At Zero we read “A relação entre a filosofia mecânica e os experimentos alquímicos de Robert Boyle” by Kleber Cecon

I believe that many of us only came to know the word Alchemy due to the anime Fullmetal Alchemist. In this anime we see the characters transmute materials with the help of strange drawn circles. It’s a great anime, if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you watch it (preferably Brotherhood)! But lo and behold, snooping around in the donation book section of one of Unicamp’s libraries, this one here talking about alchemical experiments caught my attention, because recently I’ve heard this word gaining tone in different, somewhat exoteric senses.

The book brings several very interesting and accessible discussions to the lay public, always placing them in the historical aspect while supporting the reader on the experiments of the 17th century with parallels to the concepts of modern Chemistry. It is not a leisurely read, however I found it relatively light to read and fulfills both the role of clearly informing and instigating the reader about how “fun” the so-called alchemical experiments seem.

One of the things that most caught my attention and that I feel compelled to share with you is the explanation of the dilemma between Chemistry and Alchemy. The pre-Greek terminology is unclear, so in Greece this work was called CHEMEIA. Later the word was incorporated into Arabic and received an “AL” suffix, thus being transliterated as “AL-KIMIYA”. Then, some time after it became established in the European vocabulary, there was a movement to eliminate Arabic terminologies from words, which turned “AL-KIMIYA” into the word “QUÍMICA” (with means CHEMISTRY). We see from this, and from the author’s own description, that both words even before the 17th century had the same meaning and were sometimes used as synonyms. A confusion, however, began with a mistaken interpretation of the term “AL”, as meaning a superiority characteristic that some nouns received, leading some groups to consider ALCHEMY as a branch aimed at investigating/answering superior questions of the world, while CHEMISTRY itself would remain restricted to simpler processes and practical purposes.

The sad part of this story is to see how there was an effort to repel the word ALCHEMY from history after the 17th century, trying to make it associated with more subjective and less precise investigations, charged and stereotypes linked to witchcraft, mysticism and mainly “inaccuracy”. , which didn’t do justice to the way alchemists worked. A consequence of this attempt to “erase” ALCHEMY from history ended up contributing so that 2 centuries later, during a movement to rescue the so-called “forbidden sciences” (those rejected by academicism) they would take superficial ideas of alchemy and make their derivations from them more exoteric and that fail to relate to what Alchemy was until the 17th century.

The cool thing about this text is to observe how Robert Boyle and other contemporaries investigated the properties of matter, and how they formulated hypotheses and constructs for its functioning based on what they understood about the world. It is even clear why these investigations were somewhat subjective, since even today with advanced laboratories and equipment, it is no longer easy to say how certain reactions occur, let alone centuries ago where observation was only in a macroscopic scenario. Thus, we see that different interpretations are historically made and as new results are obtained and replicated, adequate explanations are sought for them. This gradually leads to greater objectivity of interpretations in line with philosophical ideas on the matter. The author of the book (Kleber Cecon) performs an excellent parallel with modern Chemistry and the main experiments discussed, explaining through formulas what would become the more subjective meanings of several procedures carried out in the 17th century based on their descriptions.

The book continues with discussions about the possibility of translating alchemical concepts into modern chemistry, and why sometimes we can only interpret them (not translate them). For this, the author uses the concept of phlogiston, which cannot be translated into any term of modern chemistry (since this theory turns out to be wrong), although what would be an “anti-phlogiston” can be translated. This turns out to be an interesting question from a mathematical point of view, since if there were a translation for all the terms, then an interpretation would not be necessary (we talk about this in There is indeed 100% translation, but it is useless).

Several aspects called my attention in this book, mainly the way alchemical investigations took place, performing experiments, replications and testing conjectures. I think that unlike Mathematics in which we are able to abstract the behavior of functions and study it in the imaginary plane, Chemistry carries investigation and formulation of hypotheses. This being the type of literature that could have awakened my greater interest in Chemistry during High School (especially if it had been followed up in the classroom).

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