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Reading Selection, Lesson 22

Alchemy Into Chemistry

A page from a medieval book on alchemy.

Many books about alchemy were written. This medieval handwritten and hand-illuminated book was a forerunner to the modern chemistry text.

Since the dawn of civilization, chemical reactions have seemed magical. Certain rocks weep molten metal if put in a fire. Two substances mixed together burst into flames. Juice from a certain plant cures illness. It is no surprise, then, that early thinkers mixed magic with observation and experiment as they tried to understand the world.

The study of matter in ancient times began as alchemy, a mishmash of primitive chemistry, superstition, and showmanship. Alchemy had two main magical aims: to change common metals into gold and to find a medicine that would cure all ills, including old age. By the 1600s, alchemists were slowly learning that observation and experiment provided more useful information than magic and sorcery. They learned to make hypotheses, gather evidence, and form conclusions. The modern science of chemistry was born.

Etching of an alchemist and his assistant in their laboratory

This drawing shows an alchemist's lab in 16th-century Europe. A big pot in the middle of the furnace was used for purifying liquids by a process called distillation.








alchemy symbols
Alchemists used their own symbols that represented pure substances and mixtures. Can you identify which of these symbols represent elements, compounds, or mixtures?



Color painting of an alchemist and his equipment

The Alchemist, by the Italian artist Giovanni Stradano, depicts a wide variety of activities that may have taken place in an alchemist's laboratory. Versions of many of the apparatus being used can be found in a modern laboratory. Can you identify any of them?














Portrait of Isaac Newton

Scientist or alchemist? Isaac Newton was one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known. A physicist and mathematician, he lived and worked in the 1600s, just when real science was taking hold. Newton invented a form of calculus and discovered the laws that govern the motion of the planets. He was also fascinated by and learned a lot from alchemy.






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