Alchemy gaining respect, centuries after its heyday

17th century chemist Robert Boyle
17th century chemist Robert Boyle

Our medieval ancestors had any number of habits we now find odd - among them their pursuit of a formula to turn base metals into gold. That's one reason why we often equate the word "alchemist"  with "charlatan." But the often-derided practice is now getting a second look from historians, who say the popular image we have of alchemy does not accurately comport with the reality.

That topic was taken up in earnest during a recent meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science,. A chemist and historian by the name of Lawrence Principe of Johns Hopkins University talked about an "alchemical revolution" as scholars start to rethink the history of alchemy.

Turns out that alchemy was more than a pointless search for ways to create gold. Indeed, both the Irish scientist Robert Boyle,, one of the world's first chemists, and Isaac Newton, were described as avid alchemists back in the day.

Indeed, alchemists were said to assay metals, refine salts, make dyes and pigments, glass and ceramics, artificial fertilizers, perfumes, and cosmetics. So what happened?

According to Principe, alchemy's poor reputation has much to do with a change in European intellectual thought in the 17th and 18th centuries and that alchemists were anything but charlatans. The Economist, which offers a good write-up of the meeting, notes:

He believes that most alchemists were respectable seekers after knowledge and that they were working with well constructed (if ultimately misguided) theories. The reputation of the alchemists, he reckons, was deliberately undermined by gentleman amateurs who were trying to give the emerging science of chemistry the social respectability it needed to sit at the academic high table.

Interestingly enough, the alchemists weren't completely daft in thinking there might be something to the transmutation of base metals into gold. As the piece notes, silver often is found in lead ore and gold often turns up in silver ore. The trouble is that they stubbornly refused to revisit their assumptions even when scientific knowledge advanced. You can read more about the ongoing debate within the scholarly community about alchemists here.
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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.