Throughout much of the 20th century, the academic community had little patience with alchemists and their vain efforts to transmute base metals into gold. Any contemporary scholar who even dared to write about alchemy, historian Herbert Butterfield warned, would “become tinctured with the kind of lunacy they set out to describe.”
But, in the 1980s, some revisionist scholars began arguing that alchemists actually made significant contributions to the development of science. Historians of science began deciphering alchemical texts—which wasn’t easy. The alchemists, obsessed with secrecy, deliberately described their experiments in metaphorical terms laden with obscure references to mythology and history. For instance, text that describes a “cold dragon” who “creeps in and out of the caves” was code for saltpeter (potassium nitrate)—a crystalline substance found on cave walls that tastes cool on the tongue.
This painstaking process of decoding allowed researchers, for the first time, to attempt ambitious alchemical experiments. Lawrence Principe, a chemist and science historian at Johns Hopkins University, cobbled together obscure texts and scraps of 17th-century laboratory notebooks to reconstruct a recipe to grow a “Philosophers’ Tree” from a seed of gold. Supposedly this tree was a precursor to the more celebrated and elusive Philosopher’s Stone, which would be able to transmute metals into gold. The use of gold to make more gold would have seemed entirely logical to alchemists, Principe explains, like using germs of wheat to grow an entire field of wheat.
Principe mixed specially prepared mercury and gold into a buttery lump at the bottom of a flask. Then he buried the sealed flask in a heated sand bath in his laboratory.
One morning, Principe came into the lab to discover to his “utter disbelief” that the flask was filled with “a glittering and fully formed tree” of gold. The mixture of metals had grown upward into a structure resembling coral or the branching canopy of a tree minus the leaves.
What intrigues Principe and his fellow historians, though, is the growing evidence that the alchemists seem to have performed legitimate experiments, manipulated and analyzed the material world in interesting ways and reported genuine results. And many of the great names in the canon of modern science took note, says William Newman, a historian at Indiana University Bloomington.
Robert Boyle, one of the 17th-century founders of modern chemistry, “basically pillaged” the work of the German physician and alchemist Daniel Sennert, says Newman. When Boyle’s French counterpart, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, substituted a modern list
of elements (oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and others) for the ancient four elements (earth, air, fire and water), he built on an idea that was “actually widespread in earlier alchemical sources,” Newman writes. The concept that matter was composed of several distinctive elements, in turn, inspired Sir Isaac Newton’s work on optics—notably, his demonstration that the multiple colors produced by a prism could be reconstituted into white light.
Other scholars have at times responded to this idea with outrage. Principe was once confronted at an academic conference by a member of the audience who was “literally shaking with rage that I could defame Boyle in this way.” But younger academics have taken up alchemy as a hot topic. The early revisionist research, says Principe, “cracked open the seal and said ‘Hey, look everybody, this is not what you thought it was.’”
In a mark of that new acceptance, the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, Germany, will present a show, beginning in April, that—along with alchemy-influenced artworks, from Jan Brueghel the Elder to Anselm Kiefer—will include an exhibit on Principe’s “Philosophers’ Tree” experiment.
Does this new view of alchemy make the great names in the early history of science seem more derivative and thus less great? “We were just talking in my class about the rhetoric of novelty,” says Principe, “and how it benefits people to say that their discoveries are completely new.” But that’s not how scientific ideas develop. “They don’t just sort of come to someone in a dream, out of nowhere. New scientific ideas tend to develop out of older ones by a slow process of evolution and refinement.”
From that perspective, the scientific revolution may have been a little less revolutionary than we imagine. Better to think of it as a transmutation, like the alchemists’ quest to change lead into gold.