Alchemy's origins more practical than magical, author contends

New book explores the history and mythology of alchemy.

The Secrets of Alchemy
Lawrence M Principe
University of Chicago Press

As far as mythology goes, alchemy has enjoyed a favourable reputation as a science steeped in sorcery, offering promises of endless wealth and eternal youth through the legendary philosopher's stone. As far as facts go, its reality is more grounded in practicality, though previous researchers can hardly be blamed for assuming otherwise.

Lawrence Principe's primer on the origins of the Noble Art reasons that the term "alchemy" is often erroneously used interchangeably with "magic" because of its earliest practitioners' tendency towards secrecy, as they deliberately applied oblique symbolism in their written records to obscure the details of their experiments.

Despite the confoundingly abstract nature of most of these accounts, Principe successfully uncovers several hidden templates for transforming one substance into a completely different other and even ventures to test a few of them in his own laboratory.

Alongside the science, Principe also expounds on the alchemy's up-and down history. Thus, The Secrets of Alchemy is every bit as revealing as its title implies.

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