Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Alchemy and Modern Science

When I talk about a pre-scientific discipline I prefer the term "protoscience" to "pseudoscience." Skeptics, on the other hand, like the latter mostly because it's more pejorative. The idea that disciplines failing to conform to the formal scientific method are useless is simply wrong. They may not be as useful in terms of producing reliable results, but they can still reveal phenomena that may prove amenable to scientific inquiry down the road.

A classic example of this is herbalism. Traditional systems of herbology do in fact identify useful medicines, many of which have been picked up by mainstream pharmaceutical manufacturers. The difference is that in such disciplines the process of discovery is more organic - over a long period of time, a sort of sifting process retains herbal medicines that seem to work while discarding those that don't. It's much slower and more susceptible to error than double-blind studies, but much of the time it can reach similar conclusions.

According to this article from Smithsonian, the same may be true for alchemy. Alchemical writings are difficult to study because alchemists used codes and allegories to conceal the nature of their work from the uninitiated, but as it turns out many of them were doing real protoscientific work that would later become the basis of modern chemistry.

But, in the 1980s, some revisionist scholars began arguing that alchemists actually made significant contributions to the development of science. Historians of science began deciphering alchemical texts—which wasn’t easy. The alchemists, obsessed with secrecy, deliberately described their experiments in metaphorical terms laden with obscure references to mythology and history. For instance, text that describes a “cold dragon” who “creeps in and out of the caves” was code for saltpeter (potassium nitrate)—a crystalline substance found on cave walls that tastes cool on the tongue.

This painstaking process of decoding allowed researchers, for the first time, to attempt ambitious alchemical experiments. Lawrence Principe, a chemist and science historian at Johns Hopkins University, cobbled together obscure texts and scraps of 17th-century laboratory notebooks to reconstruct a recipe to grow a “Philosophers’ Tree” from a seed of gold. Supposedly this tree was a precursor to the more celebrated and elusive Philosopher’s Stone, which would be able to transmute metals into gold. The use of gold to make more gold would have seemed entirely logical to alchemists, Principe explains, like using germs of wheat to grow an entire field of wheat.

Principe mixed specially prepared mercury and gold into a buttery lump at the bottom of a flask. Then he buried the sealed flask in a heated sand bath in his laboratory. One morning, Principe came into the lab to discover to his “utter disbelief” that the flask was filled with “a glittering and fully formed tree” of gold. The mixture of metals had grown upward into a structure resembling coral or the branching canopy of a tree minus the leaves.

A while back I posted the idea that even the transformation of other metals into gold might have had a scientific basis if it involved the use of radioactive elements that could accomplish something akin to the photoneutron process, a known method for transforming mercury into gold. It probably wouldn't work, since even if you could produce enough radioactivity it would kill everyone in the room without modern shielding, but I'm not surprised to see that there really was something to the experimental work that they were doing.

The main thing that we've lost in the transformation from alchemy to modern chemistry is the spiritual dimension of the work, which alchemists considered very important. As an esotericist, I see no reason why proper scientific inquiry necessarily requires us to abandon the concept of spiritual illumination through the pursuit of empirical experimentation. I would contend that anyone who fails to be inspired by the vast and intricate workings of the cosmos doesn't really understand anything about how it all is put together.

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Nerd said...

As Varela and Griffin point out, the use of "first person" methods in the "divine science" of previous epochs is actually more advanced than the superstitious assumption of a "third person" reality (existence of god anyone?) we posit today.

Also, if you want to check out the transmutation of elements, talk to John Bedini and Roberto Maglione. Maglione's done a book on observation and measurement of "orgone," luminiferous aether. I have it somewhere, haven't had a chance to read it yet.


Scott Stenwick said...

I think it's hard to determine what's "more advanced" when you're comparing such different methods. It depends so much on the priorities of the speaker. From a Hermetic perspective, neither microcosm nor macrocosm dominates. Rather, they form an interconnected whole.

It certainly is true, though, that the modern approach to science does its best to ignore the "first person" approach. That works great for a lot of things, but when you get to the point where you're trying to study phenomena like consciousness there's remarkably little it can do for you.

Transmuting elements with orgone energy? I'd certainly be interested in checking that out. Are there experiments you can replicate in your basement?

Nerd said...

Bedini says he used a kiln. Not sure about Maglione.

Nerd said...

I had a bunch of info on this topic, videos and whatnot, but I can't find them now. lol.

Bedini was gluing rocks together in a kiln, iirc. I'm not sure what Maglione was doing, or what work he's done.

It seems to me that these "transmutation of element" reactions are fairly commonplace in these high energy "cold fusion" reactions, however they only create trace elements and are uncontrolled. The trick would be to use these high energy reactions to create these transmutation phenomena in a controlled way. For this, I would think one would use what I assume to be Maglione's theory, of "cosmic superimposition," of different "orgone streams." "Creation of matter from pure energy."

There is also the book "Biological Transmutations" by Kerval iirc was the dude's name. He posits that the phenomena occurs in living organisms. I think there may be something to this, as I've seen similar things in acupuncture, such as "tonifying blood," with needles, or even oils. You just sort of put it in motion, and the process happens.

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