Alchemy Without The Shame

John Noble Wilford has a long, interesting article in today's New York Times on the rehabilitation of the alchemist. Once the icon of the bad old days before the scientific revolution, alchemy has been emerging in recent years as more of a proto-science. Indeed, a fair number of the heroes of the scientific revolution were dyed-in-the-wool alchemists. Robert Boyle, one of the founders of chemistry, wanted to reform alchemy, not destroy it. He chased after the philsopher's stone for his whole life. Many of his papers were destroyed in the eighteenth century because they were loaded with discussions of alchemy--which by then had acquired its bad reputation. Boyle's legacy had to be protected.

Wilford reported from a recent meeting of historians of chemistry in Philadelphia. From his report (as well as this one from the New York Sun and this one from Chemical and Engineering News), it seems as if the meeting neglected one of the most interesting sides of alchemy: its role in the history of bio-chemistry. Alchemists believed that the life was the greatest transmutation of all, and they believed that the philsopher's stone would serve as the ultimate medicine. While a lot of alchemists dealt in Kevin-Trudeau-style hogwash, some did important work.

Jan Baptist van Helmont, a sixteenth-century Belgian alchemist, carried out a classic experiment on biological growth. He put a five pound willow sapling in a tube of 200 pounds of earth. For five years he gave the tree nothing but water, and then weighed both tree and earth. The tree had grown to 169 pounds, while the earth had lost a few ounces. "Hence one hundred and sixty-four pounds of wood, bark, and roots have come up from water alone," he announced. Van Helmont believed that the willow was nothing more than transmuted water, given form by the willow's inner soul.

I first came to appreciate the importance of alchemy in the rise of biochemistry while working on my book Soul Made Flesh, on the history of neurology. Thomas Willis, the first neurologist, started out as an alchemist, deeply influenced by Van Helmont. He came into contact with Robert Boyle through their shared interest in alchemy. And his first important work was a book that used alchemy to reinterpret physiology. Instead of the four humours, Willis saw body being made up of corpuscles of different sorts, borrowing concepts of Van Helmont and other alchemists. These corpuscles interacted with one another to produce changes, just as ferments made bread rise and grape juice turn to wine.

Willis later did groundbreaking work on the anatomy and function of the brain, which until his time had generally been considered a pretty useless organ. Willis envisioned the brain as an alembic, the distilling container of alchemy, in which some of the corpuscles of the blood were distilled into the animal spirits, which then flowed through the nerves. While some of Willis's language and concepts are now hopelessly old-fashioned, he set the study of the brain--and thus the soul--on a new foundation.

The intersection of alchemy and biology is just further evidence that science does not advance by simply wiping the slate clean and starting completely from scratch. Some of the most dramatic revolutions were born within systems of thought that today seem hopelessly backwards. I wonder how twenty-ninth cenutry historians will look back at our own revolutions today. Who will be cast aside as the new alchemists?


More like this

Five posts so red-hot I wouldn't recommend touching the screen while you read them. "Science Is Not a Path to Riches" "They're not getting out based on a rational assessment of career possibilities, they're getting out because they don't like the first class or two that they take. By the time they…
You know, I really wish I could have made it to The Amazing Meeting this year. It would have been really cool to have a chance to hear in person such skeptical luminaries, such as The Amazing Randi, Penn and Teller (although I do concede that Penn's Libertarianism does occasionally border on…
The current issue of Nature contains an interesting article about Sir Christopher Wren's contribution to neuroanatomy, by art historians Martin Kemp and Nathan Flis of Oxford University. The article focuses on the anatomical illustrations produced by Wren for Thomas Willis's 1664 book Cerebri…
By sheer coincidence (or some journalistic twist of fate) two magazine articles of mine are coming out this week, and they just so happen to make a nice neurological pairing. In Science, I've written an essay about what seventeenth-century natural philosophers have to teach twenty-first century…

If "alchemy" is shorthand for "doing something that's maybe a little wrong-headed, but which leads to important insights in the fullness of time," then, ah...

Nanotechnology comes to mind as an area where we hear claims that are too good to be true. I can't believe all the hype, but I wouldn't be surprised if nanotech led to some amazing stuff (just not quite the almost-magical images it conjures up when some people speak of its promise, now).

The intersection of alchemy and biology is just further evidence that science does not advance by simply wiping the slate clean and starting completely from scratch. Some of the most dramatic revolutions were born within systems of thought that today seem hopelessly backwards.

When I was in college I came across a 1951 biography of the alchemist and physician Paracelsus called "Magic into Science." The book had a big influence on me, to the point when I was on a choir tour in Salzberg I went to see Paracelsus' grave instead of going with my music nerd friends to view all the Mozart iconography of the town. The book struck me because the author, Henry Pachter, portrays Paracelsus as a keen observer with many fundemental insights, but so bound by the philosopies and limits of knowledge of the day that he became frustrated when his theories that worked well in one situation proved useless in another. While many of his ideas seem prescient, they didn't really have much influence after his death. I think this was because his insights were drawn from his philosophy for which he sought observations for support (confirmation bias) and the idea of systematic observation and rigorous analysis were still decades in the future. Pachter says, "In all the fields he pioneered, Paracelsus contributed more intuition than observation, more ideas than knowledge. There is no point, therefore, in tracing modern discoveries back to him." I still find him a fascinating character for his flaws and how they illustrate how much of the public fails to understand science.

By justawriter (not verified) on 01 Aug 2006 #permalink

Justawriter--I forgot to mention Philip Ball's new biography of Paracelsus. Haven't read it yet, but I'm a big fan of his other work.

Medical science started with homeopathy. Hmm, I never thought about this before, but there are no more alchemists, and we all know alchemy is fundamentally flawed. OTOH, there are plenty of homeopaths...

As an aside, I've put "Alchmist" as my occupation on my tax return for almost a decade now.

By frumious b (not verified) on 01 Aug 2006 #permalink

There seems to be quite a lot of enthusiasm for rehabilitating alchemy, but I have to admit I don't understand it. Everything I've read about alchemy suggests it was a based in a mystical search for hidden knowledge, that it was heavily tied into ancient textual authority, and that it was generally wrong-headed on just about every level. For a long time it was the only game in town that was anything like what we would call chemistry, and some very smart people had a go at it. But it's like astrology - yes, medieval astrology encouraged lots of people to look at the stars, but to call it 'proto-astronomy' would kind of miss the point, wouldn't it? Or to call exorcism 'proto-psychiatry'?

Science only started making progress when it finally broke with the bad habits of thought typical of astrology and alchemy - the search for ancient mystical wisdom, the supernatural explanations, the continual reliance on textual authority over experiment. These weren't somehow precursors to science, they were the things that stopped science happening.

PBS did a glorious show on Newton recently (maybe NOVA, not sure). It seems that Sir Isaac spent more of his life experimenting in alchemy than he did working on what became Principia Mathematica, Calculus, and the Laws of Motion. He never published any of this alchemical work, and his notes on the subject are so cryptic as to be indecypherable.

This seems very very strange to me. Arguably, Sir Isaac was the smartest, most creative, most influential man that ever walked planet Earth. He must have discovered something worthwhile from all that work - wouldn't you think? The show said that when he was working on his Principia, he would work feverishly for 4 or 5 days at a time without sleep. He knocked out the PM in a remarkably short span of time.

If anybody ever found the elusive "Philosophers Stone", it was surely he. I propose that his secret discovery was actually the first synthesis of smokeable crystal methamphetamine.

(OK, so the last sentence was meant to be a joke. But the rest is serious.)

By John McCoy (not verified) on 02 Aug 2006 #permalink

Ball's biography of Paracelsus is quite good, and includes an overview of early-modern alchemy in western Europe and a summary of Paracelsus's influence (which was considerable for a few generations after his death in 1541, if not in his lifetime).

Though a few of Paracelsus's contributions were, almost accidentally, significant (his mercury-based treatment for syphilis was standard until the 20th century; his emphasis on the body's own healing mechanisms is still widely supported; he was the first to formulate antimony chloride, and may have been the first to apply the name "alcool" to the distillation of wine; he was the first to write seriously on women's health problems; etc, etc), his primary contribution was that of an iconoclast.

His notorious scoffing at the authority of historical texts (including a famous bonfire of Galen's near-sacred writings, and preferring to write & teach in German rather than Latin), and his insistence on field experience & laboratory research, helped a great deal in preparing the seedbed for real science. "Alchemy" was not a monolithic phenomenon, and should not be swept under the historical carpet.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 03 Aug 2006 #permalink

Carl Zimmer -- what do you think of the late Oxford zoology professor JWS Pringle's view that all of evolution is driven by the resonance of an asymmetrical sine-wave? That is essentially what alchemists argued as well, building on the Logos of the Tetrad. Or you can read professor Oliver L. Reiser's alchemical masterpiece: "Cosmic Humanism and World Unity" (1975, Gordon and Beach). Reiser co-wrote the book with CIA mind-control scientist Dr. Andrija Puharich and the central concept is "the music logarithmic spiral" as an applied superstring technology.

The term "the Matrix" is their most common reference to this plan for an extension of H.G. Well's "World Brain" alchemy concept presented to the Round Table in the U.K.

Reiser's book became the manifesto for the World Institute set up to guide global technological "progress" by the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the U.N. and the L.B.J. Administration, at the best of Strauss, the promoter of "radio-eugenics."

Is not the Petkau Effect alchemy writ-large? for more details.

HG Wells presented to the Royal Institute of International Affairs which created the Council of Foreign Relations and, according to Clinton's mentor, professor Quigley, still rules the world.

Alchemy as the Matrix is currently promoted by John Castis recent book One True Platonic Heaven and George Johnsons Fire in the Mindboth writers are in Santa Fe and attached to the top military-science thinktanks: Los Alamos, Santa Fe Institute and Sandia Labs. drew hempel, M.A.

THE REAL MATRIX!!! by Drew Hempel

My source on the World Institute that promotes radio-eugenics is the book: Evolving Mankinds Future by Julius Stulman published in the mid-60s.

In 1975 the World Institute published a book by University of Pittsburgh philosophy of science professor Dr. Oliver Reiser called Cosmic Humanism and World Unity. That book is a follow up to an earlier Master Synthesis as Dr. Reiser describes it: The book Cosmic Humanism published in the mid 1960s.

The book published by the World Institute in 1975 still quite openly promoted radio-eugenics. What you may not realize though is that this plan is not just for radio-eugenicsit is for the creation of a multidimensional World Brainevolution of life based on the unified field theoryexactly as described in The Matrix. This is what Dr. Reiser means by mutations of illumination.

Cosmic Humanism published in the mid-1960s promotes and justifies the following on radio-eugenics:

1) Using atomic energy (radiations) to initiate the genic (or chromosome) changes which cause mutations; and 2) doing this under the guidance of a psychosocial field to control the course of the biological changes so that the form of emergence is determined. (pp. 528-9)

The study of the biological effects of the atomic explosions in Japan indicate that the radioactivity thus produced can cause sterilization and death in those exposed, and possible malformations in subsequent generations of those born of the generation that lived through the baptism of fire to reproduce themselves.

But we also know, on the other hand, that nature has always in the past exacted a high price for biological progresswhich means that for every mutation that is beneficial many more mutations are harmful, and it is possible that the same ratio would be maintained on the human level. But we underline the possible. Perhaps the beneficial use of atomic energy (outside its uses in medicine) is a matter of selecting the right types and dosages (frequency and duration) of irradiation, plus the controlling influence of a mental guiding field. This latter would be a kind of psychokinetic effect on the level of biological causation. (p. 533)

I would like to dismiss this as a crackpot plan except for the following reasons.

1) The World Institute was created with the support and guidance of the ruling elite (by Domhoffs, Chomskys or Mills standards).

2) Dr. Reiser, quite simply, is a very brilliant, in fact the most brilliant theorist Ive ever read. He was very prolific and his earlier book World Philosophy was supported by Einstein as the closest model to the Unified Field Theory. Reiser was, from what I can tell, not only the first scientist to discover what is now called the superstring theory, but he traced the validity of that theory all the way back to ancient Sumeria. He is very openly a Free Mason and he relies on the work of other Free Masons.

3) I discovered Dr. Reisers work after I had finished my masters thesis (published on the internet as Epicenters of Justice.) My research is based on the premise of resonance science as taught by Pythagoras. Pythagoras taught the unified field theory as an infinite spiral of harmonic energy-information, modelled by basic music theory. Plato, in Timeaus, wrote down this theory but repressed the infinite spiral into a closed materialist system called the circle of fifths in music. This model was Platos World Soul and it enabled the averaged quantification of infinitymathematical examples of this inaccurate average are the irrational number, then the derivative, the logarhythim, spherical harmonics, and systems theory.
Dr. Reiser calls it Taming the Infinite and his Ph.D. was called Creative Monism as he also calls Nondualism in Action. My Masters thesis was called Sound-Current Nondualism. In otherwords the basis of the Free Masons is a path back to nondualism (the unified field theory) through technology. The difference is that Pythagoras was a yoga master, trained in Egypt for 22 years. Pure consciousness is the only way to achieve the pure resonance required to achieve nondualism. This truth is eternaltraced back to the Vedas, the Kabbala, and supposedly to Atlantis, and Lumeria, etc. Pythagoras teachings were oral transmission of harmonic energy-information.

The recent Oxford Ph.D. by Peter Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) proves the Plato and Aristotle consciously denigrated the nondualism of Pythagoras. Our language (the subject-object structure of phonetic language) is dualistic. This quite simply is the drive of the FreeMasonsa destructive pursuit of nondualism through unbalanced dualism. The theory of nondualism is that everything returns to its source.

4) Dr. Reisers proposals not only predict but fully explain the motivations and developments of todays destructive technology. Even the internethe called Project Promethesus and Krishna. He called for a Planetary Democracy or Federation so that individuals, through the internet, would respond to problems no matter where they happened throughout the world. The whole process would be monitored and controlled from above.

5) Project HAARP mirrors exactly the ionospheric guidance field promoted by Dr. Reiser. All the conscious policies of genocide are motivated by good intentions of the elite (i.e. the thousand points of light of George Bush). This theory explains the good intentions behind the grotesque experiments in genetic engineering, the cancer epidemic from synthetic and electro-magnetic polluton, etc. David Noble shows the direct connection between todays technological projects and the Freemasons.

George Bush Sr., by the way, received eight personal energy-work or qigong treatments by Chinas National Treasure of qigong, the very powerful yoga master Dr. Yan Xin. George Bush declared Dr. Yan Xin to be todays worlds greatest spiritual leader. In a western scientic published study (the journal Material Innovations Dr. Yan Xin has slowed down the decay rates of nuclear particlestechnically impossible, unless the superstring theory is true.

As I stated before, the University of Minnesota was the worlds leading institute in eugenics previous to the Nazis. But, as well documented in Bertram Grosss book Friendly Fascism (South End Press) and in other works, the U.S. corporate-state elite were poised to side with either the Nazis or the U.S. government. In otherwords the corporate-state elite funded the Nazis and enabled their policies. On this basis mutlidimensional radio-eugenics is the next logical step of development.

6) Is it not true that Floridation of the water supply was considered a communist conspiracy? Yet its been now well documented that the corporate-state elite deliberately promoted and enacted floridation of the nations water supply in order to cover-up the continued floride poisoning from the aluminum and nuclear industry.

It is in his article Cosmecology: A Theory of Evolution published in the Journal of Heredity, 1937, that Dr. Oliver Reiser proposes:

Radio-Eugenicsmore glibly described as mutations of illumination.

In 1975 radio-eugenics was much further refined and still being promoted by the secretive WORLD INSTITUTE COUNCIL.
As its primary spokesman Professor Reiser states: new DNAs and new fields of force are parts of the Archetypal Guiding Field which is the Cosmic Imagination. (p. 445, Cosmic Humanism)

So who is behind the promotion of radio-eugenics at the WORLD INSTITUTE COUNCIL? Only the top ruling elite of the U.S.

Its founder Julius Stulman was, one of the most important manufacturers and wholesale distributors of forest products. Stulman operated Lumber Industries, Inc. and controlled the Lumber Exchange Terminal.
Julius Stulman first proposed the WORLD INSTITUTE to the grand capitalist economist Alexander Sachs, who in 1939, converted Roosevelt into supporting the Atomic Project.
Stulman was then invited to present his ideas to scholars at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. Stulman discussed the WORLD INSTITUTE with John Van Neumann, Walter Stewart, Robert Warren, and Albert Einstein, all while the bomb was being developed.

In 1944 Stulman published an article called Energy Theory as Applied to Human Relations. It was this article that caught the eye of Dr. Reiser, the promoter of Radio-eugenics in the Journal of Heredity.

In 1963 the U.S. proposed a clearinghouse to provide world-wide scientific information and guidance. Julius Stulman offered his concept of the WORLD INSTITUTE. He was recommended to the U.S. by the former Director General of Technical Administration Assistance of the United Nations, Hugh L. Keenleyside. The World Institute was established across the street from the U.N.

The WORLD INSTITUTE was instigated as a GREAT SOCIETY vision for the evolution of humanity beyond the COLD WAR. The WORLD INSTITUTE is described as being integrated with resource centers all over the planet and Julius Stulman consulted with presidents from all over the world.
Under the vision of the WORLD INSTITUTEs Cosmecology, Planet Earth is seen as an EGG that is developing an embryo which will give birth to a WORLD BRAIN or the WORLD SENSORIUMa paranormal existence beyond space-time integrated with the Unified Energy Field of the universe.
Dr. C. Hilton Rice first proposed this vision of Planet Earth, again back in the 1930s:

The world-mother nourishes its embryo from the materials of the earth-egg. He [Dr. Rice] saw the plant and animal divisions of the earth-organism as being in functional complementarity, precisely like the two layers of gastrula. (p. 48, Cosmic Humanism and World Unity, 1975)

Animals are the Entoderm and Plants are the Ectoderm of the EGGresources to be used for the development of the WORLD BRAIN.


From radioactive harmonic mutations, guided by the LOGOS FIELD or COSMIC IMAGINATION, humans will evolve, whereby they will be merged into a paranormal reality beyond space-time. It was suggested that we might create and utilize an artifical ion blanket. (p. 453) (PROJECT HAARP)
If then, we humans are cells in the great cortex of a world organism, would it not require a super-observer (extra-terrestrial) to scan the cultural movements of humanity and recognize them as planetary brain waves? (p. 449, Cosmic Humanism)

This Logos Field would be able to integrate the action-patterns of the human neuroblasts of the world sensorium into a meaningful drama. (p. 472)
We need to fabricate radiation belts of spiritual consonance around the earth in a manner analagous to the Van Allen radiation belt which encloses the earth. (p. 472)
Thought-belts of the planetary cortex control the DNA-RNAthe program of the integration of knowledge concerning the cosmos from top to bottom. (p. 47, CH and WU)

Organizing fields of energy as guiding agencies (p. 34)
All of this is coordinated by FREEMASONS. Dr. Reisers associates included Major J. K. DeLoach, a mysterious civil engineer who promoted the connection between the great eye of the pyramid (seen on the dollar bill) and resonant energy-information.

DeLoach specialized in studying ancient Egypt and India.
Reiser relied on Dr. Herman Von Baravalle, a mathematician who specialized in Ancient Egyptian and esoteric math.
Another associate was Dr. Royal Frye, the nuclear physicist at Boston University who besides writing standard textbooks, specialized in the connection between harmonic energy-information and radiation. He conducted his studies with Esther Watson Tipple, daughter of Thomas A. Watson, coworker with Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. Watson revealed his Freemason inclinations in a monograph entitled From Electrons to God.

What will the NEW HUMAN be like according to the WORLD INSTITUTE? There will be a heart-head synthesis. There will be Cosmic Consciousnessthe ability to hear and see with the whole body. There will be the ability to communicate with intelligent beings of the universe.
Cosmic Imagination (the Unified Field Theory) becomes moral in man as the INNER MESSIAH (p. 45) Reality will exist in a higher dimension than the fourth dimension. The phenomenona of super-light phase wave speeds are possible.
The Nerve Nets of the New Human will be integrated into ONE GREAT CIRCUITa condition Dr. Reiser compares to the state of Samadhi in yoga. Consciousness will be in higher dimensions guided by the LOGOS FIELD and senses will be psychic.

The leaders need to exploit the possibilities of such action currents of thought.

Nodes of overlapping wavessuperlight wavesshow group waves where to go and their product is light and matter. Magnetic fields are the ganglia of the WORLD BRAIN. (p. 55)

All of this is the inherent drive of the musical-mathematical spiral being quantified into a circle by Plato.

The music logarithmic spiral is the basis for resonance science and is applied to genetics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, etc. throughout the work of Dr. Reiser. To repeat that now famous quote: a field of electromagnetic force is built up to the place where the never-ending spiral [of fifths] approaches the radii [of octaves], and the cycle can be rounded off to a circle, which provides equal interval measurement so that all the tones involved are infused with vitality. (p. 214)

Carl: if I may, what do you mean by " - and thus the soul - "?

By Mark Arnold (not verified) on 06 Aug 2006 #permalink