Thursday, May 19, 2011

Recreational alchemy

Today's Science has an interesting story (probably gated) about the growing popularity, among historians of science and others, of recreations of alchemy experiments described in papyrus mss. ("chymistry" is the preferred term) -- it is not surprising that the craze for medieval recreations has touched scientists, as there are many in the right demographic, and the trend is consistent with the incentives for historians to rehabilitate various periods of history; the surprise is that it didn't happen sooner.
William Newman, a historian at Indiana University ... also works on chymistry re-creations—some of them with a furnace in his own garage. Considering that even the best post-Renaissance experimenters distilled phosphorus from urine, melted silver from whatever coins they might be carrying, and used inexact heat sources, their results were difficult, if not impossible, for them to reproduce. “You have to back-engineer to understand how the theory integrates with the practice,” Newman says. “There's no better way to do that than to do the experiments themselves.”  

The "alchemists chymists were scientists" line seems a hard sell that the article doesn't really try; it won't do to demonstrate that not everything the alchemists saw was fraudulent -- one can mount a similar defense of "traditional medicine" but it wouldn't follow that witch-doctors were scientists. Not to mention that the Middle Ages were a figment of someone's imagination. Nevertheless, the sporadic wild-haired intellectual stirring a ceramic pot of his own urine would be a useful addition to one's neighborhood medieval recreation group. As, btw, would the woman eating pounds of almonds.

The other article of note in this issue is a genetic study that (purportedly) shows that the mutation responsible for the sooty variant of the British peppered moth -- that classic example of adaptation in the modern era -- happened exactly once (as opposed to happening independently on multiple occasions), possibly "emanating from a single point source in greater Manchester."

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