Alchemy in an HSCI Classroom

Papers

Alchemy in a History of Science Classroom

Alchemy has been a contentious space in which historians of science have engaged in the recurrent debate on what exactly constitutes “science,” and because of its spiritual and religious components, alchemy was often placed into the pseudoscientific category. Recent scholarship, however, has reaffirmed its position amongst other Medieval and Early Modern subsets of natural philosophy. Authors have cited its experimental programs of research, theoretical underpinning, and lab-based analysis and synthesis as evidence for its inclusion in the narrative of the history of science, and because of this, I believe that it should not be left out of a history of science survey course. Aside from its “scientific” characteristics, alchemy also provides avenues through which to discuss the interaction between practical and theoretical knowledge, entrepreneurial motivations that influenced natural philosophical inquiry, and the complicated relationship between science and religion.

I would begin a lecture on alchemy by discussing it in its eighteenth century context; this is when it was marginalized in order to legitimate the developing profession of chemistry. I would talk about how previously, the two investigative subsets were part of a larger research program focused on changing and understanding the properties of materials — notably metals, minerals, and other substances. The discussion would touch on who exactly was engaged in the pursuit (many of the “Big Men” made famous by their contributions to other fields, women, and craftsmen), and on the methods employed by these practitioners. Alchemists would read from ancient (and not-so-ancient) alchemical texts, comment on them, perform the experiments, and sometimes make modifications to the recipes, and they worked in labs where they performed distillations and synthesized compounds. I would highlight how these analytical and lab strategies are still used by scientists today.

Next, I would discuss what makes alchemy unique — its convoluted, secretive language and association with the spiritual and religious. While at first this might feel quite anti-scientific to many students, it puts alchemy (and Medieval and Early Modern scientific inquiry) into its context. Knowledge production was not always a secular affair, and alchemy’s engagement with the metaphysical, instead of a weakness, was a strength at the time it was being practiced. People sought deeper meanings for natural phenomena, and the philosophical framework from which they were working (Christianity with heavy Aristotelian influences) encouraged the search for final causes, symbols, and forms. Alchemy provides an excellent conduit for a discussion about what natural philosophy included in its lines of inquiry and elucidates the difference between itself and our modern construction of knowledge-gathering, science.

Alchemy’s significance to the history of science is therefore quite pronounced. Far from pseudoscientific magic, alchemy was a research program with goals, theories, and methods, and its practitioners were widespread and influential. As such, any survey of the history of science should include it and capitalize on the opportunity to discuss the issues alchemy brings to the forefront: early experimentalism, the relationship between practical and theoretical knowledge, and science and religion’s strong association.

Vernacular Knowledge

Summaries & Reviews

The Crafting of the 10,000 Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China, Dagmar Schäfer

            In her analyses of the writings of Song Yingxing (1587-1666?), author Dagmar Schäfer elucidates the intricate and complex systems of knowing in seventeenth-century China. Song was part of a society in which individuals were divided into four major classes: scholars, farmers, merchants, and craftsmen. While Song’s writings reflect these subdivisions (and the social hierarchies in which they were placed), they also defy his society’s unique knowledge classification systems by emphasizing the role of qi in universal harmony and understanding. In a method markedly different from his contemporaries, Song proposed a chaos-defying system based on qi and “natural phenomenon and the production of material objects,” instead of on “moral categories of ‘heaven’” imposed on humanity.[1] Schäfer brilliantly highlights how cultural, political, and societal influences play a role in knowledge production and understanding through her case study analysis of a single, at times abnormal and at times quite typical, lower-ranked Chinese scholar. 

Science in the Everyday World: Why Perspectives from the History of Science Matter, Katherine Pandora and Karen A. Rader

            Science in the Everyday World brings attention to the tendency for scientists and historians of science to discount or altogether ignore the importance of those “outside the temple of science” and in the realm of popular culture in the production and perpetuation of knowledge.[2] To assume that all knowledge is synthesized in the laboratories of professional scientists leaves out the many, equally important actors at play in the lay world. If historians will venture into the realm of popular cultures of science, Pandora and Rader argue, we have to gain “the positive transformation of relations between expert scientific practitioners and nonexpert public science participants.”[3] The authors then illustrate how this type of analysis should be carried out by discussing three examples: historians’ work on the nineteenth-century scientific popular culture, the development of and motivations behind scientific museums, and twentieth century media portrayals of the scientist. By understanding the ways that the scientific community and laypeople communicate with one another, scientists can benefit from historians in a way that will make future conversations far more rewarding.

Pandora and Rader’s piece on popular science reminded me very much of Nancy Tomes’s work, The Gospel of Germs. Tomes appears to use the exact analytical strategies proposed by Pandora and Rader; she attempts to understand the lay American reaction to an awareness of microbial disease-carriers. A marked difference between this approach and the more traditional, top-centered strategy can be located in the source base. Pandora and Rader’s brief discussion on popular representations of scientists in the twentieth century focus on film and television shows, while Tomes uses similar sources that lay outside of the professional realm, including advice books, patent applications, advertisements, and oral histories. While these sources may not always be the most visible, apparent, or traditional, they offer insight into a completely different aspect of scientific culture — one that is equally important to the acquisition and transmission of knowledge.

I find the indirect approach to the historical study of scientific understanding the most fascinating, and arguably the most important. While scientists like to isolate themselves physically and professionally, they are still part of the worldly, human-comprised community. They are not immune to its structure, politics, culture, or ideas, as many proponents of the SSK school would argue. I think, however, that one of the most effective ways of understanding the context in which science is conducted is to study the consumers of science. Their role in the creation of scientific knowledge has been paramount; after all, without public support science (usually) cannot operate. And how science sells or isolates itself from the common people can have major implications for what kind of science is done. Equally interesting and useful is the study of how science has affected the communities for which it operates; how did your average American understand germ theory, and how did this change how they behaved? A question taken up by Tomes, this kind of inquiry can lead the historian to better understand what role science has played in the overall history of humanity, and like Pandora and Rader argue, it can facilitate important modern-day conversations between scientists and common audiences.

[1] Dagmar Schäfer, The Crafting of 10,000 Things, 52.

[2] Katherine Pandora and Karen A. Rader, “Science in the Everyday World,” 350.

[3] Ibid, 354.