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Alchemy In The Scientific Revolution

First, historians of alchemy note that there was no linguistic distinction between chemistry and alchemy in the seventeenth century—both disciplines being named "chymistry." Second, Eighteenth-century illustration depicting Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier in his laboratory, by P. Fouche. Regarded as the founder of modern chemistry, Lavoisier (1743–1794) conducted groundbreaking quantitative experiments that led to the formulation of the law of the conservation of matter. © LEONARD DE SELVA/CORBIS against the popular view of alchemy as a spiritual quest based on religious symbolism, historians such as Lawrence Principe and William Newman claim that "chymists" did actually manipulate and transform matter. While the religious interpretation of alchemy served to distance it from chemistry, they emphasize the continuity and argue that medieval alchemists already had developed experimental methods often considered as chief characteristics of modern science. They established a number of tests to identify substances; they used analysis and synthesis in order to demonstrate the similarity between substances extracted from nature and substances artificially produced in the laboratory; and they used weight measurements and the balance-sheet method traditionally credited to Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743–1794) to determine the identity of substances.

Early modern "chymistry" also questions the grand narrative of the scientific revolution, with Galileo Galilei's (1564–1642) and Robert Boyle's (1627–1691) mechanical philosophy whisking away the alchemical tradition. Boyle's view of material phenomena as being produced by the interaction of small particles that have only primary qualities (size, shape, and motion) by no means implied a rejection of the alchemical tradition. Since Jabir ibn Hayyan (c. 721–c. 851), whose work was spread and discussed in the West in the thirteenth century, the discipline of alchemy had fostered a corpuscular view of matter that was later developed by Daniel Sennert (1572–1657), an early seventeenth-century chemist. Sennert managed to reconfigure the Aristotelian theory of matter by combining the four principles with Democritean atomism. In order to provide experimental demonstration that matter at the microlevel is made by the juxtaposition of atoms, he performed a reductio in pristinum statum (reduction into the pristine state). Although Boyle positioned himself as a "natural philosopher" against "chymical philosophers, he was in debt to Sennert, since he tacitly used his experiments and his theoretical framework in his early essays as well as in The Sceptical Chymist (1680).

In addition, Boyle's skepticism did not apply to alchemical transmutations. Until his death, he kept seeking the philosopher's stone, using the knowledge he had learned in his youth from the American chymist George Starkey (1627–1665), who also initiated Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727). Boyle, the advocate of public knowledge at the Royal Society, concealed his transmutational processes in secret language.

Thus, two of the celebrated founding fathers of modern science, Boyle and Newton, were dedicated believers in alchemical transmutation. Since Betty Dobbs's 1975 work, The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy: or, "The Hunting of the Greene Lyon," historians of chemistry have reconsidered the impact of Newton's bold chemical hypothesis at the end of his Opticks (1704). In the famous Query 31, Newton ventured an interpretation of chemical reactions in terms of attraction between the smallest particles of matter. A uniform attractive force allowed the smallest particles to cohere and form aggregates whose "virtue" gradually decreased as the aggregates became bigger and bigger. Whereas this hypothesis has been read as an extrapolation of gravitational physics to chemistry, it is possible to view it as a way to rationalize chemical practices that was impossible in Cartesian mechanism. Newton allowed chemists to understand and measure affinities in purely chemical terms.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Categorical judgement to ChimaeraChemistry - Alchemy In The Scientific Revolution, Eighteenth-century Cultures Of Chemistry, From Phlogiston To Oxygen