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When I was a teen, I was fascinated by alchemy — not so much the whole turning lead into gold part or trying to play God and create tiny little humans in a jar. I was really attracted to the labware, the furnaces, the study of the physical and natural world and its processes — basically, the parts of alchemical practice that lead to modern chemistry. Professor William Newman, a historian of science at Indiana University, was equally fascinated by the lab procedures of alchemists. So much so, he created a 17th century alchemy lab at his home, including a replica of Sir Isaac Newton’s alchemical furnace in his back yard. He used their notebooks to recreate many of their experiments. Not surprisingly, he discovered “that alchemists were not just tinkering blindly—they produced ‘A solid body of repeated and repeatable observations of laboratory results.'” He’s co-authored a book on his experiences, Alchemy Tried In The Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry.

Retrying 17th century alchemy

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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