The art of alchemy

A new book explores the mystery and symbolism of the early days of chemistry

By | June 8, 2007

Before there was chemistry there was alchemy. So before there was art about chemistry, there was art about alchemy. For previous generations of chemists, so much of how things work was a mystery, so artwork that featured animals, astronomical objects, and other aspects of nature contained significant symbolic meaning. As time went on, of course, modern experimental methods turned people away from mysticism, and alchemy became a piece of the past. From Alchemy to Chemistry in Picture and Story by organic chemist Arthur Greenberg at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, published this year, presents the images and stories that emerged from chemistry's early days. The book takes a world view, covering the four primordial elements of the ancient Greeks, the pit-fired colored clay pots of the South Carolina Catawba Native Americans, and modern scientists' discovery of subatomic particles. Many of the images depict discoveries or ideas that had a significant influence on later generations of biologists and biochemists. "The pictures are really fascinating -- there are some wild allegorical figures," says Greenberg. "When you see alchemical symbolism, you find a lot of metaphor in it. For instance, the modern symbol for the American Chemical Society includes a phoenix and other images rich with symbolic meaning. Other artwork depicts transmutation, a common alchemical concept that requires removing imperfections from metals to attain gold, and symbolizes humans banishing their imperfections to attain grace. "I'm trying to give a historical context to where our chemical history came from," Greenberg says. Click here to start the slideshow. Manasee Wagh

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