Alchemy is a philosophical tradition that’s practiced throughout the world today, with roots in Asia, Africa, and Europe. These traditions have a scientific foundation, though it would be more accurate to say that alchemists are practicing proto-science.
In most instances, alchemy seeks to transmute base metals into noble metals. One common example would be to change lead into gold. Alchemists would work to create cures for disease, universal solvents, and other elixirs as well.
The history of alchemy can be traced to the Hellenistic period of Egypt, though it gained in prominence during the Greek and Roman periods of civilization. John Lienhard writes for the University of Houston that, “alchemy originated when Aristotle took up an older idea that all matter combined the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water.”
The actions of transmutation are still practiced today. It is within these actions that alchemists have made contributions to the atomic theory.
Early Efforts at the Alchemists Atomic Theory
The first atomic theories were introduced around the 6th century BC by Leucippus. He was a Greek philosopher who introduced core ideas to science.
- That matter could be eternal, as no material thing can come from nothing.
- Material things are made from particles that are very small and indivisible.
- These small, unseen particles could come in different shapes and sizes.
- The particles are in motion continuously.
Leucippus suggested that these particles would exist in a space that seemed to be empty. Not only could the space separate the particles, but it would allow them to move to different locations as well.
Most importantly, Leucippus suggested that these particles were moving and creating matter not through the will of gods or supernatural beings, but through natural laws. The goal was simple: to remove fear from science.
The only problem was at the time, a focus on science was an implied belief system of atheism. When Aristotle began forming his own theories about atoms, he didn’t want to be excluded, so he criticized Leucippus and his ideas about atoms. That one change in perspective, around 450 BC, may have changed the course of human history for centuries.
Alchemists and the Atomic Theory
The alchemists began examining the atomic theory about two centuries after the death of Aristotle. They used Aristotle’s idea about matter and began to create experiments and activities with them. By treating different metals and ores, the goal was to change the structure of the item so that it could become more valuable.
Although the alchemists failed to turn common items into gold, they did create a scientific process which would allow for the eventual discovery of the atom. Many of the flasks, reaction vessels, and other equipment that is used in chemistry today were initially invented by the alchemists, sometimes more than 2,000 years ago.
Alchemists also contributed to the atomic theory because of their studies of natural processes. Because the goal was to change items, the alchemists heavily studied fermentation, distillation, sublimation, and calcination.
In many ways, early alchemy was an example of the first studies humanity undertook in studying chemistry. Although their efforts to transmute items were unsuccessful, the approaches which were used would eventually set the stage for a modern atomic theory to be developed.
What Is the Atomic Theory Today?
Our modern atomic theory is based on the 19th century work of John Dalton. He used the ancient Greek ideas of atoms and then attempted to account for the different laws of chemical combination that were discovered by the alchemists. In doing so, he was able to come up with five specific points about atoms that have become the foundation of modern science.
#1. All matter consists of atoms, where are individual and indivisible particles.
#2. Every element has a specific kind of identical atom, alike in every aspect.
#3. Atoms cannot be divided into smaller parts.
#4. Atoms of elements are able to combine to form different compounds which have a definite proportion.
#5. Atoms are only rearranged in a chemical reaction because they are not created or destroyed.
Dalton’s atomic theory is almost the same as the theory proposed by Leucippus. The only difference is that Dalton has centuries of research on his side to back up his conclusions.
As with most theories, the ideas behind the atomic theory created more questions than provided answers. It has been a scientific journey that has taken humanity nearly 2,000 years to complete. Without the help of the alchemists and their studies of various processes, we may still not fully understand the simple complexities of the atom.