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Posts Tagged ‘alchemy

“In Nature’s infinite book of secrecy I can read a little”*…


shakespeare science


Shakespeare explores the philosophical, psychological, and cultural impact of many more scientific fields besides human anatomy, reflecting poetically on theories about germs, atoms, matter, falling bodies, planetary motion, heliocentrism, alchemy, the humors, algebra, Arabic numerals, Pythagorean geometry, the number zero, and the infinite. The inquiries that drove Renaissance science, and the universe it disclosed, are deeply integrated into Shakespeare’s poetic worlds.

Until relatively recently, Shakespeare’s contact with the scientific world has gone largely unnoticed both among scholars and general audiences. Perhaps Shakespeare scholars and audiences don’t notice the way he takes up science because they are unfamiliar with much of the science he was exposed to, while most scientists don’t see Shakespeare as valuable for reflecting on science because they assume he was unfamiliar with it. Usually, even when readers are made aware of Shakespeare’s references to this or that scientific subject — perhaps Hamlet’s reference to infinity or Lear’s allusions to atomism — these are treated as little more than interesting artifacts, window-dressing to Shakespeare’s broader human concerns.

A small but growing number of scholars are now taking up the connection between Shakespeare and science. And, spurred perhaps by science fiction, by the ways that science factors in the works of key late-modern writers such as Nabokov, Pynchon, and Wallace, and by the rise of scientific themes in contemporary literary fiction, a growing number of readers are aware that writers can and do take up science, and many are interested in what they do with it.

When we familiarize ourselves with the history of science, we see the imaginative worlds Shakespeare creates to demonstrate science’s power to shape our self-understanding, and the power of the literary arts to shape our response to science. We also see that Shakespeare was remarkably prescient about the questions that science would raise for our lives. He explores, for example, how we are personally affected by the uncertainties that cosmological science can introduce, or what it means when scientists claim that our first-hand experience is illusory, or how we respond when science probes into matters of the heart…

He was a poet of Copernican astronomy before the telescope, of microbiology before the modern microscope.  What can we learn from the Bard’s vision of cosmic upheaval?  Explore at:  “Shakespeare’s Worlds of Science.”

* Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra


As we put it all into perspective, we might spare a thought for Andreas Libavius; he died on this date in 1616.  A rough contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Libavius was a celebrated physician and chemist, the author of over 40 works in the fields of logic, theology, physics, medicine, chemistry, pharmacy, and poetry.  At the same time– and in a way that reflected the fuzzy boundary between the emerging empirical sciences and the occult– he was one of the leading alchemical thinkers of his time: his 1597 Alchymia was the first systematic chemistry textbook, in which he showed, for example, that cuprous salt lotions are detectable with ammonia (which causes them to change color to dark blue)… and in which he also described the possibility of transmutation (the conversion of base metals into gold).

220px-Andreas_Libavius source


Written by LW

July 25, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The more we claim to discriminate between cultures and customs as good and bad, the more completely do we identify ourselves with those we would condemn”*…



A new paper, “Coming Apart? Cultural Distances in the United States over Time” aims to see if people of different races, genders, and incomes have become more culturally distant from each other over the past few decades…

The authors use a simple metric for this: how easy is it to predict who you are? For example, if I know your five favorite TV shows, how well does that predict whether you’re male or black or high income? If different groups watched similar shows in the past but now they all watch different shows, this kind of prediction becomes more accurate because we’re moving apart in our tastes. But it turns out we aren’t. The basic conclusion of the paper is that nothing much has happened:


For the most part, these lines are pretty flat. For example, take a look at the red line in the top left panel. It represents the consumption pattern of rich vs. poor, and it’s around 0.9. This means that the rich and poor are very different in the products they buy, but also that they’ve always been very different. The size of the difference, or “cultural distance,” is about the same as it’s always been…

The biggest changes have been in gender issues, party affiliation, religion, and confidence in institutions. This isn’t surprising, nor is the fact that the divergences have been relatively large, since ideology is self-selected. The increasing political polarization of Americans has been a topic of endless discussion over the past decade, and it’s a real thing.

[And] on a less serious side, here are the products [see chart at the head of this post] that most distinguish whether or not you’re white…

Read on for more detail on the ways in which “We’re About as Different From Each Other As We’ve Always Been.”

C.f. also: “What we buy can be used to predict our politics, race or education — sometimes with more than 90 percent accuracy.”

* “The more we claim to discriminate between cultures and customs as good and bad, the more completely do we identify ourselves with those we would condemn. By refusing to consider as human those who seem to us to be the most “savage” or “barbarous” of their representatives, we merely adopt one of their own characteristic attitudes. The barbarian is, first and foremost, the man who believes in barbarism.”  ― Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race et histoire


As we note that what’s true latitudinally is arguably also true through time, we might send magical birthday greetings to John Dee, the  mathematician, astronomer, and geographer who was a consultant to Elizabeth I– and who was born on this date in 1527. Dee was a translator of Euclid, and a friend of both Gerardus Mercator and Tycho Brahe; he revolutionized navigation by applying geometry; and he coined the word “Brittannia” and the phrase “British Empire.”  He had a tremendous impact on architecture and theater– and was the model for Shakespeare’s Prospero.

“So how come such a significant philosopher– one of very few in a country then considered an intellectual backwater– barely features in British history books?  Because of his notorious links with magic” (observed BBC’s Discover).  Dee was indeed involved (most heavily, toward the end of his life) in the Hermetic Arts: alchemy, astrology, divination, Hermetic philosophy and Rosicrucianism (the Protestant answer to the Jesuits, which Dee founded).  Perhaps most (in)famously, Dee put a hex on the Spanish Armada, a spell widely credited at the time for the misfortunes that befell the Iberian fleet (as readers may recall).

In a way that presaged Isaac Newton, Dee’s work spanned the world’s of science and magic at just the point that those world’s began to separate.

220px-John_Dee_Ashmolean source



Written by LW

July 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“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.



Written by LW

April 19, 2018 at 1:01 am

“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.



Written by LW

January 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

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


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).

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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.




Written by LW

September 18, 2014 at 1:01 am

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