Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Transforming the Alchemists
Historians of science are taking a new and lively interest in alchemy, the often mystical investigation into the hidden mysteries of nature that reached its heyday in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and has been an embarrassment to modern scientists ever since.

. . .

But in the revival of scholarship on the field, historians are finding reasons to give at least some alchemists their due. Even though they were secretive and self-deluded and their practices closer to magic than modern scientific methods, historians say, alchemists contributed to the emergence of modern chemistry as a science and an agent of commerce.

“Experimentalism was one of alchemy’s hallmarks,” said Lawrence M. Principe, a historian of science at Johns Hopkins University and a trained chemist. “You have to get your hands dirty, and in this way alchemists forged some early ideas about matter.”

I linked this because it's somewhat similar to the long-running debate (really big during the 1970s and early 1980s) about how/whether archaeology should/can be a science, and also a debate from a couple of years ago regarding a book (canNOT remember it now for the life of me) who argued that much of Western science was really just derived from ancient sources. This article highlights the empiricism that alchemists displayed, as opposed to the natural philosophy out of which sprang classical physics. There seems to be only passing mention of 'theory' in the article as regards alchemy, which may or may not arise directly from the subject. Formal theory is really what differentiates science from non-science or simple empirical generalization, and one wonders if the basic reason chemistry didn't adopt formal theory is. . . .what? I was hoping this article would shed light on this. It might be suggesting that perhaps an existing folk theory of transformation got in the way of developing formal theory:

Why did a “scientific revolution” in experimental chemistry not occur earlier in the 17th century? Why was a clear separation of alchemy and exact chemistry delayed until the 18th century?

Bruce T. Moran, a historian at the University of Nevada at Reno and the University College London, said it was not all that unreasonable at the time to be attracted to alchemy. “For a variety of practical and intellectual reasons,” Professor Moran said, “the idea of transforming one thing into another was to be expected.”

In everyday life, grapes were turned to wine and wheat to bread. A sour green apple grew into a sweet red one. It was in the nature of things to change, even metals. Miners and refiners already knew that lead ore almost always contains some silver, and silver ore almost always contains some gold. This implied that the metals changed one into the other over time.

Which rather complicates things, if you're looking at an incredible variety of things that transform into other things; gravity or motion in this light looks pretty simple: things drop in one direction unless you throw them some other direction.

If I find a link to the book I'm thinking of, I'll post that as well. IIRC, it wasn't particularly well-received, as the author basically argued that anything in the past that looked vaguely empiricist could be regarded as Science and was therefore a precursor to any modern scientific theory.