What is Alchemy ?
Alchemy was not merely misguided chemistry; it made many contributions to chemistry. Alchemy was, however, a magical or mystical way of looking at the world. Alchemy seems to have started with the Taoists in China and the Pythagoreans in Greece sometime after the sixth century BCE. As the ideas of alchemy developed and moved westward, Taoist ideas about chemicals were combined with Pythagorean number mysticism. Another alchemical tradition came from the Egyptian embalmers, such as Zosimus, who wrote one of the first summaries of alchemical ideas extant.
Chinese Alchemy and the search for the elixir of life
In China, the early alchemists were searching for what came to be called the elixir of life, a way to provide immortality. Some of their accomplishments were remarkable, such as the embalming of the Lady of Tal. This woman was buried about 186 BCE in a double coffin filled with a brown liquid containing mercuric sulfide and pressurized methane. Under these conditions there was no observable deterioration of her flesh when she was exhumed after more than 2000 years. She appeared more like someone who had died only a week or so before.
Alchemy in India and Arabia
Chinese alchemy passed on to the Indians, who were more interested in using alchemical ideas to cure diseases. Eventually, the Arabs put together the ideas from the East with the Alexandrian tradition of alchemy that had descended from the Pythagoreans. In this form of alchemy, astrological influences were important. Chemical reactions were thought to occur because of the influences of the planets. Numerology and even the shapes of the vessels also helped determine reactions. In this tradition, the elixir of life became mingled with the concept of a philosopher’s stone, an object whose presence would enable one to transmute other metals into gold. To some degree, the mingling of the elixir with the philosopher’s stone was due to Geber, who was the first to use the term “elixir.” Geber’s writings from the eighth century CE so dominated alchemy that a talented chemist of about 400 years later is known as “the False Geber” since, like many other alchemists, he signed all his works with the name of the master.
Progress was made despite mysticism
Despite mystical theories of matter, the alchemists managed to develop various practical tools, including the first strong acids and the distillation of alcohol.
Renaissance in Europe
During the Renaissance, the West absorbed Arabic alchemy along with more conventional science. By the 16th century, alchemy was being practiced mainly in Europe. Paracelsus was one of the alchemists who was also a successful physician and scientist. Some of his achievements include the first known description of zinc, the recognition that coal mining causes lung disease, and the use of opium to deaden pain. Paracelsus proclaimed that he had found the philosopher’s stone and would live forever. Unfortunately, he drank a lot and died before he was 50 in a fall that some attribute to drunkenness.
The First good book on Chemistry
Libavius was a follower of Paracelsus who also was a successful scientist despite his belief in alchemy. His 1597 book Alchemia is the first good book on chemistry. The tradition of alchemy persisted well into the 18th century. Newton spent much of his later life trying to find the philosopher’s stone, and may have gone mad from mercury poisoning caused during his experiments. Finally, Lavoisier, in the later part of the 18th century, put together a scientific view of chemistry that effectively wiped out the alchemical tradition that had persisted for 2000 years.