Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Alchemy to Chemistry: A Brief History

It is said that the foundations in which Modern Science was built lies on ignorance. Before one can discover the truth of certain processes and principles, one needs to start from scratch in terms of finding that truth. And one of the best examples of that search lies in the foundations of Modern Chemistry - Alchemy.

It was called Alchemy back in the old days. For Western Civilization it was the search for processes that would turn any substance into Gold. For the East, it was the search for more potent medicines. Nobody knows where Alchemy was started, but it was said it all started in Greece. But the fact that it too started in China at about the same time as the ancient Greeks, with a very different purpose.

After the ancient Greeks and Chinese started their quests for gold and immortality, it was the Arabs in the 8th century CE, backed by their mightly Caliphs and Sultans, that took the next challenge. Strategically located between the east and west, their practitioners mixed the Chinese notion of medicinal benefit, while also putting emphasis in the concept of the "philosopher's stone".

Alchemy in the Arab World

Wikipedia perfectly states what a Philosopher's stone would be:

The philosophers' stone or stone of the philosophers (Latin: lapis philosophorum) is a legendary alchemical substance said to be capable of turning base metals such as lead into gold (chrysopoeia) or silver. It was also sometimes believed to be an elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and possibly for achieving immortality. For many centuries, it was the most sought-after goal in alchemy. The philosophers' stone was the central symbol of the mystical terminology of alchemy, symbolizing perfection at its finest, enlightenment, and heavenly bliss. Efforts to discover the philosophers' stone were known as the Magnum Opus ("Great Work")

Alchemy on its own is an impossible quest. Turning substances into Gold and giving the person immortal powers that cheats death, is somewhat unlikely. But it gave its practitioners - the Alchemists, so much time to think of ways to beat the challenge. They invented different processes, created step by step procedures, organized substances, named and discovered new chemicals either by accident or by experimentation, polished and blasted different glassware and other materials for its use. Therefore, it is safe to say that Alchemy laid the foundations of Modern Chemistry. 

Different Apparatuses used in Alchemy

Partial list of Alchemists throughout history:

Zosimos of Panopolis (300 CE) - Greek alchemist and Gnostic mystic. He wrote the oldest known books on alchemy.

Elder Zhang Guo - Chinese historical figure. A Taoist fangshi (occultist-alchemist). Also a Qigong master.

Jābir ibn Hayyān - (721-815 CE) -  a prominent Muslim polymath: a chemist and alchemist, astronomer and astrologer, engineer, geographer, philosopher, physicist, and pharmacist and physician. Paved the way for later Arab alchemists and is regarded with awe.

Albertus Magnus (1193-1280 CE) - A Catholic Saint, German Dominican Friar and Bishop. Credited for the discovery of the element Arsenic. Legend suggests that he discovered the Philosopher's stone and passed it on to his pupil Thomas Aquinas. No evidence suggests that took place.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601 CE) - Danish nobleman known for his accurate and comprehensive astronomical and planetary observations. His interest in alchemy started when he lost his nose and tested different metals for an exact fit.

Isaac Newton
Issac Newton (1642-1727 CE) -  English physicist and mathematician (described in his own day as a "natural philosopher") who is widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"), first published in 1687, laid the foundations for classical mechanics. Also a known practitioner of Alchemy, trying to find the Philosopher's stone.

Fulcanelli (late 19th to early 1920's) - name used by a French alchemist and esoteric author, whose identity is still debated. The appeal of Fulcanelli as a cultural phenomenon is due partly to the mystery of most aspects of his life and works; one of the anecdotes pertaining to his life retells, in particular, how his most devoted pupil Eugène Canseliet performed a successful transmutation of 100 grams of lead into gold in a laboratory of the gas works of Sarcelles at the Georgi company with the use of a small quantity of the "Projection Powder" given to him by his teacher, in the presence of Julien Champagne and Gaston Sauvage.

Terence McKenna

Terence Mckenna (1946-2000) - was an American philosopher, psychonaut, ethnobotanist, lecturer, and author. He spoke and wrote about a variety of subjects, including psychedelic drugs, plant-based entheogens, shamanism, metaphysics, alchemy, language, culture, technology and the theoretical origins of human consciousness.