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How to Make History of Science Interesting: Part II

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 second 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.

It’s an old case, but not a cold case. Isaac Newton left clues in his own hand. “Two women clothed riding on two lyons each with a heart in her hand....The right hand lyon farts on a company of young lions behind it….” These few words are among the many Isaac Newton wrote on alchemy. Rather than an example of bad taste, Newton’s farting lion is part of a sophisticated chemical process. Unfortunately, no one has yet unlocked its meaning.

Musaeum hermeticum reformatum et amplificatum (Frankfurt, 1678). Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, CHF.

Alchemists were skilled bench chemists and the chemistry of today finds its origins in the alchemical labs of the Middle Ages. Alchemy’s goals were both practical (better medicine) and esoteric (creating the philosopher’s stone that would transmute lesser metals into gold). Modern chemists have kept many of the practical goals but gave up on the philosopher’s stone in the 18th century. Another equally noticeable difference lies in the ancient and modern style of communication. Alchemists didn’t want to let just anybody into their secrets, so they hid their chemical processes in plain sight, in complex word and picture allegories understandable only by other alchemists.

When alchemy faded into chemistry the meaning behind these images was lost. But modern-day historical sleuths have begun working out the chemistry behind these images. For example, the farting lion is found in a medieval alchemical book written by Basil Valentine, which includes 12 images and accompanying text that are the steps or “keys” to making the philosopher’s stone. Newton’s words refer to the eleventh key, the penultimate step in making the philosopher’s stone. The first three keys have been decoded by Lawrence Principe, a trained chemist and a historian at Johns Hopkins University. For example, the third key shows a dragon in the foreground and a rooster being eaten by a fox which is being eaten by another rooster.

Musaeum hermeticum reformatum et amplificatum (Frankfurt, 1678). Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, CHF.

It’s a lovely image, but where’s the chemistry? In this case, the dragon refers to a red crystal known as dragon’s blood. Once you realize that sun indicates gold in the alchemical understanding, it doesn’t take long to go from rooster to sunrise (crowing rooster) to sun to gold. The fox represents certain acids dissolving the gold and the rooster eating the fox a circular process. So gold is being dissolved and re-dissolved by certain acids (what we know as nitric and hydrochloric). Chlorine (only discovered as a gas in the 18th century) builds up and the gold volatilizes into gold chloride, which is a lovely ruby red color.

The chemistry that goes on in this gold chloride reaction was only worked out in the 19th century. Not bad for the shabby misunderstood alchemists of old. Perhaps one day historian chemists will unlock this eleventh key and work out why the lion is farting. Only one thing is certain, there’ll be no philosopher’s stone at the end of it all.

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 I [Periodic Tabloid]
The Whole of Nature and the Mirror of Art [Museum at CHF]
Isaac Newton, World’s Most Famous Alchemist [Discover]

Posted In: History

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