Chemistry vs Alchemy – Essential Difference

Yet it was taking place alongside the altogether more ancient practice of alchemy, the quest to find a way to turn base metals into gold and to produce an elixir of eternal life. These goals are, as far as we know, as near to impossible as makes no difference* – but if alchemy had been conducted using scientific methods, one might still have expected all the alchemical research to produce a rich seam of informative failures, and a gradual evolution into modern chemistry.

That’s not what happened. Alchemy did not evolve into chemistry. It stagnated, and in due course science elbowed it to one side. For a while the two disciplines existed in parallel. So what distinguished them?

Of course, modern science uses the experimental method, so clearly demonstrated by Pascal’s hardworking brother-in-law, by Torricelli, Boyle, and others. But so did alchemy. The alchemists were unrelenting experimenters. It’s just that their experiments yielded no information that advanced the field as a whole. The use of experiments does not explain why chemistry flourished and alchemy died.

Perhaps, then, it was down to the characters involved? Perhaps the great early scientists such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were sharper, wiser, more creative men than the alchemists they replaced? This is a spectacularly unpersuasive explanation. Two of the leading alchemists of the 1600s were Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. They were energetic, even fervent, practitioners of alchemy, which thankfully did not prevent their enormous contributions to modern science.

No, the alchemists were often the very same people using the same experimental methods to try to understand the world around them. What accounts for the difference, says David Wootton, a historian of science, is that alchemy was pursued in secret, while science depended on open debate. In the late 1640s, a small network of experimenters across France, including Pascal, worked simultaneously on vacuum experiments. At least a hundred people are known to have performed these experiments between Torricelli’s in 1643 and the formulation of Boyle’s Law in 1662. “These hundred people are the first dispersed community of experimental scientists,” says Wootton.

The Data Detective
Tim Harford