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  • feedwordpress 08:01:15 on 2018/04/19 Permalink
    Tags: alchemy, arms control, , David Teniers the Younger, , , nuclear arms, , Seaborg,   

    “Everyone knows Newton as the great scientist. Few remember that he spent half his life muddling with alchemy, looking for the philosopher’s stone. That was the pebble by the seashore he really wanted to find”*… 


    Alchemist Heating a Pot, by David Teniers the Younger (1610 – 1690

    Alchemy is one of the most curious subjects in the history of science–it evokes both method and magic in popular imagination. Teniers brilliantly juxtaposes light and shadow in his paintings, leaving the viewer unsure just how illuminating alchemy really is.

    Alchemy was practiced in Europe as early as the 1300s and, by the seventeenth century, it had reached in zenith. It was a precursor to modern chemistry, and the methods and instruments that are historically tied to alchemy had a significant impact on the development of scientific tools. (As a historical note, in the seventeenth century, alchemy and chemistry were extremely fluid scientific practices; many contemporary historians of science opt to refer to the science as chymistry to connote the mutability of the two practices.)

    At its very core, alchemy focused on the notion of transmutation–the ability of one element to morph into another, especially the ability to turn elements into gold. (If Rumpelstiltskin had only been so lucky!) In order to understand elements on their most basic level—in order to extrapolate how to transmute one into another—alchemy focused its experimental efforts on the processes of distillation, sublimation, and crystallization and how they affected different materials. Exploring these processes, however, required sophisticated tools and technologies as well as scientific means and methods…

    Lydia Pine takes us “Inside the Alchemist’s Workshop.”

    * Fritz Leiber


    As we go for the gold, we might send elemental birthday greetings to Glenn Theodore Seaborg; he was born on this date in 1912.  A chemist, his discovery and investigation of plutonium and nine other transuranium elements was part of the effort during World War II to develop an atomic bomb; it earned him a share of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

    Seaborg went on to serve as Chancellor of the University of California, as Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, and as an advisor to 10 presidents– from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton– on nuclear policy and science education.  Element 106 (the last of the ten that Seaborg discovered), was named seaborgium in his honor.

    Like so many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, Seaborg became a campaigner for arms control. He was a signatory to the Franck Report and contributed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.



  • feedwordpress 09:01:36 on 2018/01/13 Permalink
    Tags: Act Against Multiplication, alchemy, , , Elisabeth of Bohemia, Henry IV, , , ,   

    “The ghost in the machine”*… 


    Pity (detail), by William Blake, c. 1795

    How is it that mind and body manage to interact and affect each other if they are such different things? This question was pressed on Descartes in the spring of 1643 by a young woman of twenty-four, Elisabeth von der Pfalz, also known as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. When others raised such difficulties, Descartes tended to brush them aside. But he listened to the princess…

    Anthony Gottlieb tells the remarkable story of the correspondence between René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—a debate about mind, soul, and immortality: “The Ghost and the Princess.”

    * Gilbert Ryle (The Concept of Mind, in part a critique of Descartes’ mind-body dualism)


    As we try to get it together, we might that it was on this date in 1404 that King Henry IV signed into law the Act Against Multiplication– which forbade alchemists to use their knowledge to create precious metals… and effectively, thus, outlawed chemistry in England.  Since the time of Roger Bacon, alchemy had fascinated many in England.  The Act of Multipliers was passed by the Parliament, declaring the use of transmutation to “multiply” gold and silver to be felony, as a result of concern that an alchemist might succeed in his project– and thus bring ruin upon the state by debasing the national currency and/or furnishing boundless wealth to a designing tyrant, who would use it to enslave the country.  The Act was in force until 1689, when Robert Boyle and other members of the vanguard of the scientific revolution lobbied for its repeal.



  • feedwordpress 08:01:21 on 2014/09/18 Permalink
    Tags: alchemist, alchemy, , , , , Principe, ,   

    “Alchemy is the art that separates what is useful from what is not by transforming it into its ultimate matter and essence”8… 


    And yet surely to alchemy this right is due, that it may be compared to the husbandman whereof Aesop makes the fable, that when he died he told his sons that he had left unto them gold buried under the ground in his vineyard: and they digged over the ground, gold they found none, but by reason of their stirring and digging the mould about the roots of their vines, they had a great vintage the year following: so assuredly the search and stir to make gold hath brought to light a great number of good and fruitful inventions and experiments, as well for the disclosing of nature as for the use of man’s life.
    ― Francis Bacon, The Advancement Of Learning

    The Alchemist in His Studio, 17th century, Thomas Wijck, oil on panel. Via the Chemical Heritage Foundation, to which all rights are reserved

    Dr. Larry Principe, professor of the history of science at Johns Hopkins, on his favorite painting in the collection of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, The Alchemist in his Studio, by Thomas Wijck (1616–1677).

    email readers click here for video

    Special bonus:  hear a discussion of this painting (and others) from a very different perspective in “Alchemy’s Rainbow: Pigment Science and the Art of Conservation.”

    * Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus


    As we trouble ourselves with transmutation, we might send swinging birthday greetings to Jean Bernard Léon Foucault; he was born on this date in 1819.  One of the most versatile experimentalists of the nineteenth century, Foucault was a physicist made early measurements of the speed of light, discovered eddy currents, and is credited with naming the gyroscope (though he did not invent it).  For all that, Foucault is surely best remembered for the “Foucault Pendulum,” with which he proved that the earth rotates on its axis.




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