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By Lawrence Principe 21 June Alchemists are being reappraised after being dismissed for centuries. Lawrence Principe deciphers their writings and discovers some sophisticated chemistry. Alchemy and its practitioners have often gotten a bad reputation.
Since the eighteenth century, alchemy has generally been associated with fraudulent practices, occult hocus-pocus, or simply a deluded and greedy quest for making gold. As a result, alchemy is now enjoying an unprecedented scholarly revival, and many old assumptions about it are being replaced with better, more contextualized understandings.
It is true that one major goal of alchemy was the transmutation of base metals like lead into gold. But far from being a groundless or purely fanciful endeavour, alchemy was actually grounded in increasingly sophisticated theories of matter that, although finally proven incorrect, were nonetheless based to a large extent upon observations of natural and experimental phenomena. The alchemists thought of metals not as elements as we do, but as compounds: As a consequence, a skillful operator should be able to adjust these variables artificially, thereby turning one metal into another.
In this way, the alchemists sought to improve upon nature, creating better, more valuable materials in the laboratory from the raw substances afforded by the natural world; chemists today should find this goal very familiar. While some alchemists tried laborious methods to analyze and purify the metals, many sought instead to prepare a hypothetical reagent that when added to a molten base metal would cause the transformation in a single step.