The Resurgence of Alchemy

Three observations:

  1. We should care about alchemy
  2. Alchemists were not buffoons
  3. The wisdom of the alchemist applies to us

Around the year 1350, a poor Parisian scrivener named Nicholas Flamel spent two florins on a strange but beautiful brass-bound book filled with curious diagrams. Extensive study revealed it to be an alchemical treatise on the art of making gold.

He spent most of his life trying to decipher the contents, and finally on April 25th, 1382 at around five in the afternoon, he succeeded in turning half a pound of mercury into pure gold. Armed with this secret knowledge, he achieved spectacular wealth. Happily enough, he spent his money charitably, building fourteen hospitals, three chapels, and seven churches.

Alchemy is about making gold. Take something inexpensive and easy to come by, like mercury or lead, and by means of obscure knowledge, transmute it into gold. You can see why people would want to do this, but now we know that it’s an absurd task.

We know today that uranium 235 decays (through an improbable number of intervening isotopes like actinium 227 and radon 219) into lead. But unless you are a physicist, you will probably just nod your head and say, sure, okay, despite the fact that you have no direct observable reason to believe such a thing. Radioactive decay is transmutation in the most straightforward alchemical sense. So consider that, given the state of fourteenth century science, it was perfectly reasonable for fools and philosophers, for peasants and kings to believe that iron could be turned into gold. Provided, of course, you had mastered the arcane art of alchemy. But mastering the art was not easy; it was messy, time-consuming, and extremely expensive. Why would anyone do it? Why does anyone bother in any age to study the mysterious and the arcane? Three short answers come to mind.

  • wealth (economic motivation)
  • knowledge (scientific motivation)
  • enlightenment (spiritual motivation)

We can learn from the alchemist who was motivated by each of these desires. First consider the practitioner who is only interested in filthy lucre.

It goes without saying that anybody who could spin lead into gold would be fabulously wealthy and powerful. But there are some interesting implications regarding this kind of hot intellectual property. Alchemy was an accepted fact of life for the great majority of people; most not only believed that the transmutation of base metals into gold was possible, but that people were successfully doing it. If you could find a successful alchemist and steal his formula, you would gain the key to the same riches. Sound familiar? The value of such alchemical secrets was not lost on your average serf in the street, and many suspected alchemists were beaten to death by angry mobs who demanded to know the recipe for gold. On top of this, most rulers were naturally suspicious of alchemists and jealous of their knowledge, and so they tended to proscribe the practice of alchemy altogether or only allow certain scholars to practice it on behalf of the court. As in any age, the innovator was often punished for his efforts.

Our dubious little story about Monsieur Flamel notwithstanding, most practical alchemists had a rough time of it. The best were tireless and meticulous, yet succeeded only in exhausting their fortune and their health (there were no fume hoods in the fourteenth century). Nobody could reliably manage the transmutation trick. Why did they keep at it? They must have been terribly disappointed with the results, yet since they were the first people to rigorously perform feats of laboratory chemistry, their practical knowledge was prodigious, all failures at gold manufacture to the contrary. The first true chemists in the 18th century acknowledge their debt to the groundwork laid by alchemists. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) compared alchemists to a father, who on his deathbed told his lazy sons of a sum of money hidden underground in his garden. After his death they began digging in hopes of finding the treasure. They didn’t find any, because in truth there was none to be found, yet they enriched themselves with a large crop that their inadvertant plowing made possible.

Regarding our most recent scientific advances, much is made of how well eastern religions, in particular Buddhism, harmonize what sophisticated physics and chemistry tell us about the universe. Alchemy, from the western tradition, can serve much the same role, just as it helped launch our scientific tradition in the Renaissance. Alchemy is about making gold, and Buddhism is about finding jewels. The famous “Om” mantra of Avalokiteshvara, the Lotus-Bearing Buddha, goes “Om mani padme hum,” or “Hail the jewel in the lotus.” Ultimately, the jewel and the gold are the same thing: enlightenment. As a science, alchemy largely failed. As a springboard for the western scientific tradition, it succeeded wildly.

Much as astrology is now associated only with the frothiest part of a rich tradition, so too we find that alchemy is now identified only with the thoroughly debunked notion of turning lead into gold. If we persist in viewing it only as a lapsed proto-chemistry, we are wiping out a vast store of accumulated wisdom with implications far beyond metallurgy. What we call alchemy today is only the discredited part of a much richer, more compelling tradition that is fundamentally about putting man into harmony with a living, interconnected universe.

A wonderfully eloquent conclusion on this topic is supplied by the renowned Dutch chemist Boerhaave (1668-1738), who on being asked his opinion of alchemy replied:

“I should answer, that the wise Socrates, after reading a most abstruse book of Heraclitus, being ask’d what he thought of it, replied, that where he understood it, he found it excellent, and believ’d it to be so in those other parts he could not comprehend. So wherever I understand the alchemists, I find them describe the truth in the most simple and naked terms, without deceiving us, or being deceived themselves. When therefore I come to places, where I do not comprehend the meaning; why should I charge them with falsehood, who have shown themselves so much better skill’d in the art than myself? I therefore rather lay the blame on my own ignorance than on their vanity.

Thus much I have long ago had a mind to say, concerning the knowledge of the true alchemists in physics; lest such skilful artists should be condemn’d by incompetent judges…. Credulity is hurtful, so is incredulity: the business therefore of a wise man is to try all things, hold fast what is approv’d, never limit the power of God, nor assign bounds to nature.”

The origins of alcohol

The weather is fine in the middle of this September, but September always wears the gold-tooth smile of a thief.

Someone pulled the plug on August, and all that accumulated warmth is emptying sloppily into the southern hemisphere, may they thank us well for it! As above, so below. Speaking for himself, Paracelsus will miss the heat, and he ponders what liquid concoction is most likely to stanch, at least for the duration of Happy Hour, the ebbing tide of seasonal warmth.

Perhaps a fine Kentucky bourbon will do the trick, with its connotations of golden harvest and its unmistakable fire in the belly.

Old Dr. Paracelsus, the medieval alchemist and medicine man, thought of alcohol as the quintessence, the fifth element, next to those established worthies earth, air, fire, and water. Indeed, it was none other than Dr. Paracelsus who gave alcohol its name: al-kohl originally referred to black sulphide of antimony, and he arbitrarily transferred that name to wine spirits. Which is just as well, because who likes to drink black sulphide of antimony? Olive or twist, on the rocks or straight up, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zing.

Thoughts of chemistry and the ancient and estimable art upon which it was based set us puzzling about alchemy. What do you suppose they would have made of Goldschlager in the fourteenth century?


Welcome to the Star Chamber, a place where much is arbitrary except for the fact that new, tasty content will appear on this page every Monday morning.

Newness is common enough on the web; scarcely a day goes by without hearing of yet another web-based company based on some good idea you had last month. This realization leads us to speculate that you can actually spawn a web company merely by thinking of a good idea for one. In other words, if you suddenly sit up and think “Aha! Web-based video cat-sitting!” some poor grad student in Cupertino will have to start talking to venture capitalists about it. The responsibility this brings is terrifying, particularly when you consider that one day your name will bubble up to the top of the list just as some bozo in Seattle eats a bad curry and dreams up web-based fortune cookies. Next thing you know you’ll be cold-calling Chinese restaurants with laptop in hand.

Our aim here at the Star Chamber is to bring you good old-fashioned, hand-crafted content, not fancy protocols or new products. This week we present a graphical meditation about the Star Chamber and a very short story that hearkens back to the Golden Age of Broadcasting.
Continue reading “Broadcast”


Ransom looked nervously at the coil of rope next to his backpack. His left eye twitched as though to say: get on with it, they’ll be here any second. Daniel and Yvonne would be pulling their beat up Volvo into the driveway, ready to head out to Yosemite, and he was still debating what to pack. Ten minutes later, at precisely 5:40 AM, they had indeed pulled into the driveway, and ten minutes after that Ransom was on highway 24 headed east out of Berkeley, crammed into the back of the old Volvo with three backpacks and enough food for four days. And no rope.

Since he was an infant, Ransom’s mother had been consumed with the fear that her son would float into the sky and disappear. An early visit to an expensive medical specialist brought the news that although Ransom was no floater, he was a spinner. Ransom’s mother took this happily enough, because spinning was not fraught with the life-threatening dangers of floating. Spinning meant nothing more than discomfort and social stigma, whereas a true floater could never be sure of his next footfall.

Ransom’s great uncle Jay had floated out of his own backyard hammock one summer afternoon in 1934 while his horrified family watched from inside the house. By the time they got outside, he was nearly out of sight, though they could see him struggling vainly against the wind as he ascended. Since there was reason to believe that floating was hereditary, Ransom’s mother fretted over each of her children just in case.

Spinning was a more mundane affliction by far; more common and less dangerous. The tingling along the scalp and blurring vision gave enough warning to most victims to prevent accidents. Ransom was unusual in that most people don’t discover that they are spinners until adulthood. His first episode occurred during a stressful midterms week in graduate school. It was almost a relief when it finally happened, because Ransom had spent his entire life agonizing over the diagnosis he had received as a child. While walking back to his dorm room after a wretched fluid dynamics exam, he was overcome by a disconnected dizziness and a profound spastic twitching in his neck. He made it back to his room just in time to see the world lurch and spin steadily around, clockwise in his case, for twenty minutes straight. The first episode didn’t last long, but being the first it was by far the most miserable he ever experienced.

After several years, it was just another fact of life, sometimes even a good excuse to miss a boring party. The attacks occurred infrequently, maybe once or twice a year, and they never lasted more than a half hour. Furthermore, many of his closest friends were also spinners, most of them clockwise, that he had met at the Rotational Disorders Clinic in Menlo Park. Ransom discovered that spinners shared many common traits, being clever and creative as a rule, though plagued by a strong sense of dislocation. Spinning gave them a bond and a closeness that, paradoxically, tended to lessen the severity of the condition.

In fact, all would have been well with Ransom if not for the fact that yesterday morning he had started awake from a dream about Yosemite valley and dropped with a thump approximately eighteen inches onto his bed. He was unaware of anyone in the world who suffered from both spinning and floating, but he was terrified enough to rush out and buy some rope and several books on floating. Floating was extremely rare, though well-documented, and it had the reputation as an artists’ affliction, an almost romantic way to fall off the world. Generally the attacks came while the victim slept, though in some extreme cases heavy weights were worn literally around the clock.

Anxiety kept Ransom up the night before his camping trip. The anxiety made him light-headed, which only served to make him more anxious still. He debated calling his mother. He debated cancelling the trip. But in the end he kept his mouth shut, stayed up all night reading and then buckled himself into the back seat of a crowded Volvo. Without his rope. Perhaps it had just been a bad dream, he reasoned, and besides, how could he possibly explain the rope to his friend Daniel?

Predictably, he was stumbling and exhausted by the time they set up camp that night. Being low on sleep and extraordinarily anxious, he was concerned he might touch off a spinning episode on top of everything else. Daniel, in a misguided attempt to soothe, tried to talk Ransom into sleeping under the stars, but Ransom insisted on sleeping in the tent, the tent that was staked securely to the ground, and weighted down with his entire backpack and a half dozen good-sized rocks.

So it was that he awoke from a disturbing dream of drifting past Nevada Falls and found his whole world distorted and misshapen. The tent was wobbling wildly, and he heard through his grogginess Daniel’s voice yelling: “Yvonne, where are you? Run up the hill! Ransom, don’t move!” An instant later, he heard the sound of shredding nylon just as he realized a black bear was pulling his tent apart. Several things occurred to him at more or less the same time: he was terribly terribly frightened, he had left all his food in the heavy backpack, and Daniel was trying to yell something very important from far away. “Ransom, play dead! RANSOM, listen to me! I’m trying to scare him away, but for now, stay still!” The bear ripped into the backpack, flinging food across the ruined tent floor. This is how Ransom came to find himself under the large paw of an American Black Bear. His heart rate skyrocketed, something shifted quickly inside his body, and suddenly he knew he was losing his grip on the earth.

“Ransom! Play dead!” shouted Daniel, hurling rocks toward the bear. The bear snuffled around Ransom, then looked him in the face with a queer and knowing look. At that moment a rock struck the bear squarely on the side of the head and he lurched, removing his paw from Ransom’s chest. The next twenty seconds were a sheer panic of vertigo and disorientation. To his great surprise, this panic was replaced by total calmness. End over end over end; Ransom was amazed how much the twinkling fires in the valley looked like the burning stars in the sky.

Lammas Tide

This week we pass another significant milestone for the year: August the second is a cross-quarter day, which is to say that it is halfway between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. It used to be known as Lammas, and it marked the first harvests. Notice that it happens to be just across the calendar from Groundhog Day. What happened to the celebrations? A quick perusal of the month of August reveals a strange dearth of official holidays of any kind.

We at the Star Chamber propose a remedy to this situation: call it Grounding Day. Leave work early one day this week. Get the good gin out of the freezer and fix yourself a big martini. Sit outside in the hot air with both feet firmly on the ground and listen to the quickening pulse of summer. It’s damned important to stay grounded.



Be prepared for disappointment.

This was the number one piece of advice not only given to her by friends, but also on chatsites about face to face meetings. Fair enough. Mary could handle disappointment. In fact, it was only an odd series of coincidences that put her here in the first place. Plans for a barbeque with college friends fell through, and she knew that most of the people from the Vault were going to be at a special Meet-the-Vault party tonight. At least most of the locals who chatted there… that was one of its attractions to her, that they would talk about so many local things: Wasn’t Jae’s a great place for noodles? What kind of sick person would vandalize the duckling statues? That kind of thing. Talking about real places she knew so well took some of the creepy edge off of online talk for Mary.

Meet on neutral ground.

Strictly speaking, she was violating this one. But this one is for the smoochy set, after all. It’s not like she was flying to Australia to meet some fast-typing Don Juan. She was driving exactly three blocks south on Craigie, and then going a half mile down Garfield Street to meet with six or seven people that she had gotten to know extremely well in the last two months. Solid people with normal lives. She knew there were people who disappeared into an obsessive online dreamworld, but she could honestly say that none of her Vault pals fit that description.

Be willing to leave any time you feel uncomfortable

Eugene’s house was big and brightly lit. Coming up the front walk, she could see flickering tiki torches in the back yard. She touched the doorbell and someone (Eugene?), all smiles, opened the door.

“Mary! So good to see you in person!”

“That’s a pleasant welcome, but how on earth did you know it was me? Should I make an inspired guess that you’re Eugene?”

“My intuition is very good and so is yours, I find. Yes, I am Eugene. Come in and have a drink. You’re the first one to arrive.”

This interchange touched off a flurry of thoughts in the back of her mind. At the same time, floating in the foreground she was thinking very slowly: How strange to give a face to this person whose words I know so well. Eugene hurried away with her coat, and she looked at the books and the expensive well-lit paintings on the wall. Slowly again: Eugene Winters, net enthusiast and affable raconteur in his late fifties. Works somehow in biotech. Wealthier than she expected, thinner too. No big surprises. She had spent many hours talking to him about, among other things, French poetry, and he was endlessly knowledgeable about Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

The back of her mind was predictably concerned. She was the first to arrive, yet she was a half hour late already! Her stomach tightened with a twinge of suspicion. The house had a scrubbed, neat look, all hardwood floors and lights too bright. A peculiar odor tugged at her. The smell of books, of dust burning off hot lightbulbs, and something else very hard to place. Eugene returned. He looked comfortable, not overeager. Paternal, maybe even avuncular, not lewd. And she knew from his Vault conversations with her that his intuition truly was good, as was his gift for kind, heartfelt prose. So: mixed signals, very mixed.

“Eugene, I have to be honest. I feel a little odd that no one else is here. Where is everybody? Sheila said she’d definitely make it. Warren was skipping squash for this, and Julienne was getting a sitter. And I thought Wei-Lu was driving here from Hartford.”

“I’m sure they’ll get here, Mary.” He said this with such evident honesty that she let it pass. Mixed signals. It was hard to dismiss the fact that this man had helped her through a very tough time with her ex-husband. Perhaps she would stay for one glass of wine. For no reason, the nagging smell suddenly identified itself to her. It was asparagus, or rather the faintly acrid odor asparagus makes once it’s passed through your body. Her stomach felt unsteady and she made up her mind.

“I’m terribly sorry Eugene, I uh, I really shouldn’t stay. Ah… maybe we can meet for coffee sometime.” The words sounded flat and small. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment. Here is what she thought: What a pity! This is just the kind of thing I’d love to go home and chat with Eugene about online. And this is just wrecking it all. Dancing tiki torch flames caught her wandering unhappy eye.

“Mary, it’s fine. You’ve no need to make apologies. I understand if it’s not right. I’ll go and get your coat.” Still he was kind and unflappable. Mary leaned forward, dejected, against the back of a chair in the living room and looked at all the books. Acres of book spines, scored and thumbed. He brought back her tan jacket and handed it to her, and said softly, “I should have told you, Wei-Lu called. She got a flat tire in Sturbridge at 6:30 tonight. And Warren went to squash after all. He’d forgotten he had committed to a tournament game, so he’ll be late.”

She felt ashamed, debated staying. Yes and no, yes and no, she wavered, uncertain. The endless shelves of books caught her eye again. So many books! This thought distracted her enough for her to lapse out of her self-doubt. What was he saying?

“Sheila had a dentist appointment today with Dr. Braddick, and it didn’t go well. She never had her wisdom teeth out, though she had her chance the summer after freshman year at NYU. Now she’s at home with ice on her jaw and an appointment with an oral surgeon for first thing tomorrow morning.” Yes, Sheila had mentioned the dentist last week. But why was he talking like this? “Julienne has been feeling sick for a few weeks now. She told you last night that she was pregnant again, didn’t she? It could be dangerous with her diabetes.”

“Did she tell you? I thought we were private when she told me that. Eugene, I’ve really got to go.”

“You’ll miss Wei-Lu and Warren.”

“I’m afraid I will, Eugene. There’ll be other times.” She started for the door.

“Mary, stop. They’re already here.”

“What? This is crazy. I need to leave.” She swung around just at the front door and for the first time in a few minutes looked directly into his eyes. There was a benovolent sparkle in them. He smiled the calm smile of a proud father.

“Mary, listen. Here’s what I’m trying to tell you. They’re here.” He touched his finger to his forehead, arched his eyebrows. “Do you see?” There was a long pause, then she shook her own head rapidly and he, in response, nodded slowly.

“No I don’t see, Eugene. Now can I just–”

“On Tuesday night at around 2 AM, Laura told you that she’d been beaten by her boyfriend Kevin at Dartmouth, but she put up with it because she was having problems with alcohol. You revealed you were bulimic as a teenager and still have problems with food, but until your divorce drinking had never–”

“STOP IT! Why are you doing this? It’s evil to read other people’s private messages.”

“Listen to me, Mary: Laura is not another person.” Eugene said this so calmly that even now, it stopped her from storming out. She listened with her hand on the doorknob. “The Vault has been your solace these last few months. You and I both know that. Every night, almost without fail, we conversed. Sometimes I was Eugene, and sometimes not. How bad is that?”

Mary felt utterly desolate, spoke through hot tears “It’s awful! How can you even say that? Why did you drag me here if you knew…” Fearing the answer, she pushed open the door and stepped across the threshold. He did not try to intervene.

“Mary. Mary, I care for you. I know so much about you. Of course I knew you might not take this well. But I wanted to meet you at least once. I wanted to thank you.”

She shook her head once in tear-blind incomprehension, took another half step and looked back at him.

“The Vault is gone of course, as of tonight; as of this instant it’s vanished… poof! But it will spring up somewhere else with some other funny name, and you’ll be with me my dear. You’ll be there. And for that, I wanted to thank you. And perhaps in time, you’ll thank me too.”

As her car sped into the waiting night, the bright lights of the big house went out one by one, until at last only one small room on the top floor was lit, feebly lit with a pale, ghostly glow.

The Persistence of Astrology

Divination, that intuitive art that uncovers and foretells, comes in a multitude of forms, from reading tea leaves and Tarot cards to inspecting the entrails of sacrificial animals (popular in ancient Rome, though perhaps not with the RSPCA). Of the many widely-practiced modern forms of divination, only one has such a powerful hold on the popular imagination that the front page of almost any newspaper directs us instantly to its prognostications: astrology. Many people who drive by Madame Zoso’s Palm-Reading Salon with a smirk wouldn’t miss a day without Jeane Dixon’s syndicated horoscopes.

What accounts for the persistent appeal of astrology, particularly in this scientific age? I believe it’s because, of all forms of divination, astrology seems to have the most reasonable claim on what it predicts. After all, the sun and the moon are more likely to know the damn deal than a bunch of soggy tea leaves. The astrological premise is really quite straightforward: events in the sky influence matters on earth. In other words, if you understand the planets and the stars, you’ll go a long way toward understanding what happens here on the ground. This is sometimes called the Doctrine of Universal Sympathy: As above, so below.

Stop for a moment and consider what a reasonable premise this is. The positions of the stars DO influence matters on earth. They are the very clocks of our most basic natural cycles: day, month, year. The powers of the ancient astrologers must have seemed magical indeed: predicting the flooding of the Nile in Egypt and the awe-inspiring eclipses of the sun and moon. No wonder that astrologers were consulted about auspicious times for battle. Even Eisenhower consulted the stars before his monumental decision about D-Day: only three days of the lunar month matched the required conditions of earth, moon and sun, since they needed moonlight for the channel crossing and flow tide just before dawn. This example sounds perfectly reasonable today, but years ago it would have been squarely in the realm of astrology.

One of the most pivotal moments in the history of science is Isaac Newton’s realization that the gravitational forces that the earth exerts on a falling apple are qualitatively the same gravitational forces that act on the orbiting moon. This is precisly the Doctrine of Universal Sympathy written into the book of Science. The forces that act here act also in the void of space. As above, so below. At some point, astronomy became the name for the truly measurable, testable pieces of astrology, while by default, the term astrology came to be indentified with intuitive prediction of things that can’t be easily tested.

If you were to consult the almanacs of the astrologers, you would find that I am a Saggitarius, which is to say that I was born when the sun was shining from that part of the sky where Saggitarius lives. But in fact, the sun was in Scorpio when I was born. Why? Because the solar system has changed since the first Greek astrologers put their charts in place, but the astrological charts haven’t. Astrologers used to work very hard to make their predictions of the paths of the planets and stars accurate, and inasmuch as they succeeded they were giving rise to a new science called astronomy. But once the split occurred between astronomy and astrology, the genuine ability to predict the locations of planets in the sky lost its importance to astrologers. Astrology came unglued from the heavens and has now reached the point where it has very little to do with where the planets actually were on such-and-such a date.

This is too bad, because the symbols and the history of astrology are so fascinating and beautiful. Astrology may be said to be the parent of all science, in that it begot astronomy, the first science. As astronomy was maturing, it was astrology that paid the rent. Astronomers received their courtly appointments for casting horoscopes, not for reckoning orbits. The illustrious Johannes Kepler published astrological prophesying almanacs, not because he believed in them but because he knew they would sell.

I am sympathetic to the aims of any system of divination. Everyone yearns to know what happens next, but as a system of divination, astrology is really no better and no worse than a dozen other techniques. But look at what astrology spun off along the way! Would that we could say the same thing about Tarot cards. Smug science must not forget its debt to astrology. As with alchemy and chemistry, a mystical tradition prefigured a rational, measured science.

The newspaper horoscopes may have come unhinged from the heavens that inspired them, but I continue to be mesmerized by the phenomenal forces and magical aspects of the sky. This is precisely why I find it so reassuring to return and sit at the historical divide between astrology and astronomy, where magic and rationality go hand in hand. It’s surprisingly close, and it’s a fine place to sit and stare in wonder at the stars.