Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory

Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory

Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory

Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory

Synopsis

Alchemists are generally held to be the quirky forefathers of science, blending occultism with metaphysical pursuits. Although many were intelligent and well-intentioned thinkers, the oft-cited goals of alchemy paint these antiquated experiments as wizardry, not scientific investigation. Whether seeking to produce a miraculous panacea or struggling to transmute lead into gold, the alchemists radical goals held little relevance to consequent scientific pursuits. Thus, the temptation is to view the transition from alchemy to modern science as one that discarded fantastic ideas about philosophers stones and magic potions in exchange for modest yet steady results. It has been less noted, however, that the birth of atomic science actually coincided with an efflorescence of occultism and esoteric religion that attached deep significance to questions about the nature of matter and energy.

Mark Morrisson challenges the widespread dismissal of alchemy as a largely insignificant historical footnote to science by prying into the revival of alchemy and its influence on the emerging subatomic sciences of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.Morrisson demonstrates its surprising influence on the emerging subatomic sciences of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Specifically, Morrisson examines the resurfacing of occult circles during this time period and how their interest in alchemical tropes had a substantial and traceable impact upon the science of the day. Modern Alchemy chronicles several encounters between occult conceptions of alchemy and the new science, describing how academic chemists, inspired by the alchemy revival, attempted to transmute the elements; to make gold.

Examining scientists publications, correspondence, talks, and laboratory notebooks as well as the writings of occultists, alchemical tomes, and science-fiction stories, he argues that during the birth of modern nuclear physics, the trajectories of science and occultism---so often considered antithetical---briefly merged.

Excerpt

For many in the twenty-first century, the word “alchemy” conjures up images of medieval zealots rummaging through ancient books and scrolls in dark hot basements, seeking the secrets of transmutation in the dim firelight of brick furnaces and archaic laboratory equipment with strange names—athanor, horn of Hermes, cucurbite. the occult wisdom forged by these alchemists was intended to bring them immense wealth, great longevity, and spiritual purification. in spite of Enlightenment attacks upon alchemy as unscientific superstition, or merely the foolish pursuit of the self-deluded, it is now clear that alchemy was a scientifically and spiritually serious pursuit from antiquity through the Middle Ages, with roots in Egyptian metallurgy, Aristotelian philosophy of matter and form, and Jewish, Arabic, early Christian, and Hermetic sources.

Alchemy was not a monolithic practice, but virtually all versions of it involved destroying the nature of a “base” metal—lead or mercury, for instance—thus reducing it to a prima materia without the specific characteristics of any element. Then, the powder of the prized “Philosopher’s Stone” or some other process would instill a “nobler” essence into the substance, transmuting it into gold or silver. the physical processes of alchemy involved several stages in which the base metal would be altered through heating, distilling, and the addition of various chemicals (saltpeter, alcohol, nitric acid, and sulphuric acid, for example). These stages were often known by specific colors that would appear during their successful execution. An intricate and . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.