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  Alchemy (Arabic al-kimia, ‘the Egyptian art’) was a form of investigation which arose in ancient China and was practised in Asia, the Middle East and Europe for millennia, until it gave way to modern science some 400 years ago. It took its cue from the idea that all matter on Earth was made from a mixture of four basic ‘elements’ air, earth, fire and water. Alchemists believed that if they could discover the proportions in which those elements were mixed, and change them, they would alter the nature of matter, creating or re-creating it to suit themselves.

Over the centuries, four quests became paramount. Alchemists searched for the ‘elixir of life’ (a potion to make mortal flesh immortal), the ‘panacea’ (a medicine to cure every disease), the ‘philosopher\'s stone’ (which would turn base metals into gold) and the ‘alkahest’ (which would melt anything else in creation: useful not only in the alchemists\' experiments, but in war). To find these things, alchemists experimented with heating, pounding, mixing and testing every substance they could lay hands on, and in the process made many discoveries still valid in chemistry today.

Over the years, failure in all four quests led some alchemists to add black magic in their experiments. Their use of spells and incantations led outsiders to believe that they were in league with the Devil, and made alchemy disreputable. The end came in 1661, when Robert Boyle published The Sceptical Chemist, differentiating for the first time between true elements, compounds and mixtures and pouring scorn on the idea of four fundamental ‘elements’. KMcL

Further reading Arthur Koestler, The Sleep-walkers; , Jack Lindsay, The Origins of Alchemy.



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