For 2 centuries, science has tried to forget about alchemists, those early-modern dabblers who believed that metal could be transmuted into gold. Considered deluded simpletons at best and deliberate swindlers at worst, their foray into magic was seen as an embarrassment for the field of chemistry.
But in the past 20 years, a growing number of science historians have begun to contend that the alchemists were in fact very serious scientists. They argue that the alchemists’ odd writings, which reference Roman gods and planetary alignments, were actually recipes for scientific experiments written in code. Even the search for the philosopher’s stone, which would transmute base metal into gold, might not have been a silly question; after all, these proto-scientists had no knowledge of atomic structure or the laws of conservation. The alchemists, historians argue, were using the best tools they had to understand the nature of the universe, and isn’t that the best any scientist can do?
A few science historians are taking this a step further, trying to prove that alchemists followed the scientific method and created repeatable experiments. Snooping through 300-year-old lab notebooks and decoding the recipes, they’ve successfully re-created some alchemical experiments in their own labs. So what have they learned from these early chemists, and would chemistry be the same today without alchemists' contributions?
Join us for a live chat with researchers at 3 p.m. EDT on 19 May, 2011 on this page. You can leave your questions in the comment box below before the chat starts.
Lawrence M. Principe is the Drew Professor of the Humanities, with appointments in History of Science and Technology, Chemistry, and Philosophy departments. His research focuses on early modern alchemy and chemistry, and he is currently completing a long-term study of the practice and developments of chemistry around 1700.
Presently, Bill Newman's main research interests focus on early modern “chymistry” and late medieval “alchemy,” especially as exemplified by Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Daniel Sennert, and the first famous American scientist, George Starkey. He is also the general editor of The Chymistry of Isaac Newton, an integrated project that combines new research on Newton's chymistry with an online edition of his manuscripts in both diplomatic and normalized texts.