It's easy to look back on the follies of the past and turn up our noses. We would have known that bloodletting was a bad idea. We would have known that phrenology was a crock. One only need glance over the numerous instances of medical quackery throughout history to get that feeling of superiority that inevitably comes with hindsight. And more than anything else, alchemy stands as the ultimate example of wrongheaded scientific theories that we now consider laughable.
But, some experts have stopped laughing. According to Stephen Heuser's piece from Boston.com yesterday, the academic world is starting to reconsider alchemy in a more respectful light. No, these experts don't think, as the alchemists did, that we can turn base metals into precious metals. They merely want to give credit where it's due. They want to restore alchemy as having an important role in the history of science.
The mystical science dominated Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Over at the HowStuffWorks.com ScienceStuff blog, editor Allison Loudermilk recently wrote about Sir Isaac Newton's alias, "Jehovah Sanctus Unus." It was under this name that Newton, the great father of physics, studied alchemy. The respected father of chemistry, Robert Boyle, was also an alchemist.
Though now completely debunked, the study of alchemy resulted in significant contributions that shouldn't be ignored, says these experts. According to the article, alchemists discovered phosphorus, zinc, and metallic arsenic. Although they had misplaced beliefs, alchemists advanced our understanding of disease and paved the way for the development of modern chemistry.
On the same token, can the mistakes of alchemy teach us anything about modern science? Heuser paraphrases one respected historian, saying it teaches us that "to grant scientists an exclusive claim on truth only ensures that our view of the world is limited to the scientific prejudices of the day."
I hope Loudermilk and Lamb over at ScienceStuff don't lynch me for saying this, but he's got a point.