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How to Make History of Science Interesting: Part I

Sure, no problem. (flickr/Gregg Obst)

In the months leading up to the opening of the Museum at CHF’s new exhibit, The Alchemical Quest, Periodic Tabloid will be featuring posts on alchemy and its interpretations, as well as special photo and video previews as the exhibit takes shape. In the first of a two-part post, Chemical Heritage editor in chief Michal Meyer explains how alchemy is a natural starting point for anyone interested in the history of science.

Chemistry can be a dirty business—just ask Isaac Newton. He begins one of his alchemical recipes with “Take of Urin one Barrel.” He then instructs the person with the newly acquired barrel of urine to let it ferment for three months in the summer. Neighbors back then must have been a less litigious bunch.

This story gets a laugh from people who’ve never encountered the history of science. I think laughter is a good place to start; humor engages in a way that information and argument do not and provides a starting point for deeper exploration. Such as: why did Newton want a barrel of urine? His recipe was for making phosphorous, which had recently been discovered by a 17th-century ex-soldier and alchemist named Hennig Brandt, who had been trying to make the philosopher’s stone. The glowing substance distilled from urine (white phosphorous) must at first have filled Brandt with hopes of success. Such stories take us into older understandings of matter, a time before elements as we know them.

Newton’s alchemical work was rediscovered in the 19th century and the discoverers were horrified to find their scientific hero had feet of clay. By that time alchemy was considered a historical dead end, a wrong turn along the highway of progress. At best, it could be considered a distraction from real science; at worst, it was pure charlatanry, certainly not worthy of practice by a scientific hero. Since then historians have rediscovered the common heritage of alchemy and chemistry, which were inseparable in the 17th century. A new term, “chymistry,” is now used to describe the chemical practices of that time.

If you’re looking for a moral to this story, here’s one: progress is not a straight line from some moment in the past to now. Otherwise, enjoy the story. As to where Newton or his recipe followers got their barrel of urine, I have no idea. One colleague suggested that Newton would have parked his barrel outside a pub and waited. Modern chemists can breath a sigh of relief: they can simply order their supplies.

Michal Meyer is the editor in chief of Chemical Heritage. The Alchemical Quest opens July 2 at the Museum at CHF.

Related:
How to Make History of Science Interesting: Part II [Periodic Tabloid]
Alchemy Gets New Respect from Science Scholars [CHF News]
Transmutations: Alchemy in Art [The Museum at CHF]

Posted In: History

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