Nowadays chemistry is something that happens in a lab. It is performed by people in white coats with clear bottles and stacks of health and safety forms. It almost seems like the magic that created this world of sterility and bureaucracy is fading and the origins and mystery disappearing from everyday practice. Every chemist should do well to remember their origins and how without the early chemists, the alchemists, the world we know and the things we research would be utterly transformed. Although we may have forgotten our chemical ancestors, there are surprising similarities between those primitive men in furs and the modern goggle eyed chemist.
In the beginning alchemy was an art comparable to the miracles of the gods and was specifically the work of religious men. In China, Taoism played an important role in developing alchemy. Healing someone using external medicines and concoctions was meant to bring harmony to the person and bring them closer to Tao. The ‘elixer’ (dan), an equivalent to the later Philosopher’s Stone, was meant to provide lasting life. Mixtures of jade, cinnabar or hematite were commonly ingested. Surprisingly liquid gold was also consumed, conjuring up of the modern day images in film and books of the golden cup that can heal and give lasting life. But the use of precious metals had the opposite effect. Sun Simiao, a Tang Dynasty alchemist, hailed by some as the ‘King of Medicine’, often employed the use of elements such as arsenic, mercury and sulphur which ironically we now know to be highly toxic to the human body. This early foray into chemistry was one of the first steps in applying chemistry to improve health. It also began an obsession throughout the history of man to prolong life and to tinker with life itself.
Alchemy took a sudden decline when Alexandria, which at that time contained the largest collection of scrolls and books, was almost destroyed by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 297 AD. Few artefacts remained of Egyptian and Greek discoveries. The most notable artefact remaining being the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus which, for many centuries after its discovery had been used as the basis of many alchemists’ belief. The tablet itself has numerous translations, one of which was decrypted by Sir Isacc Newton in 1680. Its content was not that of recipes for potions but a philosophical approach to the world and alchemy. It was from the understanding of the divine and how the earth around us was created Heremes believed we could then understand the physical reality around us. This approach has been taken literally by some scientists today. Attempts to understand the scientific divine; the big bang, and what exactly it was that created matter is at the forefront of CERN’s research, allowing us to uncover the mystery of the world we live in.
The discovery of the Emerald Tablet and its translations were taken literally immediately after its discovery but subsequently was interpreted quite differently. The line on the Emerald Green Tablet that reads “With this [knowledge of Natural principles] thou wilt be able to master all things and transmute all that is fine and all that is coarse” was the origin of the more commonly known alchemy of turning lead into gold and the foundation for the mystical Philosopher’s Stone. This more avaricious approach to alchemy was popular during the Middle Ages through to the 16th Century. Alchemists looked to Plato’s teaching of the four elements in their quest for the mythical Philosopher’s Stone. It was believed fire, earth, water and air made up the basic materials from which everything on earth was made. Aristotle also believed in the fifth element of ether, which he suggested made up the stars. An Arabic alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan attributed chemical characteristics to each of the four elements and suggested it was the combination of the pure elements which made up the ‘Anima mundi’ , the starting material for the Philosopher’s Stone.
The actual chemistry behind the alchemy is somewhat vague, however the chemistry they discovered while trying to achieve their miracles acted as a gateway into modern science such as the discovery of mineral acids in the thirteenth century. These mineral acids such as nitric acid were found to dissolve gold, a discovery which is still used in gold recovery to this day.
The Philosopher’s Stone arguably represents a symbol of a modern-day chemists’ objectives. Chemists today are still in pursuit of that magical drug to save people from life-threating illness or that mystic potion that will allow its consumer to regain lost youth. As for the pursuit of precious metals, the US chemical industry currently is worth $450 billion alone and growing. You might say the modern day chemists had achieved their goal in turning those primitive experiments into gold mines; but that goal of producing physical gold changed a long time ago. Now when you sit in your lab, waiting for that stubborn column to finish or indeed the reflux to stop you are no longer in search of gold and riches, but for something much more precious; knowledge. The work of these holy men may be disregarded as ancient witchcraft and nothing but fanciful ideas from the past but it is these echoes of alchemy trailing through history that have made chemistry what it is today and they have directly affected our knowledge and understanding of chemistry. So despite those white lab coats, goggles and health and safety forms we are all arguably still alchemists, in search for that one goal.