- Twentieth-Century Alchemists, The New Yorker, by Sam Kean
“The drawers at the Making and Knowing Lab, at Columbia University, have labels rarely seen outside a Harry Potter novel: ‘Ox Gall,’ ‘Spiderwebs,’ ‘Powder for Hourglasses,’ ‘Dragon’s Blood.’ The denizens of the lab re-create old recipes from alchemy-era texts—primarily of the sixteenth century—and this brings them into contact with some unusual ingredients. On a recent Monday morning, Joel Klein, a redheaded history-of-science postdoc who studies Isaac Newton’s alchemical work, sniffed a bag of flakes labelled ‘Rabbit-Skin Glue.’ ‘It smells like skin,’ he said. Another sniff. ‘Although I’m not sure what a sommelier would say.'”
- The Alchemist’s Tale, Archaeology Magazine, by Andrew Curry
“IN A LIGHT-FILLED ROOM in a building behind the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Germany, a row of tables is lined with oddly shaped glass vessels. When Christian-Heinrich Wunderlich saw them for the first time three years ago, they were in thousands of pieces, enough to fill six crates. Archaeologists had discovered the fragments during a rescue excavation in nearby Wittenberg in a niche underneath what had been a fifteenth-century monastery’s basement stairway.”
- Scholars Land Alchemy Cache, Chemical and Engineering News, by Sarah Everts
“In the dim illumination of a library devoted to protecting ancient books from light degradation, James R. Voelkel gingerly picks up a nearly 600-year-old alchemy text. Written by hand sometime around 1438, the thick tome is bound by a leather and wooden cover that is studded with metal nails in the shape of a hexagonal star lying within a circular disk. Inside, worms have eaten through small sections of the text, which features more than 500 alchemical recipes.”
- The power of failure, and other lessons from a 400-year-old ‘book of secrets’, The Pulse WHYY (NPR), by Maiken Scott
“A group of Columbia University students is keeping a close watch on a bright red liquid swirling in a pot. They keep checking the temperature through masks and protective goggles. Eventually, they declare the liquid to be ready, and dip thin branches into the mixture, creating what looks very similar to pieces of coral.”
- “Alchemy After Dark,” CHF Distillations Podcast, Feb. 5, 2013
“Alchemists are known for equally dreamy and practical pursuits—trying to turn base metals into gold and achieve immortality while also conducting the experiments that would lay the groundwork for modern chemistry. But it turns out the alchemists had another trick up their sleeves: speaking the language of love—and lust. On today’s show we sit down with historian Joel Klein to find out why so many alchemy texts are rife with blush-inducing romantic and sexual metaphors. Then CHF’s James Voelkel recites some of our favorite steamy passages.”
Public Lectures, Videos, etc.
The Making and Knowing Laboratory, Columbia University, Feb. 20, 2015
Prof. Lawrence M. Principe synthesizes early-modern glass of antimony in the Making and Knowing Laboratory and is interviewed by yours truly. Thanks to Jef Palframan for editing the video.
- “Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Alchemy, and Medicine,” a Public Lecture at the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library, Columbia U., New York,Jan. 28, 2015
Test your knowledge of Harry Potter and the history of alchemy in this talk, which contains eleven quiz questions. See my Prezi here.
- “Making and Knowing (Fake) Coral,” Chemical Heritage Foundation Distillations
Video by Mariel Carr of the Chemical Heritage Foundation documenting the reconstruction of “Coral Contrefait” from BnF Ms. Fr. 640 by the Making and Knowing team and the CHF’s Elizabeth Berry-Drago.
Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, PA, May 3, 2013
“Intrigued observers have been puzzled for centuries by the graphic portrayals of copulating bodies and hermaphrodites found in alchemical texts. Where does this imagery come from, and what does it actually mean? On May 3, 2013, CHF fellow Joel Klein explored the steamier side of alchemy.”
See my Prezi from this talk here.
- Harry Potter and the History of Alchemy, a public lecture delivered at the Ela Area Public Library, July 27, 2010
'I've never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that's a different matter. To invent this wizard world, I've learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy.'~J.K. Rowling The Herald, 1998
“In the Harry Potter series of books, J.K. Rowling has created an extremely imaginative and enchanting world that has captivated the minds of millions of readers. Part of that world, in fact, was not invented wholesale but was taken from the history of alchemy. For instance, in the title of the very first book (at least in the U.K. edition), Rowling mentions the philosophers’ stone, perhaps the most common subject of alchemical texts. In addition, historical alchemists such as Nicolas Flamel have characters named after them in the series. On the internet, a reader can quickly find any number of theories that use an understanding of alchemy to explain themes, characters, and imagery within the books. The historical world of alchemy is replete with fantastic imagery involving resplendent suns, dragons, griffins, hermaphrodites, homunculi, resurrections, and many other varieties even more bizarre and peculiar, providing fertile soil for multiple alchemical interpretations. Even so, alchemy is a widely misunderstood discipline. Many continue to think of it solely as a mystical or spiritual endeavor, even though we now know that major scientific figures such as Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and Robert Boyle (1627-1691) sought to transmute base metals into gold, were widely read in alchemical authors, and sometimes kept company with other alchemists. This highlights just how complex the historical world of alchemy really is, for there were many who did treat it as a mystical journey of enlightenment, many alchemists did fill their books with confusing imagery and bizarre pictures, but alchemy was also often an empirical and theoretical discipline that involved quantification, step-by-step laboratory processes, and a rich history that stretches back through the Middle Ages to the ancient world.”
One of my academic passions is the recreation of historical experiments. Walking down the same experimental paths opened by men and women in history who dared to meddle with nature is particularly fun and sometimes very useful for historicizing science. Experimental recreations have been especially fruitful in my field, the history of early-modern chymistry and medicine. For especially useful examples, see Lawrence M. Principe’s article on alchemy and impurities, and Princeton Historian Jennifer Rampling’s thoughts here and here. Another example is provided by Cambridge’s Hasok Chang here.
Such recreations are also valuable within the classroom to provide a visual and experiential aid, but they also allow students to wrestle with the actual practices of science. In several past classes at Indiana University I asked students to recreate an experiment of their choosing from the entire history of science and to write a paper and produce a short documentary based on their findings. Some students chose to use Volta’s method to make his electric pile, others recreated Pasteur’s famous Swan-neck flask experiment, and some especially ambitious students attempted to recreate Galileo’s inclined plane experiment. They even used a water clock in order to avoid anachronism!
Such endeavors help students to appreciate, first of all, that individuals in history were often much more intelligent, systematic, and skilled in their use of experiments than they are given credit (for instance, in the popular press). Struggling through a primary source to create an experimental protocol, let alone carrying it out, shows students the subtlety and complexity of earlier science.
Robert Boyle’s Chymistry
Alchemy provides an excellent example of a field that has not been given proper credit for its rich history of experimentation. While alchemists have nearly universally been portrayed as fools and charlatans, this was not always an accurate representation.
Indeed, as the research of recent historians has shown, many iconic figures in the history of science practiced alchemy. At times they sought to transmute base metals into gold, but they also used chymical experiments for a variety of philosophical and practical purposes.
In 2010, William R. Newman and I carried out a recreation of an experiment devised by Robert Boyle, the so-called Reduction to the Pristine State of Camphor, in which Boyle defended a particular philosophical position about the nature of mixture based on a rather simple and visually striking experiment.
In a similar demonstration, we recreated part of Boyle’s famous redintegration of niter experiment.
Chymistry of Isaac Newton
A major part of the Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project is the recreation of Newton’s chymical experiments. I had the opportunity to spend several summers wrestling with Newton’s handwritten alchemical texts in order to find a comparable modern laboratory protocol. I tried my hand at making multiple chymical products described by Newton, and several times was lucky enough to find success. For instance, I utilized Newton’s methods for making mineral acids. Here are photos from several such experiments.
These images (click any to begin a slide show with captions) show the creation of Aqua Fortis (~ mostly nitric acid):
‘Oil of Vitriol’ (~ mostly sulfur acid)
Likewise, I attempted to make what Newton appears to describe as a Copper Regulus:
For other chymical products made as a part of The Chymistry of Isaac Newton, see the Chymical Products page and the Multimedia Lab. You can also watch a lecture delivered by William R. Newman in which he discusses some of these experiments. There is also a BBC documentary, “Newton’s Dark Secrets,” which features several experiments replicated in the laboratory at Indiana University.