Friday, March 14, 2014

The Alchemist Trap

(From "Beschreibung allerfürnemisten mineralischen Ertzt unnd Bergkwercks Arten," via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

That's an alchemist's workshop, in the late 1500s. If some of the equipment looks familiar: you've either been watching old 'mad scientist' movies, or seen a chemical lab.

Quite a lot of a chemist's glassware, like retorts, was standard equipment for European alchemists, back when they still had some credibility.

Then alchemists realized that claiming they could make lead into gold, or preserve an aristocratic lady's youthful looks made getting government grants a lot easier.

As a fundraising strategy, it worked: until enough aristocrats realized that the court alchemist's gold came from the treasury. There's more to researchers calling themselves "chemists" instead of "alchemists," of course: there always is, when humans are involved.

Then there's the story of two enterprising chaps and a clueless emperor, and that's not quite another topic.

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