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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

Index | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | Y | Z

alchemy & alchemists Beginning about the year 100 and reaching its flower in medieval times, alchemy was an art based partly upon experimentation and partly upon magic. Early investigators of natural processes centered their search on a mythical substance they knew as philosopher's stone (the expression stone refers to any general mineral substance) which was supposed to possess many valuable attributes such as the power to heal, to prolong life, and to change base metals into precious metal——such as gold. This substance was eagerly——and understandably——sought after, and the rich folks of the day sponsored alchemists who promised them the stone in the same way that today's wealthy will court and support inventors of perpetual motion machines and those who claim mystic powers. Expectations of success were then, and are now, equally and perpetually futile.
      The three general aims of the alchemists——transmuting base metals into gold, prolonging life indefinitely, and manufacturing artificial life——failed to be met. Very few alchemists obtained any success of any kind at all, but friar Nicolas Flamel (1330-1418) of Paris, who claimed to have found the secret of transmutation, is said to have died very rich. In the year 1400, the cautious Henry IV of England passed a law against the “art of multiplication,” which meant creating gold or silver by alchemy. If it took place, Henry wanted in on it. A subsequent Henry, the Sixth, took a different tack in 1455 when he granted four commissions to scoundrels who assured him they could produce all sorts of gold.

Nicolas Flamel, an alchemist who was said to have made wondrous discoveries, and who did die rich.

      But along the way, alchemists made many genuinely valuable contributions to knowledge, though such fundamental discoveries as the chemical elements and the manner in which they form compound substances escaped them. Their basic “elements” were fire, air, earth, and water, and they believed that all substances were combinations of sulfur, mercury, and common salt, which they said were themselves composed of the four “elements.”
      In modern times, there was great excitement among those who still clung to belief in alchemy when it was determined that all real elements are composed of the same particles (electrons, protons, neutrons) in different ratios; the immediate assumption was that the long-sought process of transmutation was at last possible. True, elements are now transmuted, an atom at a time, by high-energy bombardment with subatomic particles, but this is as similar to the notions of the alchemists as space flight by rocket is to attaining earth orbit on a pogo stick.
      Eventually, when the nonsense and misinformation were boiled out of alchemy, it became chemistry.
      See also elements and Paracelsus.

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Copyright (C) 1995-2007 James Randi.

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