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SCOTT JAGOW: Gold is really expensive right now. This morning, it costs $632 an ounce. If we lived in the 17th century, there might be alchemists all over the world trying to capitalize on this. They thought you could turn lead into gold. Today, Alchemy is pretty much a dead science. But there are still a few people who are giving it some respect. Aries Keck has our story.
ARIES KECK: In the 16th century, Alchemy was all the rage. But these days, only about 100 people in the world study it and most of them are drinking coffee and nibbling on muffins in a small Philadelphia conference room.
BRIDGITTE VAN TIGLIN: “I think almost everybody is here.”
Bridgitte Van Tiglin is with the Universite Catholique de Louvian one of the attendees at the first Alchemical Conference being held in 20 years.
VAN TIGLIN: “For most people doing history of alchemy seems to be weird, but those laboratories are really the core of experimental science.”
People like Van Tiglin aren’t spinning straw into gold. They’re shedding light on a time when science, religion, superstition and mysticism were all one big gloppy mess.
ROBERT HICKS: “There’s always going to be some hocus-pocus science fiction and it’s part of the lure.”
Robert Hicks is a historian at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, which is hosting the conference. Hicks says there’s a new found interest in alchemy because scientists are no longer afraid of its more mystical aspects.
Back in the day, Hicks says some perfectly respectable scientists, like Sir Issac Newton, dabbled in alchemy. Of course, no one struck gold and as science marched on the alchemists became the outsiders.
Upstairs from the conference room, Foundation spokesman Neil Gussman shows off the group’s collection of Alchemical Art.
NEIL GUSSMAN: “They were sort of a morality tale hanging in your living room.”
In the late 17th century, paintings of alchemists were a must-have for Northern Europe’s new Middle Class. Most are lurid depictions of crazed, bedraggled men covered in soot from laboratory explosions. Gussman says they were used as cautionary tales
GUSSMAN:“You don’t want to be the sort of person who tries to find gold without earning it like a good Middle Class person would.”
PETER FORSHAW: “The Enlightenment did like to pick alchemy out, as you know, the practice of quacks and charlatans and frauds and this is what this sort of conference is trying to recover from in a ways.”
Peter Forshaw studies intellectual history at the University of London. He says alchemy’s having a renaissance because people now see it as a turning point in science.
FORSHAW: “OK, it’s true that alchemy is the search for turning lead into gold, but it taps into so many things, the history of science, the history of religion, general cultural history, intellectual history, it taps into a lot”
For three days the alchemists attend lectures, sip cocktails, mingle, sip more cocktails — all devoted to transforming one of the ugly ducklings of science into a valuable field of study.
FORSHAW: “Cocktail party chatter, do you think I have a life?
In Philadelphia, I’m Aries Keck, for Marketplace.
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