sealPurdue News

October 24, 2002

Purdue chemists will revisit the age of alchemy

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue's Department of Chemistry will present "The Chemistry of Alchemy" at 11 a.m. Saturday (10/26) in Wetherill Laboratory of Chemistry, Room 200.

Demonstrations will display the origins of chemistry, which date back almost 1,000 years, and will show how current knowledge could have affected the outcomes of some early experiments. The show, which is free and open to the public, is designed for both children and adults.

"Alchemists are often thought of as charlatans who claimed they could turn base metals like lead or copper into gold," said Paul Smith, lecture demonstrator for the chemistry department. "While there were a lot of quacks out there, some alchemists were dedicated researchers who left behind our first glimpses of the elemental world."

No less a figure than Roger Bacon, English mathematician and Franciscan monk, practiced alchemy.

"Bacon took the crude gunpowder that was used in the late 13th century and improved it dramatically," Smith said. "He was a very influential early scientist and did work we still benefit from today."

Other alchemists made early contributions to medicine and metallurgy, but often had to be careful to keep their findings from rivals.

"Alchemists worked in an era without patent laws or intellectual property rights," Smith said. "Many of them kept their journals in code so that their secrets could not be stolen."

Often the arcane symbols alchemists used in these journals to represent chemicals were passed down from master to apprentice. Some of the better known symbols decorate the outside of Wetherill Laboratory as a nod to modern chemistry's debt to alchemy.

"Many of the problems with science which confronted people in the age of alchemy are still relevant today," Smith said. "When any new discovery is announced, even the experts have to ask themselves, in effect, 'Has this person really changed lead into gold, or has he just coated lead with something that glitters for personal gain?' Our demonstration will hopefully be a fun way to see that knowledge of the world based on science can help us not get fooled."

CONTACT: Paul Smith, (765) 494-5307,

Writer: Chad Boutin, (765) 494-2081;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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