Alchemy Gets New Respect From Science Scholars

July 22, 2006 - Baltimore, MD

From the Baltimore Sun

by Michael Stroh

It's not exactly a seminar at Hogwarts.

But Harry Potter devotees would still feel right at home with the scholars gathering this week to discuss the philosopher's stone, arsenic and the finer points of transmuting lead to gold.

"I have a few flasks heating back in Baltimore as we speak," says Larry Principe, a Johns Hopkins professor of chemistry and history whose academic specialty might be dubbed experimental alchemy.

Welcome to the first major conference on alchemy in nearly 20 years. Long written off as fraud and deranged mystics, alchemy and its practitioners are increasingly becoming the focus of serious scholarship.

One reason: Many early scientific luminaries -- including physicist Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry -- turn out to have been closet alchemists. Newton alone spent more than 30 years working on what one historian called his "dark addiction."

"Newton was not the first of the Age of Reason. He was the last of the magicians," British economist John Maynard Keynes famously said in 1946.

Another reason for the resurgence of interest is that some historians now believe 17th-century alchemists might have played a larger role in jump-starting the scientific revolution than they previously thought.

"Once you get past the weird terminology, you realize they were in the forefront of the experimental method," says Bill Newman, a historian of science at Indiana University who studies Newton and other, lesser-known alchemists. "These guys had a huge unrecognized impact."

They also discovered stuff. Among the innovations attributed to early alchemists, for example, are the distillery and Meissen porcelain, the first version of the ceramic produced outside China.

Others were busy concocting perfumes, pigments and primitive pharmaceuticals.

Still, it's not hard to see how even serious alchemists earned their reputations as nut jobs.

"Alchemists were, frankly, preoccupied with urine," says Neil Gussman of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The organization was the host of the three-day alchemy conference and houses one of the world's largest collections of ancient alchemic tomes and art in its headquarters near Independence Hall....

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