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What alchemists got right

By Stephen Heuser

A new generation of scholars is taking a closer look at a discipline that captivated some of the greatest minds of the Renaissance. And in a field that modern thinkers had dismissed as a folly driven by superstition and greed, they now see something quite different.

Alchemists, they are finding, can take credit for a long roster of genuine chemical achievements, as well as the techniques that would prove essential to the birth of modern lab science. In alchemists’ intricate notes and diagrams, they see the early attempt to codify and hand down experimental knowledge. In the practices of alchemical workshops, they find a masterly refinement of distillation, sublimation, and other techniques still important in modern laboratories. Alchemy had long been seen as a kind of shadowy forebear of real chemistry, all the gestures with none of the results. But it was an alchemist who discovered the secret that created the European porcelain industry. Another alchemist discovered phosphorus. The alchemist Paracelsus helped transform medicine by proposing that disease was caused not by an imbalance of bodily humors, but by distinct harmful entities that could be treated with chemicals.

Read the original article at: Boston Globe

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