Non-Fiction Reviews

The Chemistry of Alchemy
From Dragon's Blood to Donkey Dung, How Chemistry was Forged

(2014) Cathy Cobb, Monty Fetterolf & Harold Goldwhite, Prometheus,
£18.99 / Can$26.50 / US$ 24.95, hrdbk, 364pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14915-4


To cover the entire history of alchemy in 343 pages, 35 of them being notes, would be either a remarkable achievement or very superficial. The authors begin by admitting it can't be done, limiting their scope almost entirely to Western Europe, with a preliminary look at the Middle East and North Africa, and a final glimpse of the early American colonies. Even within that, there's only brief coverage of issues like the Elixir of Life and the Universal Solvent, because the focus is on transmutation of metals and particularly on the search for means to make gold. At that level, the book is an interesting companion to Sam Kean's history of metals, The Disappearing Spoon (Little, Brown & Co., 2010).

The method the authors adopt is to search for 'heroes', a term which just means historical characters when first introduced, but then adds requirements to conduct experiments, make breakthroughs, brave dangers, influence successors, and ultimately advance progress towards chemistry as we know it today. One of their tests for celebrity is to see whether the computer's spellchecker recognises the name – something that doesn't happen often, in my experience. Their short biographers of the major figures are entertaining and informative, particularly about the conditions they had to work under in the times in which they lived.

The authors previously wrote The Joy of Chemistry, in which they encouraged getting to know the subject through experiments which can be performed at home, and they continue that here, ending each fairly short chapter with instructions for recapitulating some of the more spectacular demonstrations just discussed, after considerable research into what really was meant by the obscure terminology of the recipes.

As it happens I've just reviewed James Morrow's The Madonna and the Starship elsewhere. Its central character plays 'Uncle Wonder', who comes on after each episode of an imaginary 1950s sci-fi series to encourage children to do science experiments at home – always ending with the mantra 'Safety first!' Cobb, Fetterwolf and Goldwhite put similar stress, every time, on the use of safety goggles, heavy-duty gloves, ventilation and disposal methods. They don't mention the John W. Campbell editorial in which he claimed that one alchemist's formula had proved, on translation, to be a good recipe for nitroglycerine – as Campbell said, giving a new meaning to the phrase ‘summoning up a demon too powerful to control' – but they have eliminated the use of mercury altogether. Though it was involved in very many alchemists' recipes, that was because they believed it was a constituent of all matter. Often it took no part in the reactions – and where it did play a part, that recipe is simply not used here, leaving out the uses of lead, arsenic and body fluids for the same reason, "cowards that we are." The authors have also avoided cruelty to animals – "Some were harder on toads than global warming", page 94, and other experiments were no kinder to dogs.

The book does assume some level of scientific knowledge. The authors state at the outset, "this book wasn't written for chemical experts, either. It was written for non-chemists (or non-alchemists, if you will), whose high school chemistry is a fond memory…" Rather than being concise and authoritative, their instructions are conversational, and they exclude chemical symbols, formulae and equations, with the single exception of the equation for synthesis of Glauber's salt on page 271. While I don't look back 'fondly' on school chemistry, the principles were dinned into me with sufficient thoroughness that if I was going to conduct experiments with hot acids etc., I would like the instructions and the explanations to be less chatty and more specific. The authors wish the reader to share the alchemists' joy and their audiences' wonder at the changes of colour, texture and state that ensued as these demonstrations were performed, with seemingly miraculous results. But we live in different times and we know that full explanations are available. Without formulae, I found the jumping between modern chemical terms and alchemical names confusing, especially when the same substances had more than one name or when different alchemists used different ones; and without equations, I found it hard to grasp what reactions were taking place.

American (US) readers may have different expectations; I don't know how the instructions in their school chemistry books are phrased, and it may be that US readers would find the style nearer to what they're used to. Health and safety regulations generally tend to be tighter over here, (though the biggest difference, the supposed British ban on amateur rocketry, turned out in the 1980s to be a myth – one that the authorities had been happy to go along with.) I'm not au fait with the current regulations, but I have heard that many of the demonstrations we witnessed and the experiments we performed at school in the 60s are no longer allowed. Thorough checking would be advisable to make sure the experiments recommended here don't come under the heading of 'Don't try this at home', under UK regulations.

That apart, the history of the particular aspects of alchemy covered here, and their relation to modern chemistry, are entertaining and informative, and a good point of entry to the wider subject.

Duncan Lunan

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