The Chemistry of Alchemy

Greetings!  My name is Cathy Cobb and I am the author of five books on chemistry and the history of chemistry for the lay reader, which includes, I am proud to say, my latest effort

The Chemistry of Alchemy

The Chemistry of Alchemy is a book of stories about alchemists of the past and well as reenactments of their alchemical practices including growing gold and silver trees; producing the philosophers’ stone, complete with peacock’s tail; and, of course, transmutation.

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My coauthors and I decided to do the book because we found our intellectual ancestors, the alchemists, to be passionate, freewheeling visionaries, willing to risk the gallows, prostitute their intellect, and impoverish themselves and their families for the sake of a dream—and we wanted to know why.  Why did they think they could make gold, and what kept them at their fires failure after failure?  We knew answers would not come from words or old engravings, but had to be experienced first-hand, which led to the development of the demonstrations of alchemical procedures—and also led to substantial problems. We found recipes, recopied by medieval scribes, with errors or omissions.  We found several different ingredients had the same name and several names for the same ingredient.  We found frustrating poetic descriptions rather than step-wise procedures and ironically, as a result, we succeeded in our quest to experience what the alchemists experienced:  we spent hours over boiling beakers, tried many methods that didn’t work, reasoned, guessed, and then finally threw everything in the pot out of desperation—took deep breaths and regrouped, returned to the books, searched for hints and explanations—and finally, after many fruitless hours—experienced moments of glorious success. We witnessed magnificent reactions with amazing colors, astounding evolutions, and fascinating promise.  By seeing some of what they saw, feeling some of what they felt, and suspending for just a moment our critical, informed, perspective and embracing the wonder of the unexplained, we beheld magic—and gained our answer to what kept them at the fire:  the love of the smell, the smoke, the heat, the fumes, the foam, the fizz, the colors, and the gleam—in short, for the love of chemistry, which we love too.


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