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Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities

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Making Sense of Change:
Summer Institute on Hands-On Science
Throughout the Curriculum

(July 25-August 5, 2005)

Session Two: "Chemical Cosmology"

"Alchemy is the old science of struggling with materials,
and not quite understanding what is happening." (Elkins, What Painting Is)

First, a little history (and art history...)

What do you see in this painting?

What do you see in this painting?

And what do you see when you compare the two paintings?

The first is Adriaen Jansz van Ostade's "Alchemist" (1661),
(from Web Gallery of Art);
the second is Joseph Wright's "The Alchemist in Search of the Philosophers Stone" (1771)
(from WebMuseum, Paris).

What do you think might have been happening to alchemy
(the practice and the perception)
in the century between these two paintings?

Taking a key note from something Kate said on the forum yesterday,

I could present a lesson about the actual people who made the observations leading to the current scientific story and what their assumptions were...

Let me tell you a short(ened) story about Terry Newirth's forefathers, the alchemists--
and so link "cosmological change" with "change on a molecular level."

Before atoms, before molecules, chemistry was much different, and much broader.

"It is truth; truth without lies; certain truth.
That which is above is like that which is below;
and that which is below is like that which is above."

Alchemy began in China, Egypt;
first English alchemist was Roger Bacon (13th c.)
Heyday 800-mid-1600's.
Two-fold nature: material and mystical--
attempt to prepare a substance, philosopher's stone,
to transmute base metals (lead, tin, copper, iron, mercury)
into precious ones (gold and silver) and to prolong life.

Motivated by spiritual vision--that man could be made perfect.
Transmuting metals symbolic of man's regeneration,
of the possibility of transforming sinful humans to perfection.

The science of alchymy I like very well... not only for the profits it brings in melting metals, in decocting, preparing, extracting and distilling herbs, roots; I like it also for the sake of the allegory and secret signification, which is exceedingly fine, touching the resurrection of the dead at the last day. (Martin Luther, 1483-1546)

Rembrandt, "Faust" (c. 1652-53, from Rembrandt--Olga's Gallery)

Made possible by urban revolution:
specialized craftsmen integrating technology and religion.
Used enigmatic language to protect themselves
(from avarice, and because they were avaricious?)
Geber's "gibberish"!

Experiments were founded in a belief in the fundamental harmony of the universe:
world composed of a single substance, prime matter,
pressed into various forms, existing in different proportions in all substances--
so all "elements" changeable into others by being treated to change proportions.

These ideas based on observations:
if you burn green wood:-->gives off water-->steam (air)--> fire--> ash (earth).
As per Aristotle--there were 4 elements, w/ distinct qualities:


Likewise: base metals differed from gold only in the relative proportion/purity of two principles.
Without any information beyond the superficial,
color was understood as the outward manifestion of inner properties,
and the most important characteristic of matter.
Appearance=thing itself.
If it resembled gold, it was gold.

(From Digital Artworks: A Computer Graphics Gallery)

(If tarnished: process of transmutation not completed.)
Counterfeit vs. transmuting a cultural distinction: depends on what you think you are doing!

With a presumed (unfounded? excessive?) belief in unity of matter,
macrocosm and microcosm were thought to be one.

Albrecht Durer, "Melencolia" (1514, from George W. Hart-Index)
The alchemist was often depicted
as a melancholy and frustrated being...
In a wider sense, melancholy was held to
be an attribute of students or seekers
after knowledge.

Robert Boyle's The Sceptical Chemist (1661, from ScienceTrek.Net)
brought about a reorientation,
grounding chemistry in experimentation;
denying the 4 Aristotelian elements and
the convertibility of one metal to another.

80 years later, Joseph Black used quantitative methods to identify "undecomposable" elements
(perfectly unmingled bodies: homogenous, not further resolveable).
Chemical revolution followed (Priestly, Lavoisier, Dalton...)

But chemistry continued to "perfect the imperfect."
It was the "spagyric" art of separating pure from impure
(preparing medicines, curing the sick....)
All nature seen as a vast chemical laboratory with deep religious significance.
Chemistry was a Christian science, investigating God's "second book" (nature),
with a pride in independent investigations, evangelicalism toward new observations, experiments.

And yet, with time...there was a "change" (or was there?)

It is erroneous to confuse alchemy with chemistry. Modem chemistry is a science dealing only with the outward manifestations of matter. It never produces anything new. One can mix, compose and decompose two or three chemical substances any number of times, and make them reappear in different forms, but in the end there is no increase in substance; there is only the combination of the substances used at the outset. Alchemy neither composes nor mixes: it increases and activates that which already exists in a latent state. Therefore alchemy can be more accurately compared with botany or agriculture than with chemistry. In fact, the growth of a plant, a tree or an animal is an alchemical process taking place in the alchemical laboratory of nature and conducted by the Great Alchemist, the active power of God in nature. - Franz Hartmann (Physician and Theosophist, 1838-1912 )

The alchemical tradition assumes that every physical art or science is a body of knowledge which exists only because it is ensouled by invisible powers and processes. Physical chemistry, as it is practiced in the modern world, is concerned principally with pharmaceutical or industrial research projects. It is confined within the boundaries of an all-pervading materialism, which binds labor to the advancement of physical objectives. - Manly P. Hall, Meditation Symbols in Eastern and Western Mysticism

Turning now to some contemporary explorations of "change on a molecular level...."
Terry? How do you see it?
How can you help us to "see what we are looking at"?


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