Marvels & Ciphers: A New Exhibit at Chemical Heritage Foundation Links Alchemy and Quantum Chemistry

Rudolph Pariser in front of a blackboard with quantum calculations, contemplating a molecular model, 1950s. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library.

May 1, 2010 - Zürich, Switzerland

From Chemistry International, May 1, 2010, vol. 32, no. 3

by Chemical Heritage Foundation staff

For centuries, with means ranging from alchemy to quantum-enabled technologies, scientists have struggled to understand the material world—with varying degrees of success. Public responses to scientific debate and discovery are even more varied. A single breakthrough can elicit fascination and hope as well as anxiety and fear. With paintings, photographs, books, and cartoons, Marvels & Ciphers—a new exhibit at the Hach Gallery of the Chemical Heritage Foundation—explores the inevitable social complexity of scientific pursuits.

Visitors to Marvels & Ciphers are understandably surprised to find alchemy and quantum chemistry woven together in one exhibit. After all, the differences are obvious. At the most basic level, quantum chemistry works, alchemy does not. Alchemy was built on the authority of ancient and often flawed observation and conjecture and persisted long after it had shown no results. Quantum chemistry defied the most up-to-date theories of matter and proved to be true despite being beyond comprehension without models and metaphor.

Yet to the public at large for most of recorded history, the differences between quantum chemistry and alchemy are smaller than they would appear from inside the world of chemistry. Throughout the centuries experimenters have heated and cooled matter, mixed and distilled it, and subjected it to every process imaginable. The results have often dismayed or dazzled even the scientists, let alone the uninitiated. And as empirical knowledge grows, explanations for these phenomena are born, discarded, and rewritten. . . .

Linking the world of alchemy and quantum chemistry brought together many parts of the collections and library resources at CHF in an exhibit expressly designed for its museum space. Marvels & Ciphers will be open for the rest of 2010 for those who might be traveling to Philadelphia during this year. For those who cannot travel to Philadelphia this year, visit the exhibit online.

(Link to CI)

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