Honestly, I think I would’ve been much more engaged in high school chemistry class if we’d talked about chemical reactions like the medieval alchemists did — that is, allegorically. “Let the red dragon devour the white eagle!” just sounds so much better than “take nitric acid and add ammonium chloride to it.” But while alchemy has gone the way of phrenology and the study of bodily humours, at least one guy in Baltimore is still a practicing magician. Let’s take a peek in his office.
First, a little background: In the medieval period, alchemists attempted to turn various common substances into gold and tried to create an elixir of life. As a by-product of their experiments, they helped create the science of chemistry. Larry Principe, a professor of both chemistry and the history of science and technology at Johns Hopkins, studies the alchemists.
The tricky part is, the alchemists made their work purposefully difficult to decipher; they were, after all, looking for the philosopher’s stone, and didn’t want any of their fellow alchemists to get a leg up via snooping. So instead of writing down their discoveries like any normal scientist might, they commissioned intricate woodcuts of skeletons flaying dragons, or winged lions snarling on the edge of a cliff. When they did communicate in words, they used encoded language, stuffed with lots of metaphors, decipherable only to the trained eye.
And Principe himself is a trained eye; he may just be the only chemistry professor out there whose office is full of weird powders in tiny glass jars with latin symbols and who uses alchemical glassware to distill after-dinner drinks. Thanks to the American Chemical Society for giving us a peek into Principe’s lab.