J’BIR IHBIN AYAM (722-804)

Around two thousand texts are attributed to this name; the founder of a Shi’ite sect. They were written over a hundred and fifty year period either side of the year 1000.

‘Sulfur and Mercury hypothesis’ (the idea that the glisten of mercury and the yellow of sulphur may somehow be combined in the form of gold).

An Alchemical theory: Accepting the Aristotelian ‘fundamental qualities’ of hot, cold, dry and moist, all metals are composed of two principles. Under the ground two fumes – one dry and smoky (sulfur), one wet and vaporous (mercury) – arising from the centre of the Earth, condense and combine to form metals.

This is said to explain the similarity of all metals; different metals contain different proportions of these two substances. In base metals the combination is impure, in silver and gold they co-exist in a higher state of purity.

The idea underpins the theory of transmutation, as all metals are composed of the same substances in differing proportions, and became the cornerstone of all chemical theory for the next eight hundred years.

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THE DARK AGES

THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY

Ideas on ‘impetus’ and the motion of the heavenly spheres.

Diversity of opinion on what keeps the heavenly orbs moving.

The recipe literature – craft manuals outlining recipes for manufacture of alchemical materials. For example, glass production had died out in the Latin West, but remained important in the Arab world.

ROGER BACON suggests that alchemical power can surpass nature (human artifice may exceed nature, i.e. technology), compared with Aristotle, who suggests that artifice may only mimic nature, or complete that which nature has failed to finish.

Suma Perfectionis’, Gaber – Latin Franciscan text (passed off as Arabic). Underpinned by the sulfur-mercury theory and by Aristotle’s ‘minima naturalia’ (smallest of natural things)– the idea of a minimum amount of matter to hold a form – hence a smallest particle of any given substance. This differs from atomism but the ideas were not developed by Aristotle.

Thus, in the middle ages came the belief that metals are created by the coalescence of minima of the metals.
Particles may be tightly or lightly packed (density). Matter may be contaminated.
Noble metals (gold) are tightly packed small particles, unaffected by fire or corrosion.
Lead turns to powder (oxidised) in fire as it is composed of larger, less tightly packed particles.
Sublimation is explained by smaller, lighter particles being driven upward by fire, and so on.

THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY

Texts become more secret, written in code and disguised. Latin texts are written in such a style so as to appear to be derived from ARABIC.

1317 – The Pope outlaws transmutation.

Moral questions: ‘is alchemical gold as valuable as real gold?’

Quintessences’: the refined essences of metals.

The discovery that lead cannot be turned to gold has important consequences. It is a strong indication that some substances are truly permanent and indestructible.

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ALCHEMY

photo of an ancient document showing some of the symbols commonly used by alchemists

Alchemical symbols

Understanding of the alchemists is hampered by their predilection for making their writings incomprehensible ( instant knowledge was not to be available to the uninitiated ) and the popular view that their quest was simply to isolate the Philosophers’ Stone and to use it to transform base metals into gold. There was in fact a genuine search for mental and spiritual advance

Using a world-view totally unlike that recognised today, the alchemists’ ideas of ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’ were intermingled – the ability to use ‘spirit’ in their experiments was the difficult part.

alchemical symbol for gold

To transform copper to gold: – copper could be heated with sulphur to reduce it to its ‘basic form’ (a black mass which is in fact copper sulphide) – its ‘metallic form’ being ousted by the treatment. The idea of introducing the ‘form of gold’ to this mass by manipulating and mixing suitable quantities of spirit stymied alchemists for over fifteen centuries.

Whilst this transmutation of metals was the mainstream concern of alchemy, there emerged in the sixteenth century a school that brought the techniques and philosophies of alchemy to bear on the preparation of medicines, the main figures involved being PARACELSUS and JOHANN VAN HELMONT.

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ALCHEMISTS AT WORK

THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

COMBUSTION and PHLOGISTON

Noticing that burning a candle in an upturned container, the open end of which is submerged in water, causes the water to rise into the container, Philon of Byzantium inferred correctly that some of the air in the container had been used up in the combustion. However, he proposed that this is because this portion of the air had been converted into ‘fire particles’, which were smaller than ‘air particles’.

In 1700 the German physician Georg Ernst Stahl (1660-1734) invoked ‘phlogiston’ to explain what happens when things burn. He suggested that a burning substance was losing an undetectable elementary principle analogous to the ‘sulfur’ of J’BIR IHBIN AYAM, which he re-named ‘phlogiston’. This could explain why a log (rich in phlogiston) could seem to be heavier than its ashes (deficient in phlogiston). The air that is required for burning served to transport the phlogiston away.

The English chemist JOSEPH PRIESTLY (1733-1804), although a supporter of the phlogiston theory, ironically contributed to its downfall. He heated mercury in air to form red mercuric oxide and then applied concentrated heat to the oxide and noticed that it decomposed again to form mercury whilst giving off a strange gas in which things burnt brightly and vigorously. He concluded that this gas must be ‘phlogiston poor’.

Priestly combined this result with the work of the Scottish physician Daniel Rutherford (1749-1819), who had found that keeping a mouse in an enclosed airtight space resulted in its death (by suffocation) and that nothing could be burnt in the enclosed atmosphere; he formed the idea that the trapped air was so rich in phlogiston that it could accept no more. Rutherford called this ‘phlogisticated air’ and so Priestly called his own gas ‘dephlogisticated air’.

In 1774 Priestley visited the French chemist ANTOINE LAVOISIER (1743-1794).
Lavoisier repeated Priestly’s experiments with careful measurements.
Reasoning that air is made up of a combination of two gases – one that will support combustion and life, another that will not; what was important about Lavoisier’s experiments was not the observation – others had reached a similar conclusion – but the interpretation.

Lavoisier called Priestley’s ‘dephlogisticated air’, ‘oxygene’, meaning ‘acidifying principle’, believing at the time that the active principle was present in all acids (it is not). He called the remaining, ‘phlogisticated’, portion of normal air, ‘azote’, meaning ‘without life’

Oxygen is the mirror image of phlogiston. In burning and rusting (the two processes being essentially the same) a substance picks up one of the gases from the air. Oxygen is consumed, there is no expulsion of ‘phlogiston’.

Lavoisier had been left with almost pure nitrogen, which makes up about four fifths of the air we breath. We now know azote as nitrogen. Rutherford’s ‘mephitic air’ was carbon dioxide.

CALORIC

Like phlogiston, caloric was a weightless fluid, rather like elemental fire, a quality that could be transmitted from one substance to another, so that the first warmed the second up.

It was believed that all substances contained caloric and that when a kettle was being heated over a fire, the fuel gave up its caloric to the flame, which passed it into the metal, which passed it on to the water. Similarly, two pieces of wood rubbed together would give heat because abrasion was releasing caloric trapped within.

What is being transmitted is heat energy. It was the crucial distinction between the physical and the chemical nature of substances that confused the Ancients and led to their minimal elemental schemes.

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CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY & WESTERN SCIENCE

bust said to depict a likeness of Socrates

The speculative Greek philosophers, considering the great overarching principles that controlled the Cosmos, were handicapped by a reluctance to test their speculations by experimentation.
At the other end of the spectrum were the craftsmen who fired and glazed pottery, who forged weapons out of bronze and iron. They in turn were hindered by their reluctance to speculate about the principles that governed their craft.

WESTERN SCIENCE is often credited with discoveries and inventions that have been observed in other cultures in earlier centuries.
This can be due to a lack of reliable records, difficulty in discerning fact from legend, problems in pinning down a finding to an individual or group or simple ignorance.

The Romans were technologists and made little contribution to pure science and then from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance science regressed. Through this time, science and technology evolved independently and to a large extent one could have science without technology and technology without science.

Later, there developed a movement to ‘Christianise Platonism’ (Thierry of Chartres).

Platonism at its simplest is the study and debate of the various arguments put forward by the Greek philosopher PLATO (428/7-348/7 BCE).
The philosopher Plotinus is attributed with having founded neo-Platonism, linking Christian and Gnostic beliefs to debate various arguments within their doctrines. One strand of thought linked together three intellectual states of being: the Good (or the One), the Intelligence and the Soul. The neo-Platonic Academy in Greece was closed by the Emperor Justinian (CE 483-565) in CE 529.
During the early years of the Renaissance, texts on neo-platonism began to be reconsidered, translated and discoursed.

Aristotle’s four causes from the ‘Timaeus’ were attributed to the Christian God, who works through secondary causes (such as angels).

Efficient Cause – Creator – God the Father

Formal Cause – Secondary agent – God the Son

Material Cause – The four elements: earth, air, fire & water.
Because these four are only fundamental forms of the single type of matter, they cannot be related to any idea of ‘elements’ as understood by modern science – they could be transmuted into each other. Different substances, although composed of matter would have different properties due to the differing amounts of the qualities of form and spirit. Thus a lump of lead is made of the same type of matter (fundamental form) as a lump of gold, but has a different aggregation of constituents. Neither lead nor gold would contain much spirit – not as much as air, say, and certainly not as much as God, who is purely spiritual. ( ALCHEMY )

Final Cause – Holy Spirit

All other is ‘natural’ – underwritten by God in maintaining the laws of nature without recourse to the supernatural.
Science was the method for investigating the world. It involved carrying out careful experiments, with nature as the ultimate arbiter of which theories were right and which were wrong.

Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253) Bishop of Lincoln (Robert ‘Bighead’) – neo-platonic reading of Genesis – emanation of God’s goodness, like light, begins creation. Light is thus a vehicle of creation and likewise knowledge (hence ‘illumination’), a dimensionless point of matter with a dimensionless point of light superimposed upon it (dimensions are created by God). Spherical radiation of light carries matter with it until it is dissipated. Led to studies of optical phenomena (rainbow, refraction, reflection).

stained glass window depicting Robert Grosseteste (created 1896)

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PARACELSUS (1493-1541)

Europe – early sixteenth century

‘Added salt to the mercury/sulfur diad, making a trinity to match the holy trinity’

picture of philippus aureolus theophrastus_paracelsus

PARACELSUS

Elaborating his writings with occult mystery, Theophrastus von Hohenheim renamed himself Paracelsus and helped to reform medicine by making it chemical.
Many of his ideas were erroneous and his writings were deliberately obscure; he insisted that the ‘doctrine of signatures’ could reveal efficacious drugs for different organs. Proclaiming that specific therapies could counter a particular disease was a radically different approach to the Aristotelian attempts to rebalance an individual’s internal humors.

Paracelsus extended the ‘fundamental qualities’ of the four Aristotelian elements by adding a third ‘hydrostatic principle’ to the diad of J’BIR IHBIN AYAM – saying the material manifestation of the ancient elements ( ‘…everything that lies in the four elements’ ) may be reduced to mercury, sulfur and salt.

The first distillate of an organic substance would be the thin, volatile ‘mercury’, which acted in favour of youth and life while next came the ‘sulfur’, acting in favour of growth and increase. Finally, the dry mass left behind was the ‘salt’. The concept of these three principles was considered a slight advance upon that of the four elements.

These are not the same things as we recognize today, nor elements in their own right; the first two were components of metals, salt was a principle common to all living things.

The Royal physicians of Elizabeth I of England and Henry IV of France assimilated and adapted Paracelsus’s ideas and although his theories lost credibility, his chemical remedies entered mainstream medicine.

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JOHN DEE (1527-1608)

1590 – London, England

portrait of john dee

JOHN DEE

‘Mathematician, cartographer & astronomer. Prolific author, natural magician, alchemist.’

‘Alternative knowledge and methods of learning. ‘Conversations with Angels’. Human power over the world (neo-Platonism).’

Dee was a Hermetic philosopher, a major influence on the ROSICRUCIANS, possibly a spy – astrologer and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I ; he chose the day of her coronation.

One of the greatest scholars of his day. His library in his home in Mortlake, London, contained more than 3,000 books.

Greatly influenced by Edward Kelley (1555- 97), whom he met in 1582; from 1583-1589 Dee and Kelley sought the patronage of assorted mid-European noblemen and kings, eventually finding it from the Bohemian Count Vilem Rosenberg.

In 1589, Dee left Kelley to his alchemical research and returned to England where Queen Elizabeth I granted him a position as a college warden, but he had lost respect owing to his occult reputation. Dee returned to Mortlake in 1605 in poor health and increasing poverty and ended his days as a common fortune-teller.

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ROBERT BOYLE (1627- 91)

1662 – England

‘The volume of a given mass of a gas at constant temperature is inversely proportional to its pressure’

If you double the pressure of a gas, you halve its volume. In equation form: pV = constant; or p1V1 = p2V2 where the subscripts 1 & 2 refer to the values of pressure and volume at any two readings during the experiment.

Born at Lismore Castle, Ireland, Boyle was a son of the first Earl of Cork. After four years at Eton College, Boyle took up studies in Geneva in 1638. In 1654 he moved to Oxford where in 1656, with the philosopher John Locke and the architect Christopher Wren, he formed the experimental Philosophy Club and met ROBERT HOOKE, who became his assistant and with whom he began making the discoveries for which he became famous.

Robert Boyle. New Experiments Physico-Mechanical. Oxford: Thomas Robinson, 1662

New Experiments Physico-Mechanical 1662

In 1659, with Hooke, Boyle made an efficient vacuum pump, which he used to experiment on respiration and combustion, and showed that air is necessary for life as well as for burning. They placed a burning candle in a jar and then pumped the air out. The candle died. Glowing coal ceased to give off light, but would start glowing again if air was let in while the coal was still hot. In addition they placed a bell in the jar and again removed the air. Now they could not hear it ringing and so they found that sound cannot travel through a vacuum.

Boyle proved Galileo’s proposal that all matter falls at equal speed in a vacuum.

He established a direct relationship between air pressure and volumes of gas. By using mercury to trap some air in the short end of a ‘J’ shaped test tube, Boyle was able to observe the effect of increased pressure on its volume by adding more mercury. He found that by doubling the mass of mercury (in effect doubling the pressure), the volume of the air in the end halved; if he tripled it, the volume of air reduced to a third. His law concluded that as long as the mass and temperature of the gas is constant, then the pressure and volume are inversely proportional.

Boyle appealed for chemistry to free itself from its subservience to either medicine or alchemy and is responsible for the establishment of chemistry as a distinct scientific subject. His work promoted an area of thought which influenced the later breakthroughs of ANTOINE LAVOISIER (1743-93) and JOSEPH PRIESTLY (1733-1804) in the development of theories related to chemical elements.

Boyle extended the existing natural philosophy to include chemistry – until this time chemistry had no recognised theories.

The idea that events are component parts of regular and predictable processes precludes the action of magic.
Boyle sought to refute ARISTOTLE and to confirm his atomistic or ‘corpuscular’ theories by experimentation.

In 1661 he published his most famous work, ‘The Skeptical Chymist’, in which he rejected Aristotle’s four elements – earth, water, fire and air – and proposed that an element is a material substance consisting at root of ‘primitive and simple, or perfectly unmingled bodies’, that it can be identified only by experiment and can combine with other elements to form an infinite number of compounds.

The book takes the form of a dialogue between four characters. Boyle represents himself in the form of Carneades, a person who does not fit into any of the existing camps, as he disagrees with alchemists and sees chemists as lazy hobbyists. Another character, Themistius, argues for Aristotle’s four elements; while Philoponus takes the place of the alchemist, Eleutherius stands in as an interested bystander.

In the conclusion he attacks chemists.

page from one of Boyle's publications“I think I may presume that what I have hitherto Discursed will induce you to think, that Chymists have been much more happy finding Experiments than the Causes of them; or in assigning the Principles by which they may be best explain’d”
He pushes the point further: “me thinks the Chymists, in the searches after truth, are not unlike the Navigators of Solomon’s Tarshish Fleet, who brought home Gold and Silver and Ivory, but Apeas and Peacocks too; For so the Writings of several (for I say not, all) of your Hermetick Philosophers present us, together with divers Substantial and noble Experiments, Theories, which either like Peacock’s feathers made a great show, but are neither solid nor useful, or else like Apes, if they have some appearance of being rational, are blemished with some absurdity or other, that when they are Attentively consider’d, makes them appear Ridiculous”

The critical message from the book was that matter consisted of atoms and clusters of atoms. These atoms moved about, and every phenomenon was the result of the collisions of the particles.

He was a founder member of The Royal Society in 1663. Unlike the Accademia del Cimento the Royal Society thrived.

Like FRANCIS BACON he experimented relentlessly, accepting nothing to be true unless he had firm empirical grounds from which to draw his conclusions. He created flame tests in the detection of metals and tests for identifying acidity and alkalinity.

It was his insistence on publishing chemical theories supported by accurate experimental evidence – including details of apparatus and methods used, as well as failed experiments – which had the most impact upon modern chemistry.

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