascinating lecture delivered by the historian of science Lawrence Principe about his quest to figure out the real history of alchemy. Principe has done some impressive work to brush away the Whig history of modern chemistry and understand alchemy on its own terms.

Alchemy is saddled with such a bad reputation that many people don’t appreciate  how it played an important role in the birth of modern sciences, such as biochemistry and neurology.

Here’s part of a blog post I wrote in 2006 on this surprising link:

Jan Baptist van Helmont, a sixteenth-century Belgian alchemist, carried out a classic experiment on biological growth. He put a five pound willow sapling in a tube of 200 pounds of earth. For five years he gave the tree nothing but water, and then weighed both tree and earth. The tree had grown to 169 pounds, while the earth had lost a few ounces. “Hence one hundred and sixty-four pounds of wood, bark, and roots have come up from water alone,” he announced. Van Helmont believed that the willow was nothing more than transmuted water, given form by the willow’s inner soul.

I first came to appreciate the importance of alchemy in the rise of biochemistry while working on my book Soul Made Flesh, on the history of neurology. Thomas Willis, the first neurologist, started out as an alchemist, deeply influenced by Van Helmont. He came into contact with Robert Boyle through their shared interest in alchemy. And his first important work was a book that used alchemy to reinterpret physiology. Instead of the four humours, Willis saw body being made up of corpuscles of different sorts, borrowing concepts of Van Helmont and other alchemists. These corpuscles interacted with one another to produce changes, just as ferments made bread rise and grape juice turn to wine.

Willis later did groundbreaking work on the anatomy and function of the brain, which until his time had generally been considered a pretty useless organ. Willis envisioned the brain as an alembic, the distilling container of alchemy, in which some of the corpuscles of the blood were distilled into the animal spirits, which then flowed through the nerves. While some of Willis’s language and concepts are now hopelessly old-fashioned, he set the study of the brain–and thus the soul–on a new foundation.

The intersection of alchemy and biology is just further evidence that science does not advance by simply wiping the slate clean and starting completely from scratch. Some of the most dramatic revolutions were born within systems of thought that today seem hopelessly backwards. I wonder how twenty-ninth cenutry historians will look back at our own revolutions today. Who will be cast aside as the new alchemists?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Brains, History of Science

Comments (8)

  1. David B. Benson

    Issac Newton was one, so I’ve always given alchemists some cridit for trying; pioneers.

  2. Thomas

    Mechanics is pretty simple. You can drop a ball from a tower and be near ideal conditions of free fall. Chemistry is incredibly complex in comparison. Pretend you don’t know anything about atoms or the periodic table and try to make sense of chemical reactions you can observe. I think the most important work of the alchemists was finding all the small pieces of how different chemicals react with each other, and it was not until you had enough of these pieces that it was possible to make a more systematic science out of it.

  3. Em

    Man do you need to dig into the vast history of alchemy. Alchemy was the defacto repository for both Chinese as well as Arabic chemistry, macrobiotics, and even metallurgy, while also forming the basis for Eurpoean investigations of chemistry. The ‘turning lead into gold’ thing was but a small part.

    According to Jung, it’s probably also fair to say that a primitive form of psychology was also developed within the context of greater alchemy.

    In other words, alchemy was both the literal as well as figurative furnace from which experimental western sciences were born.

  4. John D

    Many articles that discuss or investigate Alchemy from a scientific point of view miss the point all together. You need to compare apple with apples, you can’t compare Alchemy and science as Alchemy was mainly a spiritual, almost religious teaching that tried to explain how the world worked within a spiritual/religious context. To look upon Alchemists as failures is wrong, that would be like looking upon another religion as failures. To say that they failed because they didn’t allow their theories to grow and change as science ‘does’ would also be unfair as religious beliefs tend to flex and change very, very slowly.

  5. TC

    I agree with John. Comparison is pointless. I would however word this idea a little differently. Alchemy was what modern day Chemistry looked like in the wrong paradigm. This old paradigm centered around religion and sometimes a mysticism of sorts as a means to explain and observe the elements.

    The elements table is the correct whole that allowed a fledgling soft science to morph into the hard, sustainable, stackable science that it is today. Imagine trying to convince a group of modern students at any worthy university that chemistry and religion are one in the same. (even in the most examining of philosophy classes this would be a challenge).

    Whether or not any connection can be made is hardly the point anyway. Once a science passes from one paradigm to another, from a soft to a hard science, there is no ‘using’ the new science in the old paradigm. Luckily historians and students of change over time will certainly be able to describe the path that paved the way to scientific revolution.

  6. melior

    If you like reading about the history of alchemy, you might enjoy Neal Stephenson’s historical fiction Quicksilver as much as I did.

    [CZ: Indeed! Stephenson wrote an awesome blurb for my book Soul Made Flesh. Our obsessions seem to run in similar arcs.]

  7. Kaleberg

    Alchemy might not have had any particularly useful theory, but every history of chemistry I have read gives it a lot of credit for developing processes and reactions, many useful, and many which would later provide insight in the development of chemistry. Alchemists did a lot of work with distillation, strong acids, alkalais, metals, reduction and refinement. They also introduced the idea that there was a set of irreducible elements from which every other substance could be produced by reactions.

    Some even argue that modern chemistry was developed as alchemical technology outstripped its theoretical underpinnings. As alchemists developed better techniques, more sensitive scales, transparent, heat resistant glassware, non-reactive crucibles, thermometers, pressure gauges and such, it became possible to learn more about each reaction. By the time “vital force” theorists introduced electricity and electrolysis, chemists were taking a more complete, systematic approach, and that approach led to the modern science we know.

    P.S. A friend of mine always claimed that Ptolemy’s epicycles were a perfectly good Fourier analysis of planetary motion, and if high powered signal processors had been available before the telescope, astronomy would have taken centuries longer to develop.

  8. Julie Cochrane

    The alchemists were scientists. Some were better scientists than others. Alchemists measured. Alchemists took very specific notes. Alchemists refined processes to find out more about what happened to X when you did A, B, and C. Alchemists observed, experimented, wrote down their results, and communicated their results with each other.

    Alchemists made educated guesses about the mechanisms behind their observations and experimental results, and made predictions about what procedures would produce what results.

    I agree with TC that alchemy was operating under a paradigm that didn’t hold up over time. The thing is, the experimental results developed by and and accumulated in alchemy, and the techniques and procedures, were what provided the knowledge that yielded the paradigm shift.

    The paradigm shift at the end of alchemy was so large that it split alchemy into several more specific sciences. Another part of the split into several descendant sciences is that as printing became available and along with other changes, the sum of human knowledge expanded to the point where it was impossible for one person to cover it all. (More or less.)

    The scientists moving on after alchemy were learning enough, fast enough, that increasingly they had to specialize to keep up. It wasn’t a sudden disconnect from the renaissance man to the modern expert in his own field. Just like it’s not a sudden disconnect now from the “renaissance” chemist into the modern expert in one of the sub-disciplines of chemistry. Or in one of the sub-disciplines that sits on the edge where one science meets another.

    What will we be “wrong” about after another two or three paradigm shifts in the basic disciplines we think we’re starting to understand?


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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