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Alchemy-try this at home!
July 11, 2005 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Sir Isaac Newton had 'a secret hobby,' and some of his papers on alchemy have just been re-found. At Indiana University they've been conducting some of his experiments, which they've documented with pictures. But for today's non-academic alchemist, a stop at The Alchemy Web Site (previous MeFi discussion here) or Alchemy Lab can set you on the right course. The former has an extensive library of texts, several galleries of images, photographs of home experiments, as well as sections on Islamic, Indian and Chinese alchemy. The latter includes sections on the history of alchemy, famous alchemists, the alchemy of health, and, of course, practical alchemy. (Neither site should be confused with Alchemy-Gothic.com, the online home of "the original gothic revivalists.")
posted by OmieWise (43 comments total)

 
Good stuff. The Huntington Library is currently having a Newton exhibit, which includes a few of his alchemical notes, along with his copy of the Ripley scroll.
posted by malocchio at 11:45 AM on July 11, 2005


Makes me want to go re-read Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle.
posted by sourwookie at 11:51 AM on July 11, 2005


Alchemy isn't really about changing lead to gold.
Many people think that sums up the whole purpose. It is only one electron away, atomically. It's amazing that they could figure this out, since atomic structure didn't really come into being until the last 120 years, or so.

Whereas alchemy gave birth to real scientific chemistry, similar to how astrology gave birth to astronomy, it's purpose was more esoteric. It was a way to reveal the spiritual nature of things, as well as the physical. The real objective was to 'find' the 'philosopher's stone'. Or to achieve Nirvana, or to communicate with one's Guardian Angel, or to witness the Great Architect.
They say that the only real difference between alchemy and chemistry is; alchemy utilizes a slow, gradual heat, where chemistry utilizes a fast, violent heat.
It's only a difference of entropy.
posted by Balisong at 11:58 AM on July 11, 2005


They say that the only real difference between alchemy and chemistry is; alchemy utilizes a slow, gradual heat, where chemistry utilizes a fast, violent heat.
It's only a difference of entropy.


Yes, and the whole "scientific method" part. And actualy, what are you even talking about? Alchemists used "fast violent" heat and chemists don't always.
posted by delmoi at 12:05 PM on July 11, 2005


Balisong writes "It is only one electron away, atomically."

Uh.... You mean "three protons away", right?

They say that the only real difference between alchemy and chemistry is; alchemy utilizes a slow, gradual heat, where chemistry utilizes a fast, violent heat.
It's only a difference of entropy.


Are you speaking metaphorically here? 'Cause I'm having a hard time trying to figure out what this might mean....
posted by mr_roboto at 12:15 PM on July 11, 2005


They say that the only real difference between alchemy and chemistry is; alchemy utilizes a slow, gradual heat, where chemistry utilizes a fast, violent heat.

Have we *still* not have moved beyond pseudoscience? I can understand the rest of the world, but come on! MeFi can do better than this.
posted by rajbot at 12:16 PM on July 11, 2005


Alchemy is at least a third metaphorical.
posted by Balisong at 12:16 PM on July 11, 2005


Well, you know that one reason for the slow, gradual heat was to extend the period of sponsorship by those paying for the alchemy work.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:26 PM on July 11, 2005


Sorry guys, mayby I've read too much Crowley and Mathers.

But either way, I'm not the expert. I also heard once that true chemistry 'nuts' have never truly accepted the atomic theory, since they cannot be directly observed. (atoms are usually smaller than a wavelength of light, and must be observed abrtractly, as with chemical reactions with other compounds, or indirectly, through electron microscopes.)

I could be wrong.
posted by Balisong at 12:29 PM on July 11, 2005


After you re-read the Baroque Cycle, go through Cryptonomicon again. It's like a whole additional layer of inside jokes opens up when you find out everyone in Cryptonomicon is related (directly or indirectly) to most of the characters in Baroque.

/bows in the direction of Neal Stephenson
posted by FYKshun at 12:33 PM on July 11, 2005


There are no atoms. There are only complicated machines which, when configured properly display numbers somewhat consistent with the atomic theory.

When you build even bigger, and more complicated machines, the theory breaks down, and you develop another theory. These are theories that are pretty predictive of complicated machines, and fairly predictive of day-to-day phenomena. Don't ever mistake a predictive theory for some sort of ontological proof.

Balisong is completely correct. Chemistry is not the goal of al-kemi, although it sure was an interesting and useful by-product.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:41 PM on July 11, 2005


Terrific post. Alchemy is so misunderstood, and Balisong is right in saying that "alchemy is at least a third metaphorical." Much of alchemy, from what I understand, took place as much within the alchemist on a spiritual level as it did in the cauldron. Any external process can have inner transformative meaning, yadda.
posted by moonbird at 12:41 PM on July 11, 2005


Balisong's actually quite right. In many ways, alchemy was a physical symbol for mental and spiritual transformation; from the dross of the mundane and earthly life to the gold of a true spiritual life, living in harmony with others, and doing good for the world.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:45 PM on July 11, 2005


2 parts bullshit + 1 part metaphor = still bullshit
(post is very good, still)
posted by jungturk at 12:56 PM on July 11, 2005


He who has ears to hear, let him hear, buddy.
posted by sonofsamiam at 1:01 PM on July 11, 2005


not bullshit at all. don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Is it not at all likely that alchemists imbued material objects with symboloc meaning? Can we not take it a step further and suppose that the manipulation of material objects, so imbued, can, cause a manipulation of elements of consciousness related to those symbols?

If nothing else, the alchemist is concentrating, daily, on symbolic relationships that mirror the relationships of various thought constructs.

It's more than prototypical chemistry, it's prototypical depth psychology.
posted by lyam at 1:05 PM on July 11, 2005


Actualy I think individual atoms have been observed. Atoms may be smaller then a wavelength of light, but not of an electron, so electron microscopes can see atoms.

But, yeah.

Also, you don't need to reread cryptonomicon to get that everyone is related if you were paying attention the first time through!
posted by delmoi at 1:25 PM on July 11, 2005


He was a dab hand at astrology, too.

If you're into that sort of thing.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:13 PM on July 11, 2005


Shamanism, Alchemy and Yoga: Traditional Technologies of Tranformation
posted by homunculus at 3:38 PM on July 11, 2005


Radio 4's In Our Time on Alchemy. Quite interesting.
posted by gsb at 3:56 PM on July 11, 2005


Seems like we're comparing apples and oranges here.

As a symbols for the spiritual transformation of people, alchemy might be valid. As a technique for the physical transformation of metals, alchemy has been totally discredited. There's no contradiction there: good symbolism can make for bad science, and vice versa.

Anyway, cool post. Thanks!
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:37 PM on July 11, 2005


Seems like we're comparing apples and oranges here.

As a symbol for the spiritual transformation of people, alchemy might be valid. As a technique for the physical transformation of metals, alchemy has been totally discredited. There's no contradiction there: good symbolism can make for bad science, and vice versa.

Anyway, cool post. Thanks!
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:37 PM on July 11, 2005


[sorry. got a little excitable with the post button, I guess.]
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:38 PM on July 11, 2005


Newton an alchemist? weird.
posted by caddis at 8:39 PM on July 11, 2005


What was probably more weird, in his day, was that he was also a scientist.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:55 PM on July 11, 2005


Alchemical texts are so full of unfamiliar jargon (and often, also, outright obfuscation), so I was particularly interested by the alchemical re-enactments in the Indiana University link: thanks, OmieWise. As I understand it, alchemy was all about processes of perfection—whether it was the perfection of metals, medicines, or human souls. There was a sense that all of these substances were analagous to one another, and thus susceptible to analagous transmutations or transfigurations. It would take a leap of faith or imagination, I think, for anyone with a scientific education to see alchemy as proceeding from anything other than a radical misunderstanding of the structure of matter; and that if it still seems that alchemy could be a valid ‘symbol for the spiritual transformation of people,’ (as nebulawindphone puts it), then perhaps that’s only because the stuff of the human spirit is still so poorly understood…
posted by misteraitch at 12:42 AM on July 12, 2005


As others have above, I must strongly recommend reading the Baroque cycle if this post interests you in the least. I am an avid reader, and no book (or set of books) has engaged me as deeply as these have in many years.

Further, even if you're not really a science buff, the intertwined story of "Half-Cocked" Jack Shaftoe is totally, unbelievably engaging. He may be the greatest hero (and anti-hero) of all time.

The whole series will leave you thinking about it for a long time.
posted by poppo at 5:09 AM on July 12, 2005


I actually haven't read the Baroque cycle yet, I'm not sure why I've been putting it off, as I quite like Stephenson. Now I'll be sure to look at it soon, thanks.
posted by OmieWise at 7:51 AM on July 12, 2005


There are no atoms. There are only complicated machines which, when configured properly display numbers somewhat consistent with the atomic theory.

Holy shit. The level of ignorance and scientific illiteracy on metafilter is just amazing. The atomic theory is one of the most conclusively solid theories in physics.

This idea of science being only a "social construct" is typically held by most people who don't understand it.

Don't ever mistake a predictive theory for some sort of ontological proof.

Maybe in your dream world, but in reality we have a process called the "scientific method", that can, in fact tell us something about the truth of our world.

Wow. I'm just amazed.
posted by aerify at 9:05 AM on July 12, 2005


Oh, and I hope I don't have to say this, but given the level of idiocy in this thread, I should point out that alchemy is a pseudoscience and has contributed nothing to knowledge aside from maybe some works of cultural and historical significance. But nothing in the way of science.
posted by aerify at 9:08 AM on July 12, 2005


It's only a difference of entropy.

Do you even know what entropy means?
posted by aerify at 9:11 AM on July 12, 2005


For all the scientific illiterates here: the atomic theory is scientific FACT. I don't care what sort of wacky spiritual texts you read while listening to your New Age music, but to suggest that the most important discovery in the history of science is just a "descriptive theory" that doesn't correspond to reality is just appalling. It's shocking when otherwise intelligent people hold simply INSANE beliefs like this. I guess it's a product of a bad science education.

"There are no atoms"? That is possibly the most patently idiotic thing I have heard all year.
posted by aerify at 9:14 AM on July 12, 2005


Uh, aerify, you are aware that "atoms" are statistical conglomerates of other phenomena with no intrinsic solidity or identity? Otherwise, quantum teleportation would be impossible, but it ain't.

Quantum physics has been around for a hundred years, man. It quite plainly tells us that there are no little balls hurtling through the void. That is only a (dang) useful metaphor.

Knock, knock!
Who's there?
Hugh.
Hugh who?
Hugh Bris.
posted by sonofsamiam at 9:17 AM on July 12, 2005


not bullshit at all.
Oh, it IS bullshit.

Can we not take it a step further and suppose that the manipulation of material objects, so imbued, can, cause a manipulation of elements of consciousness related to those symbols?

What are you smoking? Do you have any concept of what reality is? Just because you think some object has some property doesn't make any magic happen except in your own deluded head. This is exactly the kind of idiocy that the last few centuries of science has spent fixing.

Is it not at all likely that alchemists imbued material objects with symboloc meaning?
If nothing else, the alchemist is concentrating, daily, on symbolic relationships that mirror the relationships of various thought constructs.

This is a fancy way of saying "I imagine things therefore they must be real."
posted by aerify at 9:19 AM on July 12, 2005


Holy shit. More idiocy.

I'm no expert, but I am an undergrad physics major. Heh, I just took a course on Quantum Physics last semester.

Quantum teleportation is impossible. There is no such thing. Maybe you're thinking of some application's of Bell's Theorem, but trust me, you're not going to see any teleportation ever. You're reading too much science fiction and New Age texts that purport to tell you what QM is.

No, there are no little "balls". But there are clearly defined objects called atoms that are more than just a metaphor.

posted by aerify at 9:22 AM on July 12, 2005


Holy shit. More idiocy.

I'm no expert, but I am an undergrad physics major. Heh, I just took a course on Quantum Physics last semester.

Quantum teleportation is impossible. There is no such thing. Maybe you're thinking of some application's of Bell's Theorem, but trust me, you're not going to see any teleportation ever. You're reading too much science fiction and New Age texts that purport to tell you what QM is.

No, there are no little "balls". But there are clearly defined objects called atoms that are more than just a metaphor.
posted by aerify at 9:22 AM on July 12, 2005


Okay, that came out wrong. There is such a thing as QM teleportation (the naming is not great), but it does not disprove the existence of atoms.
posted by aerify at 9:25 AM on July 12, 2005


In any case, the entire field of chemistry (and much of physics) is based on the atomic theory. To suggest that "there are no such things as atoms" is to take a very ignorant view of what exactly QM is telling us. There are some funky things about the way atoms work at those scales, but when some schmuck reads one of those popular Eastern mysticism books and thinks he understands QM, it is just gross.
posted by aerify at 9:30 AM on July 12, 2005


Oh, that's rich. Dude, google "quantum teleportation." It's not what you seem to think it is.

It does indeed show that there is nothing to the "atom" beyond the informational description of that state. If there were something to the atom beyond the information that describes it, quantum teleportation would violate relativity.

On preview: OK, man. Come talk to me again after you get your degree and rename the most well-known concepts in quantum physics to something you're comfortable with, or maybe just spend some time on arXiv. I didn't just pull this stuff out of "The Dancing Wu-Li Masters" or some crap like that.
posted by sonofsamiam at 9:33 AM on July 12, 2005


Has atomic theory provided any answers yet on rabid posting?
posted by bachelor#3 at 9:34 AM on July 12, 2005


I'm not going to argue metaphysics with you. It seems you know more than you first let on. But your original post reeked of the sort of "science is just a social construct", "scientists are just fiddling with machines and getting answers which fit their model of reality, it's no better than any other model", blah blah, that sort of crap. As long as it isn't that.
posted by aerify at 9:38 AM on July 12, 2005


It ain't that, and it's frankly a little presumptuous of you to assume so. But we're friends now, right?

But seriously, don't make category errors like assuming the theories in physics "mean" anything beyond their predictive power. It makes physics much, much harder to understand, and is, IMO, the intellectual error at the root of most of the quantum mumbo-jumbo that is so popular.
posted by sonofsamiam at 9:43 AM on July 12, 2005


Good, I'm happy then.

I do think the quantum hocus-pocus has more to do with a lack of understanding of the science rather than any problems with the interpretation of the theory.
posted by aerify at 9:47 AM on July 12, 2005


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