Saturday, February 28, 2009

The philoSopher's stoNe and the RiSe of aLcheMy

Many people were interested in finding a method that could convert cheaper metals into gold. The material that would help them do this was rumored to exist in what was called the philosopher's stone. This led to the protoscience called alchemy. Alchemy was practiced by many cultures throughout history and often contained a mixture of philosophy, mysticism, and protoscience.[citation needed]

Alchemy not only sought to turn base metals into gold, but especially in a Europe rocked by bubonic plague, there was hope that alchemy would lead to the development of medicines to improve people's health. The holy grail of this strain of alchemy was in the attempts made at finding the elixir of life, which promised eternal youth. Neither the elixir nor the philosopher's stone were ever found. Also, characteristic of alchemists was the belief that there was in the air an "ether" which breathed life into living things.[citation needed] Practitioners of alchemy included Isaac Newton, who remained one throughout his life.

ProBLeMs eNcountered with aLCheMy

There were several problems with alchemy, as seen from today's standpoint. There was no systematic naming system for new compounds, and the language was esoteric and vague to the point that the terminologies meant different things to different people. In fact, according to The Fontana History of Chemistry (Brock, 1992):

The language of alchemy soon developed an arcane and secretive technical vocabulary designed to conceal information from the uninitiated. To a large degree, this language is incomprehensible to us today, though it is apparent that readers of Geoffery Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman's Tale or audiences of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist were able to construe it sufficiently to laugh at it.[7]

Chaucer's tale exposed the more fraudulent side of alchemy, especially the manufacture of counterfeit gold from cheap substances. Soon after Chaucer, Dante Alighieri also demonstrated an awareness of this fraudulence, causing him to consign all alchemists to the Inferno in his writings. Soon after, in 1317, the Avignon Pope John XXII ordered all alchemists to leave France for making counterfeit money. A law was passed in England in 1403 which made the "multiplication of metals" punishable by death. Despite these and other apparently extreme measures, alchemy did not die. Royalty and privileged classes still sought to discover the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life for themselves.

There was also no agreed-upon scientific method for making experiments reproducible. Indeed many alchemists included in their methods irrelevant information such as the timing of the tides or the phases of the moon. The esoteric nature and codified vocabulary of alchemy appeared to be more useful in concealing the fact that they could not be sure of very much at all. As early as the 14th century, cracks seemed to grow in the facade of alchemy; and people became sceptical.[citation needed] Clearly, there needed to be a scientific method where experiments can be repeated by other people, and results needed to be reported in a clear language that laid out both what is known and unknown.


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