Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Alchemy, or Don’t Try This at Home

I’ve long been fascinated with the concept and history of alchemy. For most people idea that you could turn scrap metal into valuable metal, like gold (chrysopoeia), is an alluring one, and the variations that include immortality are easily all the more desirable. For those that pretended to be capable of alchemy, it was a get rich quick scheme, and for those that believed they might actually be able to do it, it was get rich and live forever dream, that never panned out. Today we know how to turn lead into gold through nuclear fission, but the monetary costs are way beyond what the gold itself would be worth.

Did you know that Isaac Newton was an alchemist? The famous physicist that everybody learns about in grade school, yep, him. Even Pope Innocent VIII, who blamed ‘The Little Ice Age’ on witches was involved in this pseudo-science, which some believe to be derived from earlier magic  practices (have I mentioned that I love wikipedia yet today? I always find wonderful tidbits of information while fact checking... of course wikipedia isn’t perfect as many of it’s articles are open source, so feel free to double-check this).

Of course, anyone who knows anything about alchemy knows that the ultimate icon of alchemy is the creation of a Philosopher’s Stone (that’s the Sorcerer’s Stone for all you American Harry Potter Fans). In historical and modern works, the stone’s appearance varies greatly. It may be red, white, black, orange, or a transparent reddish-purple. It maybe also be solid, powder, or liquid.

And as for what it’s made of, that’s even harder to answer. Often the process of creation calls for refinement after refinement, each resulting in a new color and chemical state, but lacks the ingredients to be refined. Suggested ingredients range from harmless salts, to poisonous substances like mercury, and more sinister components like human blood.

So far, nothing is known to have worked, either in turning lead to gold or in making the alchemist immortal. On the contrary at least one person may have died from drinking his own variation of the Elixir of Life, Johann Conrad Dippel, who was a possible source of inspiration for the novel Frankenstein.

In short, Alchemy is a hazardous occupation that no one should engage in, but it makes for a great story.

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