Can we copy the Alchemists? (Alchemy 17 Interlude)

The question is always asked in discussions of alchemy with students: given what the alchemists describe, can we duplicate their experiments?

Rarely yes, mostly no.

The first hinderance is that no one says what the starting material is. Some hint at dirt, some start with copper or other base metal, some start with silver and a little gold hoping to get all gold at the end. To our ears this makes no sense, starting with different materials, using the same sequence of procedures to always get gold. But remember, these were Aristrotelians and believed that matter was transmutable. If the properties you need to change are ALL part of the procedure, why would it matter what properties were there at the beginning? This is, I think, one of the core beliefs of the alchemists, one I have never seen explicitly stated in ancient or modern sources.

The best-known lab for duplicating alchemy is that of Lawrence Principe at John Hopkins. He worked very hard to duplicate a sequence of experiments from very late alchemy, where the author was at pains to make everything plain and obvious. What Prof. Principe found was that when replicated using glassware the experiment did not go the same. But when using what we know to be the original iron pans then the experiment does go the same way as described. 

Prof. Principe found that most of the colors described in these reactions come from iron which dissolved into the reactants. The use of iron pans and implements for very high-temperature reactions was common, as glass cannot stand high temperatures and clay cracks. Now we use very thin porcelain for the job.

Lawrence M. Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy, 2013, University of Chicago Press.

 

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