Thursday, September 28News Written in the Stars

In defence of alchemical methodology

Around the turn of the 17th century, Homberg learned from Kunkel how to make white phosphorus. At this time, quite a few other investigators learned about the material and read about the method to make it – charcoal, cinnamon, and urine – heat and stir. However, most of these failed to reliably make it in the laboratory. The reason is both simple and subtle. Especially when dealing with older style equipment – the details of exactly how things are done can make a lot of difference.

For example, it is possible to make a souffle in a wood fired oven. But, to do so one has to have a strong practical understanding of stoking fires and the exact colour and feel (radiation on the skin) of the flame when a particular temperature has been reached. But, if someone working with a wood fired oven without that detailed skill only obtainable from direct experience from an adept or from very long trial and error of one's own – then they would consistently fail, and feel they had justification for the idea that souflles did not exist.

The idea of science today is that scientific results should be repeatable and communicable. These are certainly good ideas. Ceteris paribus, skill is more useful socially if it is communicable and reliable. However, in some ways post 1900 science has an over obsession with book learning. This is a side effect of the industrialization of education. The modern chemical laboratory is based on methods that can be repeated reliably given book learning and a few basic laboratory skills.

Methods that require years of human experience to succeed at are generally eschewed, and for a valid enough social and commercial reason. Such skills are not commercially profitable – either in selling education or in selling products. And 20th century industry made deliberate strides to eliminate the adept from the process. The production line of Ford is an example of the concrete intention to remove the skill from the workforce.

Ford's method did mass produce cars. It meant many more people could have cars than before. It changed the face of society. Some would say for the better. But, it was based on the denial of the adept and the removal of any process that could not be mass produced.

The laboratory skills of the 17th century and before, before industrialization took hold, were much more personal and were transmitted by visceral involvement of the entire person in the environment in the company of an adept. In this context, some methods were created that require years to learn and not everyone can do it. But, some of these methods created extremely good products. The typical technological machine generated products that were cheaper and more repeatable than the earlier human made products – but were also, while usable, of lesser quality than the best of the human made products.

Crochet is a skill that has never really been mechanised, but it produced textile products such as table cloths and bed spreads that took years to learn how to produce and might even have taken years to make. But, they lasted a lifetime and were handed on to one's children.

Don't get me wrong – I see the point of industrialization as a social process of getting medium quality goods out to the general public. But, when seeing that the deeper adept and novice whole person learning cannot be mass produced, it is not correct to assume from that the it was nonsense and taught nothing useful.

It is definitely possible that somewhere in the mass of faded and forgotten alchemical knowledge there is the ability to make something that cannot be made today.

But, I must end on a warning – I am not stating that alchemists where in advance of modern science in some global sense. Modern science also has a lot going for it that the alchemists did not know. I am saying the chemists should not dismiss off-hand alchemy, and alchemists should not dismiss chemistry.

The question is ultimately – what can be learned, what can be done, and how.

submitted by /u/ecurbian