Sympathy for the Alchemist

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Many claim that modern chemistry of the 20th and 21st centuries began in the late 18th century with the work by Lavoisier and the abandonment of the phlogiston theory. Of course, chemistry did not suddenly appear in the late 1700’s. One could trace chemistry back to the time of the alchemists. Alchemists as we all know, attempted to transform base metals into gold and concoct elixirs that would extend life and cure sickness. The practice of alchemy goes back several millennia and covered three continents.

However, before we dismiss them entirely as charlatans, alchemists made important contributions to refining, gunpowder, glass, inks, dyes, and metalworking just to name a few areas. Mary the Jewess, who is said to be the first know alchemist (around the first century) made advances in distillation and heating. Her invention, the double-broiler (bain-marie), carries her name.

Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle were alchemists. Both spent a considerable portion of their careers involved in alchemy. Yet, they made significant contributions to modern science.

Alchemists believed the reactions they were investigating were transmutations, but they were actually displacement reactions. The issue was having clear definitions of chemical elements and chemical compounds and the ability to use the vocabulary associated with these definitions to describe chemical reactions. The alchemical era was a necessary step along the path of understanding.

We have a demonstration in our Chem Video library that we call “Sympathy for the Alchemist”. It illustrates a reaction that an alchemist may have done thinking they “transmuted” copper into gold. The demonstration simply involves adding a solution of copper sulfate (in alchemist terms: blue vitroil) to iron nails (in alchemist terms: well — iron nails). After a period of time, a gold-colored crystal developes on the nail which appears to be the element gold. In reality, we now know this reaction as a redox reaction in which the copper ions are reduced by the iron to copper metal that collects on the iron surface. However, you can see how the alchemists were fooled.

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