In a general sense, alchemy is perceived as the transformation of a common substance to something rare and valuable. Medieval alchemists are often portrayed as little more than quacks attempting to make gold from lead. This depiction is not entirely correct. To be sure, there were such characters, but for real alchemists, called adepts, the field was an almost divine mixture of science, mystery, and philosophy.

Alchemy has existed for more than two thousand years. The first mentions of it can be found in ancient Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern texts as earlyas the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. Some historians believethat alchemy arose independently in each culture. Because of common ideas, however, other historians argue that it arose from a single source. They suggest that alchemy began in China or India and gradually spread westward. Whatever its origins, alchemy came to Europe via Egypt during the Alexandrian era,starting in the fourth century B.C.

The overall goal of alchemy was to make sense of the nature of matter. Aristotle promoted the idea that there are four principle elements of matter: air,fire, earth, and water. He claimed that all physical matter is composed of these elements in varying amounts. An Arab alchemist, Jabir (also called Geber), refined this theory in the eighth century A.D. with a focuson metals. He suggested that metals were composed of sulphur and mercury. Much later, the Swiss physician, Paracelsus (1493-1541), added a third element to the theoretical composition of metal: salt. It should be stressed that these three elements--mercury, sulphur, and salt--were different from the ordinary substances of the same names.

Because metals were all composed of the same elements, it was thought possible to transform one type of metal into another by altering the relative amounts of constituent elements. To accomplish such a transformation, it was necessary to have what was called the philosopher's stone. Not only could this stone transform lead into gold, but it could also act as a powerful medicine. Ifused for this purpose, it was called the elixir vitae or elixir of life. In addition to curing any disease, the elixir vitae could supposedly increase a person's lifespan, potentially conferring immortality. The trick was to find the philosopher's stone, which, despite its name, was supposed to have been ared powder.

The futile search for the philosopher's stone endured for centuries and involved countless people. Alchemists believed that it was composed of a superfineform of gold. Base metals such as tin or lead were supposed to be composed of impure sulphur and mercury; gold of more purified sulphur and mercury; andthe philosopher's stone of super-purified, or quintessentialized sulphur andmercury. Just a few grains of philosopher's stone would be sufficient to transform a base metal into pure gold.

It was thought that the philosopher's stone could be derived from mixing a metal ore such as iron, lead, or mercury, and some type of organic acid. The resultant mixture would be heated, dissolved in acid, distilled or evaporated,oxidized, and sealed in a special container. The container would be gently warmed and allowed to cool. If everything were done properly, the philosopher'sstone would be found. However, each stage required the perfect combination of factors. Not only did measurable factors such as quantity of materials, temperature, and elapsed time have to be on target, but astrological influencesand other intangibles had to be in place. Experiments could last for years, during which time alchemists exposed themselves to poisonous fumes and a near-constant danger of fire.

To aid in their search for the philosopher's stone, alchemists looked to ancient texts for clues. One of the most influential was called the Emerald Tablet. According to legend, it had been discovered in the tomb of Hermes---for which reason, alchemists often referred to themselves as Sons of Hermes---and it laid out 13 principles of alchemy. These principles, like most alchemical writings, were profoundly cryptic. For example, the second principle of the Emerald Tablet read: "What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing."

The use of symbolism and allegory was widespread in alchemical texts. They were intended to be mystifying, because adepts were very keen to keep their secrets hidden. They did not want them to be understood by anyone with lesser motives. The adepts' pursuit of the philosopher's stone was based on the loftyideal of uncovering the nature of matter. They did not want their work misused by people who were only motivated by greed for gold. Such people were dismissed as puffers or bellows-blowers.

Regardless of motive, neither the puffers nor the adepts had any luck discovering the philosopher's stone. Along the way, however, they developed novel experimental procedures, discovered new substances, and built laboratory equipment. These accomplishments aided in the development of a science that is still successfully practiced today: namely, chemistry.

For a time, the terms chemistry and alchemy were used interchangeably. As a result, some of the biggest names in chemistry from the medieval and Renaissance periods were also associated with alchemy. Paracelsus, who was mentioned previously, brought alchemy into the medical arena with his theory that chemical cures were effective against disease. Robert Boyle, considered the fatherof chemistry, was involved in alchemy from 1646 until the end of his life. His influential book, The Skeptical Chymist (1661), defined the differences between chemistry and alchemy and introduced the concept of element knowntoday. Alchemy's last gasp was fueled by Isaac Newton, physicist and founderof calculus, in the late 17th century.

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