Weird Science in Philadelphia City Paper

July 13, 2006 - Philadelphia, PA

By Drew Lazor

It’s easy to dismiss alchemy, the archaic discipline of transforming worthless material into gold, as straight-up nerd fiction. But what most people don’t know is that alchemy serves as the basis of science as we know it today.

Beginning Wednesday, July 19, the world’s top alchemical authorities will gather in Philadelphia for the International Conference on the History of Alchemy and Chymistry. Present by the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), the event casts a strictly scholastic eye on the vital but often underappreciated science.

“Alchemy is regarded as an unfortunate ancestor of chemistry,” says CHF history Mary Ellen Bowden. Indeed, in the 16th century, most scientists falsely believed all metals were made of sulfur and mercury. These early alchemists also toyed with the idea that matter possessed a latent ingredient that could lead to successful transmutation.

“They were constantly looking for something else,” says CHF communication director Neil Gussman. This elusive substance (no, we still don’t know what it is) was seen as the key to unlocking the philosopher’s stone, the mythical element made famous by one Mr. Potter.

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