Alchemy is the precursor to all modern sciences. It is important to teach today’s youth where the newest scientific ideas and techniques came from in order to continue moving forward in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the world that we live in. In recent years, books and games geared toward teens have started to incorporate alchemy into its plots. Naturally, this addition to entertainment engages the curiosity of youth wanting to understand this word and all that it entails. Although some may consider alchemy an obsolete topic, by teaching it as history and incorporating basic hands-on research within the learning experience, it will give a broader appreciation for the errors and enhancements that the principles of alchemy contribute toward science, and at the same time give kids satisfaction in knowing more about the characters that they may access in books and games.
Should Alchemy Be Taught in Schools?
A Review of the Literature
In recent years, the ancient art of alchemy has found its way into mainstream media by way of video games, comic books, and online virtual worlds. To some it would seem to be a new trend of the imagination fueled with secret potions, money making schemes, and genetically altered universes. To those that know of it as being an out- of- date science, the questions of its relevance may come to light when speaking of our youth. Even this year, at the pushing of Tea Party members in the state of Kansas, school boards have voted in favor of all schools in the state teaching alchemy, as an option against the current belief being taught that materials are unchangeable without any sort of process. (“Kansas School Board,” 2014). This review of literature focuses on if alchemy should be introduced into the academic studies of school age children, and how it may be most efficiently taught. Whether it stems from a parents love of steam punk fantasy genre or a child’s genuine interest in the history of this once volatile science, three questions are posed to assimilate the answer:
- Who has studied alchemy?
- What relevance does alchemy have today?
- Will alchemy be interesting to youth?
Understanding these questions will enable school systems to incorporate this subject effectively into their students’ curriculum, and bridge the gap of mysticism behind alchemy and show how great minds cleared the mist and confusion in learning by chance or repetitious pursuit how the world and the elements within it works.
Who Has Studied Alchemy? 1
Alchemy has been around for thousands of years and has been many things to many people. It has its origins in ancient Greek and Roman history, along with Arabic, African, and other European nations. Basically, an alchemist could at one time be found anywhere. The word “alchemy” comes from the Arabic language, and in its earlier years was seen by this group as a way to perfect healing agents in order to cure all maladies. The Europeans started to use alchemy as a way to change metals into gold. (Cobb, 2002).However it was used, it was an attempt to learn more about the world. Within the alchemist communities, codes were used to keep any proven methods a secret to that particular domain. In later years this became a trademark of why people started to think of the science as frivolous in nature. It also had to do with the connection that alchemists placed on the supernatural or magic in order for there to be results.
It was common knowledge at the time to intertwine the acts of the gods with daily phenomena such as hurricanes, rain, thunder, lightning, etc., so the alchemists were not to blame for this frame of thought. It was only after different mindsets formed which questioned this belief that true progress was made in the way of science. Aristotle, Plato, Goethe, and even Isaac Newton, the father of the modern calculus system, believed in or practiced alchemy.
Initially, Aristotle around 350 B.C.E, claimed that all matter was made from four elements: water, fire, earth, air, or a mixture of each. These 4 elements were the cornerstone of every alchemist’s rituals, and also are what sparked the great race to find the coveted “5th element”2, a secret ingredient that would unlock immortal youth. This reigned true until an alchemist, by the name of Lavoisier, challenged this notion in the 1780’s, and quite by accident learned that air was composed of purer
1According to Wikepedia “Alchemy is an influential philosophical tradition whose practitioners have, from antiquity, claimed it to be the precursor to profound powers. The defining objectives of alchemy are varied, but historically have typically included one or more of the following goals: the creation of the fabled philosopher’s stone; the ability to transform base metals into the noble metals (gold or silver); and development of an elixir of life, which would confer youth and longevity. Alchemy differs significantly from modern science in its inclusion of Hermetic principles and practices related to mythology, magic, religion, and spirituality. It is recognized as a protoscience that contributed to the development of modern chemistry and medicine. Alchemists developed a structure of basic laboratory techniques, theory, terminology, and experimental method, some of which are still in use today” (“Alchemy,” 2014)
elements. Before his tragic death by guillotine beheading he compiled at least 33 basic elements in his textbook An Elementary Treatise (Cobb, 2002). Nearly a hundred years later another man, Dimitri Mendeleev, formulated the periodic table of elements that we know and use today (Morris, 2003). The only alchemist who is known to have found the special ingredient to live longer was the Parisian, Nicolas Flamel, who was born in 1330 and reportedly lived for about 300 years, although it is recorded that he died around 1418.
What Relevance Does Alchemy Have Today?
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana, cited in Cobb, 2002 )
Alchemy as a science grew stagnant because it produced no concrete answers to the questions posed by the men practicing the art. It was necessary to remove the religious aspects of how matter worked and base findings on more realistic methods. Although much of the mysticism of how the world works has long been debunked, some simple principles of alchemy still exist. The desire to find the cure for ailments will always be in the forefront of science. Treatments on how to live as long and healthy as possible is a relevant topic even today. The rush to find that one secret or “philosopher’s stone”2 is the catalyst that sells billions of products each year.
One important invention from the early twentieth century that has assisted millions of people to live has its origins from the basic alchemy principle of turning one element into another. According to Hager (2008) this invention belongs to two scientists- Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. It is a process that takes the nitrogen out of air and formulates it into fixed nitrogen, or ammonia, a solid that can be used to fertilize the earth and mass produce more food than normally can be produced in nature alone. These scientists didn’t classify themselves as alchemists, but the end result was the same.
2 “The philosopher’s stone is often pictured as a hermaphrodite, a half king/queen who kicks the dragon of prime matter, Chaos, with his boot.” (Federman,1969 p.32)
Unfortunately, there were some unforeseen problems that resulted from this process: it was used to produce gunpowder and other artillery that assisted in destruction during World War I and II, it has caused nitrogen pollution, and is also partly to blame for the excess of food products which leads to obesity in the world.
In retrospect, the principle of alchemy still has a purpose in today and future civilizations because the need to protect life and nature will necessitate this continued change of the elements3. There may always be mysteries of the world, and as long as humans exist someone will desire to understand and explain them. There will forever be people proposing a Big Bang or Creationist theory that dictates the era, whether they do this under the name of alchemists, scientists, or by some other fashion.
Will Alchemy Be Interesting to Youth?
It doesn’t take much to see alchemistic allusions in everyday society. Christian bibles teach of their Messiah, Jesus Christ, turning water into wine without any chemical process. In highly esteemed fictional tales such as Frankenstein and Rumpelstilskin, children read how electricity reawakens deadened flesh and how hay can turn into gold. A child’s imagination can handle these seemingly unreal feats with great ease. Even modern books such as American novelist Alyson Noel’s (2009) Evermore from her Immortals trilogy, discusses in detail a story of a young man finding the elixir of life, and using it to meet his true love as she continues to reincarnate century after century while he sustains life with a red thick liquid reminiscent of blood that vampires use to live. In 2001 Japanese comic artist Hiromu
3 “ Ouroborus: This snake symbol illustrates the unity of matter and in Greek means “All is One.” It was used in ancient alchemy as a seal.”(Cummings,1966)
Arakawa started using alchemist plots in her highly acclaimed teen series Fullmetal Alchemist, where two brothers attempt an alchemic ritual to bring their mother back from the dead, and it goes horribly wrong. One brother loses limbs and the other becomes a robot. The fight to restore their lives centers on finding the coveted “philosophers stone” (Arakawa, 2007). This story plot plus many more featuring alchemy and other genetically altered issues are increasingly being used in the market geared towards teens. A new genre of science fiction/fantasy lovers will thrive in learning more intimately the true history of where the art of alchemy originated.
It is true that alchemy taught independently as a science in a classroom setting will be a waste of time and taxpayer’s money, because it is an out- of- date way of explaining the way the world operates. But, if alchemy can be taught as a history lesson within an introduction to science class, it can be built upon by including well-known alchemists and the sciences that they influenced, whether it be chemistry, physics, mathematics, or astronomy. This sort of class would best be taught between the 5th and 8th grades, when basic science becomes a mandatory subject.
A simple synopsis of alchemy’s influence can then be taught as a refresher in the first few weeks of a more disciplined science class such as chemistry or physics. Children can also research experiments and remedies used by alchemists such as is discussed in the Royal Art of Alchemy where the physician Rhazes prescribes “against insomnia..the left eye of a porcupine boiled in oil with a few droplets put into the patient’s ear…the porcupine’s right eye serves for another medication; it is boiled, together with several other ingredients. Used as an eye-wash, this solution enables one to see in the dark”(Federman, 1969 p.67). This is as a great way to integrate why alchemy has stopped being used, and also gives children an opportunity to practice researching skills.
“Alchemy.”(2014).Wikipedia.Wikipedia.org. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Arakawa, H. (2007). Fullmetal alchemist, 12. San Francisco : VIZ Media.
Cobb, C. (2002). Magick, mayhem, and mavericks: The spirited history of physical
chemistry. Amherst, MA : Prometheus.
Cummings, R. (1966). The alchemists: Fathers of practical chemistry. New York: Dic
Federman, R. (1969). The royal art of alchemy. ( R. Weber, Trans.) Philadelphia:
Hager, T. (2008). The alchemy of air. New York: Harmony.
Kansas school board votes to compel schools to teach alchemy (2014). The allium. Retrieved
Morris, R. (2003).The last sorcerers: The path from alchemy to the periodic table. Washington, D.C.:
Noel, A. (2009). Evermore. New York: St. Martin’s.
Tamuriel L. Dillard