Saturday, August 05, 2006

Alchemy as a proto-science

The common perception of alchemists is that they were pseudo-scientists, crackpots and charlatans, who attempted to turn lead into gold, believed that the universe was composed of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and spent most of their time concocting miraculous remedies, poisons, and magic potions.
Although some alchemists were indeed crackpots and charlatans, most were well-meaning and intelligent scholars; among their number can be counted such distinguished scientists as Sir Isaac Newton. These people in many ways served as innovators, and attempted to explore and investigate the nature of chemical substances and processes. They had to rely on experimentation, traditional know-how, rules of thumb — and speculative thought in their attempts to uncover the mysteries of the physical universe.
At the same time, it was clear to the alchemists that "something" was generally being conserved in chemical processes, even in the most dramatic changes of physical state and appearance; i.e. that substances contained some "principles" that could be hidden under many outer forms, and revealed by proper manipulation. Throughout the history of the discipline, alchemists struggled to understand the nature of these principles, and find some order and sense in the results of their chemical experiments — which were often undermined by impure or poorly characterized reagents, the lack of quantitative measurements, and confusing and inconsistent nomenclature.

Alchemy (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

For other uses, see Alchemy (disambiguation).

An alchemist's laboratory
Alchemy refers to both an early protoscience and an early philosophical discipline, both combining elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics, mysticism, spiritualism, and art. Alchemy has been practiced in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Persia, India, and China, in Classical Greece and Rome, in the Islamic Caliphates, and then in Europe up to the 19th century — in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2500 years.
Western alchemy has always been closely connected with Hermeticism, a philosophical and spiritual system that traces its roots to Hermes Trismegistus, a syncretic Egyptian-Greek deity and legendary alchemist. These two disciplines influenced the birth of Rosicrucianism, an important esoteric movement of the seventeenth century. In the course of the early modern period, as mainstream alchemy evolved into modern chemistry, its mystic and Hermetic aspects became the focus of a modern spiritual alchemy, where material manipulations are viewed as mere symbols of spiritual transformations.
Today, the discipline is of interest mainly to historians of science and philosophy, and for its mystic, esoteric, and artistic aspects. Nevertheless, alchemy was one of the main precursors of modern sciences, and we owe to the ancient alchemists the discovery of many substances and processes that are the mainstay of modern chemical and metallurgical industries.