Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Secrets of Alchemy

That title was surely chosen by a publisher more interested in money than learning, in fact soon dictionaries will be saying ‘Publisher (n, from vb Publish): 1) One whose only interest in books is financial. 2) Term of abuse used by writers and other intellectuals, e.g. ‘You…you…Publisher you!’ ‘The Secrets of Alchemy’ will disappoint those looking for the sensational, while its title will put off the serious. But of course those with a serious interest are a minority, so let’s cheat the sensation seekers and forget the serious; there’s more money in it that way.

Anyway it’s the next book in the bedside slot, and it’s there because I read a serious article about it in the ‘Literary Review’, or perhaps a really serious one in the ‘London Review of Books’.

The author, Lawrence Principe, is, (and it’s worth giving his title in full) ‘Drew Professor of the Humanities in the Department of the History of Science and Technology and the Department of Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University’, and that title is not as misleading as his book’s. This is a serious work, whose aim is to show (I oversimplify here) that ‘Alchemy’ is just the old word for ‘Chemistry’, but around the time of the ‘Scientific Revolution’, when scientists, hitherto known as Natural Philosophers, wanted to be seen to be cleaning up their act, found it convenient to distinguish them, like the beasts in Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’: ‘Chemistry Good, Alchemy Bad’, Alchemy became, as it were, Chemistry’s scapegoat.

Even ascetic people like me (stop sniggering that girl at the back there) eagerly look for pictures when we open a new book, and some of these here are indeed sensational: Professor Principe is a proper ‘Hands on’ chemist, alchemist, chymyst: here are clear colour photographs of the results of ‘alchemical’ experiments done in his own laboratory. He hasn’t quite succeeded in turning base metal into gold, but he’s come pretty close; close enough to give alchemy back the bad name he’s trying to clear it of, were he not scrupulously honest and, in the best sense of the word, ‘scientific’. I’m only halfway through the book, and it must certainly stay in the bedside shelf until I’ve finished it.
Here are some pictures from ‘The Secrets of Alchemy’:
I'm afraid the pictures haven't come out too well here. You could try clicking on them and then fiddling about, but they look much better in the book.


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