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Alchemy: more than just myth?

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Alchemy: more than just myth?

Were Franklin and Valeria really doing science in ‘Fantastic Four’ #16?

Doctor Strange is arguably the most well-known sorcerer in Marvel comics, having had major roles in the top three grossing entries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You might recognize some of Strange’s magical cohorts, like Wong, Clea, and Brother Voodoo. But how about real-life scientists Isaac Newton and chemist Robert Boyle?

Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver’s 2010 S.H.I.E.L.D. series introduced a fictional version of Newton, groundbreaking physicist and co-inventor of calculus, as the leader of the magical Brotherhood of the Shield, which would evolve into the super spy organization we know today. Marvel’s Newton was even Sorcerer Supreme for a time, and S.H.I.E.L.D. shows him employing something called the “Secret Alchemy.”

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More recently, in Ryan North and Francesco Mortarino’s Fantastic Four # 16, Valeria and Franklin Richards’ science teacher challenges the class to tackle problems from Boyle’s “wish list” of innovations, inspiring them to create a distinctly alchemical universal solvent “capable of resolving a compound body into its constituent principles without being consumed or altered in the process.”

While there may be no such thing as a Sorcerer Supreme or Brotherhood of the Shield, truth is often stranger than fiction. Boyle was a member of a brotherhood — a new generation of natural philosophers he called the “Invisible College.” Newton and Boyle were both alchemists who devoted decades of their lives attempting to create the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, the aforementioned universal solvent.

At this point, the skeptically minded might raise an eyebrow because, for centuries, alchemists were thought to have either been charlatans who exploited the credulous, or natural philosophers like Boyle and Newton whose minds were perhaps a little too open. After all, why would anyone believe that lead could be turned into gold? Why would anyone, let alone some of the smartest people who ever lived, practice such a pseudoscience?

Alchemy: more than just myth?

Fantastic Four #16 (Marvel Comics)

Magnum opus

According to historian Bruce T. Moran’s Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution, alchemy was a system of beliefs and practices revolving around “reducing gold and silver to their supposed ‘seeds’ or ‘souls,’ joining them, through distillation, with the original prima materia, or Mercury, in the heavens, and then recombining the purified parts … to produce a transforming tincture,” that being the Philosopher’s Stone. This worldview evolved out of Aristotelian and Hippocratic ideas of the four elements (Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water) being the fundamental building blocks of the universe. All matter was created from, and could be reduced to, some combination of these four elements.

Jabir ibn Hayyan, one of the great scientists and alchemists of the Medieval Arabic world, expanded on this idea by hypothesizing that “earthy smoke” and “watery vapor,” once trapped within the ground, produced either mercury or sulfur from the natural heat of the Sun. These compounds, when combined in varying proportions, were responsible for the creation of all the different kinds of metals. Therefore, in principle, the alchemist ought to be able to tinker with the proportions and purities of sulfur and mercury to create the “purer” and “divine” metals silver and gold.

The “Great Work” or magnum opus of the alchemist was often spoken of as a four-stage process, after which the tincture would be sealed inside a clear, thick, glass vessel referred to as the Hermetic Egg (hence the phrase “hermetically sealed”). The Hermetic Egg is then subjected to fire and, after applying heat and pressure, the alchemist could produce the Philosopher’s Stone. There were as many recipes for creating the Philosopher’s Stone as there were alchemists. Naturally, no one ever successfully produced it — the alchemical model of the natural world simply wasn’t correct.

But, as chemist and science historian Lawrence Principe explains, “the central alchemical goal of transmutation of base metals into gold was founded on coherent theories of matter that came out of keen observations of the natural world and practical experiments.” Moran concurs, arguing “Alchemy came into existence and sustained itself for a long time not because it was a grand delusion, but because it did make sense. It followed naturally from an intellectual context that was securely anchored to particular philosophical suppositions, religious beliefs, and social institutions.”

Alchemy mandala

Mandala illustrating common alchemical concepts (Cabala, Spiegel Der Kunst Und Natur, In Alchymia)

Al-kimya to chymistry

Boyle is the perfect example of just how much modern chemistry owes to the alchemists. He’s been called the “Father of Chemistry,” with his The Skeptical Chymist considered a cornerstone work in the discipline, and his application of empirical observation combined with rigorous experimentation made him a pioneer of the scientific method. It was through his work in the laboratory, as both a chemist and an alchemist, that Boyle formulated what’s come to be called Boyle’s Law or, the Boyle-Mariotte Law, which describes the relationship between the pressure and volume of a gas.

The tradition of alchemical thought also gave Boyle fertile ground with which to develop his own ideas, proposing an alternative account of matter that challenged Aristotelian metaphysics. Boyle’s corpuscular theory was directly influenced by “a corpuscularian tradition in alchemy stemming from the speculations of the medieval author Geber,” according to Distilling Knowledge. While alternatives to metaphysics had existed for centuries (like the Monism of Parmenides, the Atomism of Democritus, or Plato’s Forms), many of these texts were largely lost to history, a few surviving only thanks to the diligent efforts of Arabic scribes, and wouldn’t be translated into Western languages for centuries.

Newton is even more well-known for his association with alchemy, and his thoughts on gravity might have even been influenced by the practice. At the time, the mechanistic metaphysics of Descartes were the predominant model of physics, and conceptualized matter merely as what extends into space. All other properties which might be attributed to matter were either reducible to spacial extension, or existed solely within the mind. There simply was no room in Cartesian dualism for a force of attraction between objects.

Moran argues that an alchemical account of matter, that God created a universe in which natural forces interact with one another, is more likely to have inspired Newton’s explanation of gravity than Descartes’ account of matter, saying, “it was this originally alchemical notion of active principles operating within the interstices of very porous matter that formed the seedbed for a new concept of force.”

Alchemy: more than just myth?

Diana’s tree (Wikimedia Commons)

A legacy in the laboratory

Alchemy didn’t simply influence the ideas of scientists. It made direct contributions to chemistry and crafts such as mining and the refinement of ore, leatherworking, glassblowing, pottery, and the production of inks and dyes. Alchemy also helped raise awareness of anti-counterfeiting practices, as there was a very real concern at the time that if alchemists were able to artificially produce gold of the same quality and value as natural gold, it could lead to the market being flooded, and subsequent inflation.

While the worldview of alchemists may have been erroneous, some of their experiments were productive, and can be replicated even today. In 2018, Principe was able to recreate an alchemical experiment and produced a Philosopher’s Tree or Arbor Philosophorum, a crystalline structure of antimony. Other tree-like growths can be created from different alchemical recipes and compounds. A Saturn’s Tree is produced by adding zinc shavings to a solution of lead acetate (ask your parents for help with this one), or you can make Diana’s Tree by experimenting with aqueous silver nitrate and solid copper.

The Philosopher’s Stone as a universal solvent capable of transforming matter may have been nothing but a pipe dream, but alchemy was more than simply a delusion. After centuries of being relegated to the dustbin of history, a more sympathetic appreciation for alchemy’s contributions to science has emerged, while the beautiful images and mysterious language of the alchemists continues to inspire the creative arts.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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