Lessons from the Alchemists 4/25/19

By Richard Bleil

As a chemist, the history of chemistry has always fascinated me, and the history of chemistry includes alchemistry. I find it curious that today there are still people who refer to themselves and “alchemists”, and you can find books on its modern practice.

No, this isn’t about that.

Rather, I want to talk about the old-fashioned alchemists. I’ve spoken of alchemistry in the past and my hypothesis that early early alchemists may have had successes that, ironically, could never be repeated because they learned too much.

No, this isn’t about that.

Writer’s note: I’m enjoying using that phrase too much!!!

Actually, this is more about the alchemists themselves. Most people know that one of the goals of alchemistry was to transmute metals from base metals (lead or mercury) to precious metals (like silver and gold). In essence, the alchemists want to be grossly wealthy, and it kind of seems like it should be feasible. If you look at mercury, it certainly looks like silver but, sort of, liquid (hence the pseudonym “quicksilver”). It could be sold as silver if it just wasn’t so…runny.

The lesser known goal of the alchemists was to find the elixir of life. This is a magical potion of health and youth, so the alchemists could live forever and in perfect health. It’s akin to the legend of the conquistador explorer Ponce de Leon who is reputed to have traveled to Florida in the sixteenth century in search of the “fountain of youth”, although historical records seem to more clearly indicate a contract to create a settlement there.

Something even fewer people realize is that the alchemists actually came from money. The laboratory space, furnaces, equipment, and even the required labor to keep the lab furnaces burning 24/7 all had to be paid for somehow. There was most definitely money to be made in alchemy, but not by the alchemists. The money went to the landlords and equipment suppliers.

But in their desire to live healthy forever with fabulous wealth only lead to their becoming paupers who died young and sickly.

Lead and mercury, as it turns out, are heavy metal poisons. Great name for a band, by the way. This means it’s not a straight up poison, like arsenic or cyanide, that just kills you. Rather, it enters the body through vapor or contact with skin, and your body cannot get it out again. As such, it accumulates over a lifetime, until the concentration in the body reaches levels that the effects become noticeable, including uncontrollable shaking, hair loss, impotence (I hate that on), insanity (I enjoy that one) and death, which, once that happens, not much can be done for you. The term “mad as a hatter” comes from the fact that mercury used to be used in the manufacture of hats, and the hatters would, literally, go mad. It’s been suggested that Edgar Allen Poe’s writing was influenced by heavy metal poisoning, so, you know…it’s not ALL bad.

Still, this adds up to an interesting lesson in greed. Having money, youth and health and losing it all in pursuit to extend all three is a good lesson even today. And one that I’m very guilty of myself.

In our society, we have a habit of squandering our money on stuff, like laboratory equipment. Well, maybe you haven’t squandered your money on laboratory equipment, but I have. I have also squandered my money on cable movie networks, video games, heck, I even have a Star Trek Bluetooth communicator. Is this striking a little bit closer to home? The irony is that I may have learned my lesson. I’ve recently lost pretty much everything, and it made me realize that I rarely actually used any of this stuff. The communicator, for example, was WAY cool, but, honestly, aside from trying it out when I first got it, I realized that it’s a horrible blue-tooth device simply because you had to hold it throughout the conversation. My arm got tired, and I never used it again. And video games? Talk about trying to hold on to youth, eesh!

Life is limited. That’s written into the contract. My friend in Scotland is having sushi for supper; why aren’t I joining her? Or visiting the city of my heritage, Erligheim, Germany? Do you want to live forever? Maybe the way to do that is to get out there and do something lasting. Personally, I’ve worked on this. Making a lasting difference in society is why I pursued education as a career. My friends with family have done their part. I have a good friend who often feels her life work (insurance) has no real impact, but I can tell you that the difference she has made in her clients lives that needed that insurance has made a huge impact, directly attributed to her. I have another friend who is a full time mother. How much more of an impact can you make on the future? She has done something that I never have; she has passed on her genes, and raised her child to be warm, caring and sweet, and that child will raise her children in the same tradition.

So, me, personally; I’m re-evaluating my life, and my efforts. If I get a regular income, I am dedicated to using it for travel. I’m old, and past my prime, but I won’t let that stop me. Time to break out of this alchemist mold!

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