The Philosopher’s Stone

If you could turn your aluminium Coca-Cola can into gold, would you? You probably would, but if everybody could do it, it wouldn’t be quite so amazing since gold would become common and not worth much. The old Greek myth of King Midas, who was granted his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold, reminds us that he wasn’t being very clever. He couldn’t even eat his breakfast, since his bread became gold as soon as he touched it! You might have heard of the Philosopher’s Stone, perhaps you have heard about it because of a famous wizard, but how does the real Philosopher’s Stone relate to King Midas and his dream of turning common things into gold? Read on to find out!

Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from William Bynum’s A Little History of Science, a book that examines the scientific discoveries that radically altered our understanding of the world. Our topic today is the ancient practice of alchemy and the Renaissance alchemist and physicist, Paracelsus.

paracelsus

Chances are, you’ve read Harry Potter and know what a ‘philosopher’s stone’ is. But if you haven’t (and you really should), a philosopher’s stone is something that turns ordinary metal into valuable gold. Obviously, owning such a magical item would be incredibly profitable—think of all the endless riches you would have—and many people in the past, whom we call alchemists, dedicated their lives to discovering this stone. Although people don’t always think highly of alchemists, since what they do doesn’t exactly seem ‘scientific’, the truth is that these people ended up making many valuable discoveries in science. Here’s an extract from A Little History of Science by William Bynum that explains how:

‘Alchemy has a long history, stretching back to ancient Egypt, China and Persia. The aim of alchemists was not always simply to change less valuable (‘base’) metals into gold: it was also to exert power over nature, to be able to control the things that surround us. Alchemy often involved the use of magic: saying spells, or making sure you did things in exactly the correct order. The alchemist experimented with substances, to see what happened when two were mixed together, or heated.

[...]

In the course of their studies, they found out a lot about what we now call chemistry. They learned about distillation, for instance, the art of heating a mixture and collecting the substances that the mixture leaves behind at different times. Strong alcoholic drinks like brandy and gin are produced by distillation, which concentrates the alcohol. We call them ‘spirits’, a word we also use for ghosts, and for ourselves when we are being lively, or ‘spirited’. It’s a word that comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning ‘breath’ as well as ‘spirit’. It also comes in part from alchemy.’

One very important alchemist was Paracelsus (1493-1541), who was born in Switzerland and later spent his life travelling all over the world. Paracelsus was no ordinary alchemist, but also an accomplished surgeon doctor: as Bynum writes, ‘His alchemical dream was not just turning base metals into gold; rather, he sought to master all the magical and mysterious forces of nature.’ By conducting many chemistry experiments in his laboratory, he inched closer to his goal of mastering nature. Paracelsus discovered many new treatments for disease; he was particularly interested in the uses of mercury, which he believed to be the best remedy for a fast-spreading disease in Europe at the time: syphilis.

As an alchemist, philosopher and mystical scientist who was dedicated to discovering the secrets of nature, Paracelsus made huge contributions to medical science.

A Little History of Science

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