Early Science & Alchemy

A Revolution in the Scientific Revolution

Mary Ellen Bowden reviews William R. Newman’s Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution.

By Mary Ellen Bowden | January 3, 2008
Woodcut of Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān

Depiction of 8th-century Arabic alchemist and all-around polymath Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān, more commonly known as “Geber” in the West, from French writer and explorer André Thévet’s Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz, latins et payens (1584).

Science History Institute


William R. Newman. Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006. xiii + 235 pp. Cloth, $75; Paper, $30.

This relatively slender book of 235 pages promises to revolutionize the received understanding of the Scientific Revolution and the mechanical philosophy and experimentalism that characterized it. Against historians past and present who have denigrated alchemy and ignored its role in the development of modern science, Newman vigorously argues that alchemy helped to bring about a rupture from Aristotelian matter theory. For Newman, too many historians have regarded the development of modern science as a 16th- and 17th-century phenomenon in which proto-physicist thinkers like Pierre Gassendi and René Descartes adopted and modified the ancient atomisms of Democritus and Lucretius. To be sure, Robert Boyle is in these scholars’ pantheon, but he has been characterized as bringing physical thinking to chemistry or as having a personality split between modern chemistry and alchemy.

Newman spends time positioning himself among the many historians of the Scientific Revolution, but a reader who is not a professional historian or philosopher of science may want to skim this material and jump to the substance of the book. Here Newman has done something quite extraordinary: he has given a guided tour through the matter theories of half a dozen thinkers to show detailed bloodlines from alchemy to modern chemistry. These are not the people one meets in Philosophy 101; they are for the most part once-important thinkers who have been left out of historical accounts in the rush to provide a sanitized account of science history.

This tour demands a genuine curiosity about matter theories and the mental flexibility to imagine a time, pre-Lavoisier and pre-Dalton, when chemical operations were not assumed to reveal something about the nature of the constituents of a given material. This act of imagination requires understanding the meaning of scientific words in use today in different ways. In an intriguing “Note on Terminology,” Newman explains that atom did not mean absolute indivisibility as in classical theories; nor does atom imply indivisibility today. But early modern thinkers used a variety of related terms such as corpuscle and molecule without universal definitions.

Another potential surprise for readers will be Aristotle’s theories that are less familiar than those of substance, forms, the four elements, and the four qualities. These include Aristotle’s idea of minima, the smallest particles that exhibit the characteristics of a particular material, as well as his mechanical explanations of the earth’s exhalations condensing to form the meteorological effects, or, if trapped in the earth, the metals. This corpuscularian-mechanical tradition entered alchemical thought at an early date, most prominently in the writings of Geber, the Arabic pseudonym for a 13th-century author called Paul of Taranto. Geber moreover brought experimental evidence taken from the metallurgical–alchemical tradition to bear on matter theory. In the fullness of time this experimentalism became the unique gift of alchemy to the emergence of modern science. Geber used a series of chemical reactions—rather than thought experiments—to argue against the Aristotelian theory of matter as explicated by Thomas Aquinas.

In the Aristotelian-Thomistic theory the generation of a new material presupposed the total resolution of the previous material to the first simple elements (earth, air, fire, and water) or to prime matter itself. Geber argued that metals could not be calcined (oxidized), their calxes dissolved, sublimed, and finally reduced by fire, if the metals had been resolved all the way down to the four elements. If so, they might have come back, not as metals, but as almost anything! According to Geber there must be some intermediate surviving principles that account for the metals; he proposed sulfur and mercury. Variants of Geber’s course of experiments appear in the alchemical literature right down through Robert Boyle.

In earlier publications Newman and the historian Lawrence Principe have identified Boyle’s immediate predecessor in the use of this general course of experiments as Daniel Sennert, an early-17th-century German academic. Boyle does not acknowledge Sennert in this regard, perhaps because Sennert’s use of this chemistry was quite different from Boyle’s. As the reader will no doubt notice, there’s a black box here: according to Sennert, the matter that persisted through change was not any combination of the four elements, but invisible semina, which safely carried forms through change. For Boyle the persistent matter was semi-permanent molecule-like corpuscles that determined materials’ forms. Newman likens the Sennert–Boyle difference of interpretation of experimental results to that of Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier over the dephlogisticated air–oxygen experiments. To be sure, Lavoisier had the evidence of the balance on his side. Boyle could only say that keeping close track of inputs and outputs would be desirable, and he was never able to achieve that goal in his own experimentation.

The broader research program that Newman, Principe, and allies are pursuing—to follow other connections from alchemy to various chemistry “greats”—should prove important in developing this new view of alchemy and the Scientific Revolution. This examination of Robert Boyle’s intellectual ancestors on the subject of atomism and chemical transformation constitutes a provocative contribution to this program.