Sciencegeist: Alchemy vs Chemistry: Same as it ever was

Originally posted May 17, 2013

… The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’m currently reading The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence Principe. It’s a really enjoyable book, and I’ve learned so many things from it. I hope to share some of my favorites. But, I’ve just read a bit of Principe’s research in the book that seems poignant for my profession (chemistry) in these times. (In any book, there is always some bit: character, place, situation, or story that seems very relevant to some part of your life … and this book is no different).

On communication issues:

Let no man trouble to explore this art
If he can’t understand the aims and jargon
Of alchemists – and if he does, then
He is a pretty foolish sort of man
Because this art and science is, said he,
Indeed a mystery in a mystery

And so I conclude: since God in heaven
Will not permit alchemists to explain
How anyone may discover this stone,
My best advice is this – let it alone

From Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

On chemical employment:
Principe writes about Pieter Brueghel’s drawing Alghemist, which is a play on words for a Dutch phrase meaning “everything is lost.” This work, and other art that followed, reprises the themes of the chemist toiling away while putting his family into the poor house. The labor demands and consumes infinite time and treasure while returning little to nothing.

These are just a few of the recurring historical themes that appear in the book, and I hope to be able to share more of this. But, if you are interested in the history of chemistry/chymystry/alchemy go out and buy it.