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Alchemy and Astrology

August 24, 2020

Science is the quest for knowledge; in fact, the word, "science," is derived from the Latin word, scientia, which means "knowledge." Some science is driven by curiosity, while most is driven by the need to solve particular problems (e.g., a coronavirus vaccine) or generate new products like the next best cellphone. Such was also true in the past, when science was a collection of primitive natural philosophies, such as alchemy and astrology.

Modern chemistry is considered to have had its start in the work of Robert Boyle (1627-1691), known for the eponymous Boyle's law that relates the pressure P and volume V of a gas at a fixed temperature (PV = constant). His scientific legacy includes many communications to the Royal Society and his 1661 Sceptical Chymist. The Sceptical Chymist presented Boyle's corpusclular theory of matter, as evidenced by his gas law, and the idea that chemical elements were "perfectly unmingled bodies."

Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Wellcome Trust Photo

Portrait of Irish natural philosopher, Robert Boyle (1627-1691).

Aside from his pressure-volume law, Boyle did experiments in acoustics, the force caused by the expansion of freezing water, specific gravities, crystal refraction, electricity, and hydrostatics.

(Wellcome Trust photo no. M0002557, via Wikimedia Commons.)

While honored as the first chemist, Boyle was an alchemist who believed that metals could be transmuted, a process usually expressed as the idea that the base metal, lead, could be turned to gold. Boyle performed experiments with the object of doing this, and his belief that it was possible caused him to lobby for the successful repeal of a statute of Henry IV against such creation of gold and silver. Such an alchemical transmutation is called chrysopoeia from the Greek, χρυσός (khrusos, gold), and ποιεῖν (poiein, to make).

Chrysopoeia would happen through action of a substance called the philosopher's stone, which also was thought to confer health and immortality. Obviously, such a substance was widely sought, and the quest to create this philosopher's stone from a conjectured prima materia (Latin for "first matter") was the Magnum Opus (Latin for "Great Work") of the Alchemists.

While alchemical transmutation was never achieved, modern physicists can now routinely (in a "Big Science" sense) change atoms of one element into another using nuclear transmutation in which protons are either added or removed from a nucleus. While changing lead into gold is possible using nuclear transmutation, it's much easier to change gold into lead, since adding three protons is an easier process than removing three protons.

Region of the periodic table near gold and lead.

Row 6 elements of the Periodic Table in the gold (Au) and lead (Pb) region. Just three protons separate these two elements. (Created using Inkscape.)

As evidence that a base metal can be turned into gold, physicists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL, Berkeley, California) changed bismuth into gold in 1981.[1] Bismuth is an easier base metal for this nuclear transformation, since it has a single long-lived isotope 209B, while lead has four (204Pb, 206Pb,207Pb, and 208Pb). This makes it easier to isotopically separate gold from bismuth than gold from lead. This transformation was accomplished by accelerating carbon and neon nuclei and impacting them on a bismuth foil. This cleaved protons from the bismuth nucleus, and some of these transmuted atoms had four protons removed to produce gold.[1]

Early astronomical observations were motivated by astrology, the idea that events on Earth are influenced by what was happening in the heavens. Astrology was the motivation for celestial observations that evolved into the modern science of astronomy, just as alchemical observations became the basis for modern chemistry. However, just as alchemy had its unscientific elements, such was also true of astrology.

According to astrology,a person was marked for life by the positions of the planets at the exact time of his birth. A natal horoscope, as illustrated in the figure, could be constructed for a person to show the planetary positions at birth. The first natal horoscope is in a cuneiform tablet dating from 405 BC.[3] The information in a natal horoscope enabled astrologers to "predict" what might happen to a person on a particular day when the planets had shifted position, and this idea is still perpetuated in newspaper horoscopes.

Astrological birth chart for Emperor Nero and planetary symbols

astrological birth chart for Emperor Nero and planetary symbols. (Left, a Wellcome Trust image, via Wikimedia Commons. Right image created using Inkscape. Click for larger image.)

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century fueled popular interest in horoscopes, as noted in a 2017 paper by Andreas Schrimpf of the Department of Physics of the University of Marburg (Marburg, Germany) posted on arXiv.[2] Schrimpf writes that astrometrical observations, previously published in Latin, were then published in the vernacular languages, and they were used to "foretell weather, growth of fruit, diseases, war and misfortune."[2] In Germany, Victorinus Schönfeldt (1525-1592), professor of mathematics at Marburg University, used the Copernican system to make position calculations of the planets as a scientific adviser to Wilhelm von Hessen-Kassel (Wilhelm IV), Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. Schönfeldt published the Prognosticon Astrologicum, an annual compendium of planetary positions.[2]

Albertus Magnus (c.1200-1280), also known as Saint Albert the Great, a German Catholic Dominican friar, bishop, and one of the 36 Doctors of the Church, was an important figure in both alchemy and astrology. It's claimed that Albert discovered the philosopher's stone, and he wrote that he had witnessed the creation of gold by "transmutation." He mentioned the power of stones in his commentary, De mineralibus, but he did not name the powers.[4] Albert's alchemical legacy has been inflated by many texts falsely attributed to him, and it appears that Albert did not personally do any alchemical experiments.

Albertus Magnus (c.1200-1280)

Albertus Magnus (c.1200-1280).

(A 1352 fresco of Albertus Magnus by Tommaso da Modena (1326–1379) at the Seminario di Treviso, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Albert's astronomical and astrological legacy is greater than his alchemy. In Albert's time, the Middle Ages, astrology was embraced by scholars, who believed that all creation was connected, and that it was a reasonable assumption that life on Earth was influenced by activities in the heavens above. Albert thought that horoscopes would be useful as a means of understanding each person's specific temptations. He wrote about astrology in his 1260 Speculum Astronomiae, written largely as a defense of its practice in Christendom. Astrology was on a list of condemned practices of Bishop Stephen Tempier, but Albert viewed astrology as a means of understanding the intentions of God, who controlled the planets and the Earth.


  1. K. Aleklett, D. J. Morrissey, W. Loveland, P. L. McGaughey, and G. T. Seaborg, "Energy dependence of 209Bi fragmentation in relativistic nuclear collisions," Phys. Rev. C, vol. 23, no. 3 (March 1, 1981), pp. 1044ff., DOI:https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevC.23.1044.
  2. Andreas Schrimpf, "Victorinus Schönfeldt (1533 - 1591) und sein Prognosticon Astrologicum," arXiv, December 30, 2017. Also appears in Nuncius Hamburgensis, Popularisierung der Astronomie, Proceedings der Tagung des Arbeitskreises Astronomiegeschichte in der Astronomischen Gesellschaft in Bochum 2016, vol 41 (2017), pp. 162-185.
  3. A. Losev, "Astronomy" or "astrology": a brief history of an apparent confusion, arXiv, December 29, 2010.
  4. Albertus Magnus, "Book Of Minerals", Dorothy Wyckoff, Trans., (Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1967), via archive.org.

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