Alchemy Essay, Research Paper
Alchemy was a major part of medieval times. Its practitioners’ main goals were transmutation and transcendence. Alchemy used the elements of Nature in their experiments. Only later were our elements of today adopted. Alchemists also invented many new methods to use for getting pure forms of the elements. Alchemy is responsible for many of the techniques and methods in use today as well as for the many New Age sciences. Alchemy is one of the more important developments of the Middle Ages.
Alchemy is mainly known for transmutation, the turning base metals (like lead or copper) into precious metals (like gold or silver). The production of gold was supposed to occur by the treatment of other base metals with the philosopher’s stone, also called the red elixir. As a consequence much of the work in alchemy was related to contemporary methods of metallurgy. The philosopher’s stone also served as the key to immortality. Transcendence, the quest for an elixir of immortality, is the other goal of Alchemy. This second goal gradually merged into medicinal chemistry, leaving alchemy with the objective of transmutation.
Alchemy is based on four basic elements–fire, air, earth and water–and three essentials–salt, sulfur and mercury. Salt was the principle of fixity (non-action) and incombustibility; mercury was the principle of fusibility (ability to melt and flow) and volatility; and sulfur was the principle of inflammability. All matter was made of these seven things in some combination. Gold had the perfect balance of them all. All of the other metals were imperfect because of their imbalance. Metals slowly changed in the earth from one metal or metal ore into another spontaneously. The more desirable, and naturally less abundant, metals such as gold formed spontaneously, but only very slowly, probably from iron to copper to lead to silver to gold. Converting other metals into gold was not unreasonable to an alchemist–who thought speeding up the process (that was already taking place) would be the ideal way. They developed many procedures to help them along.
The methods used by early alchemists to obtain pure substances from naturally occurring mixtures are varied. Since the physical properties of different pure substances are different, physical methods can be used to separate a mixture into its component pure substances. When a volcanic rock containing sulfur is heated, the sulfur turns from solid to gas (sublimes) and re-condenses as a virtually pure solid on any nearby cool surface; the remainder of the rock remains behind as a solid. Quite pure sulfur can easily be prepared in this way. Mercury, when it is a component of a mixture, turns from liquid to vapor, or distills, from the mixture more readily than any other metal or most metal compounds; it also will re-condense as a liquid on an adjacent cool surface. This process of distillation can be used to prepare pure mercury because few of the materials with which mercury is found vaporize at as low a temperature as does mercury. The third of the essentials, common salt, cannot be prepared like the others. Salt is purified by a different method: fractional crystallization. Impure salt, or sea salt, is obtained by evaporation of seawater. Sea salt consists primarily of common or table salt, sodium chloride, together with smaller amounts of magnesium and calcium salts. When seawater is evaporated, the first crop of crystals to come down are almost pure sodium chloride; most of the other salts remain in solution until almost all of the seawater has evaporated away. If this first crop of crystals is re-dissolved in fresh water and then that solution is in turn evaporated, the first crop of crystals to separate as that solution evaporates will be still purer sodium chloride, since the remaining impurities will again tend to remain in the solution. Fractional distillation can be used to separate mixtures of liquids. Fractional distillation seems to have been discovered around 1100 AD. More people than just alchemists used this method–distillation of wine to produce gin and liqueurs became known in Paris by 1332 and spread throughout Europe. It is easy to see how many of the methods alchemists developed are so important today.
The alchemical contribution to chemistry was a mixture of concepts and techniques. Most of the methods used today came from industrial chemistry during the Middle Ages. Processes explained above like distillation, fractional crystallization and fractional distillation are examples. Table salt is still obtained through fractional crystallization, just as it was centuries ago. Unlike modern chemistry, which grew out of alchemy, the ancient art is heavily spiritual. Alchemists may have been the first ones to try out their ideas by devising experiments, but because of their intensely metaphysical purposes and beliefs, alchemists did not develop modern scientific methods. Today, the transmutation motif is largely ignored, while the transcendence and medical motifs are still going strong in areas such as homeopathy and aromatherapy. Many modern alchemists combine their occult art with astrology, acupuncture, hypnosis and a wide variety of New Age sciences.
The alchemists’ main goals of transmutation and transcendence forced them to think up methods by which to get pure elements. But Alchemy never separated itself from the supernatural, the magical and the superstitious. Even though the alchemists have never produced anything of lasting value (such as a transmutated metal), their methods and procedures paved the way for our current crop of sciences.
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