Why is Paracelsus1 important? It’s a question that comes up repeatedly in this 2006 biography by Philip Ball. He didn’t actually discover anything (in any case, not so far as can be deciphered from his often cryptic writing). None of his theories have lasted (most were dismissed under even basic experimentation). Although he was a practical and skeptical man, he never really had a system for his work and it would be stretching the term to labelled it as “science”.
As with most Islamic scholarship, the roots of the subject came from ancient Greece. Even the terms Chemisty and Alchemy are derived from ancient greek terms. At this early stage of Chemistry, there is still a huge mixture between what would correspond to real science (Chemistry) and what would correspond to utter nonsense (Alchemy) – similar to Astronomy and Astrology but possibly harder to discern. Despite the subject not yet being fully refined, there was still the beginnings of skepticism and a more structured scientific method. In practical terms there were great developments in equipment and results – particularly in the field of medicine. To include the huge amount of discoveries, I would basically have to write a list of names and dates. Therefore for the sake of readability I’m going to focus on just a few of the big names.
Geber and Pseudo-Geber
The source of much of this is Jabir Ibn Hayyan, otherwise known as Geber, a scholar from Persia in the 8th century. His name was so bound up with the subject of chemistry that there is even a so-called “Pseudo-Geber” who put out his own work under the name of the earlier scholar as “translations”. This, and the usual mysteriousness associated with the profession of Alchemy, can make it difficult to pin down the genuine works of Geber. Regardless of this, both Geber and Psuedo-Geber did much for the science.
This podcast at historyofalchemy.com comes from Travis J Dow and Pete Collman, two Americans living in Prague who also work on the Bohemican podcast, documenting life and culture in the Czech Republic. It’s through this history of Prague (and particularly the Emperor Rudolf II, who we shall come back to later) that they developed an interest in Alchemy. This isn’t exactly a narrative podcast, each episode focuses on a single character and works as a stand alone feature, but some of the concepts explained in particular episodes will be recalled in later shows. The topic, the stand alone nature of the episodes and the presentation style help this to stand out from the crowd of podcasts as something that is a little bit different.