The Chemistry of Alchemy: From Dragon’s Blood to Donkey Dung, How Chemistry Was Forged

Cathy Cobb, Monty Fetterolf, and Harold Goldwhite. Prometheus Books, $24.95 (340p) ISBN 978-1-61614-915-4
The authors, all chemists, provide armchair alchemists with a series of tales showing the efforts across centuries to produce a method for changing a base metal into gold. They admit that they are not historians, and the apocryphal nature of their sketches demonstrates this. However, they write with wry humor and sympathy for those who endangered their lives—and souls—in the quest. The book’s real hook is the (al)chemical experiments at each chapter’s end. Beginning with the distillation of salt water to produce salt and potable water, the authors swiftly progress to more complicated transformations. They emphasize safety glasses and good air circulation—two things their predecessors lacked—and with standard high school lab equipment, a stove, a hibachi, and some care, amazing results can be reproduced: tin appears to become gold, while seashells dissolve and are reborn as “pearls.” The authors also give credit to the alchemists for useful discoveries, as when they distilled wine to its essence, “the water of life,” thus starting the liquor industry. Even if one isn’t brave enough to try the kitchen experiments, reading about them conveys the joy of working with retorts, alembics, and heat just to see what happens. (July)
Reviewed on: 05/05/2014
Release date: 07/01/2014
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