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Practically Making the Philosophers' Stone: Recreating Alchemical Experiments

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A lecture on the History of Science.

Alchemy was essentially a practical art, whose practitioners sought to achieve marvellous yet concrete outcomes, from the prolongation of life to the transmutation of base metals into gold and silver. Some historians of science have sought to recover early chemical knowledge by testing the alchemists’ claims in modern laboratories. However, these medieval and early modern experiments present particular problems for re-enactment. Alchemists often disguised the practical content of their recipes using metaphorical language and fabulous imagery. And, while recipes may start with standard, recognisable procedures, their outcomes often seem impossible to modern eyes. In this paper, I shall introduce my own attempts to decipher and recreate some medieval English experiments. I’ll seek to answer a question that has plagued both historians and chemists: why did so many intelligent people in early modern Europe devote their lives to alchemy, when we know it doesn’t work?

Dr Jennifer Rampling is interested in the history of alchemy, medicine and natural philosophy and early modern European intellectual history. She undertook a Wellcome Trust-funded project, ‘Medicine and the Making of English Alchemy, 1300–1700’. She has held visiting fellowships at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia (2009); the Scaliger Institute, University of Leiden (2010); and the University of Athens (2011). As a visitor at the Department of Chemistry, Cambridge, she is engaged in recreating early chemical experiments.

This talk is part of the SCI Cambridge Science Talks series.

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