Posts Tagged ‘transmutation’

Ramon Llull portrait

Portrait of Ramon Llull

As we have studied the history of chemistry for our recent unit in Honors Chemistry, I’ve had my students do a bit of research on what is known and supposed about various alchemists. For example, a student in each of my sections was assigned to research Ramon Llull, the Majorcan alchemist. We started by finding out what is known about the real person. He was born in Palma in 1232 AD, and was a courtier, poet, and womanizer at the court of King James of Aragon, then had a religious epiphany that converted him into a fervent missionary for Catholicism. After a nine-year hermitage and writing many religious tracts, he set off on a series of missionary journeys to North Africa. He was fluent in Arabic and was unusual for his time in that he believed in converting the Muslims through reasoned argument instead of Crusades and the sword. He wrote some of the first works in Catalan, his native language, and died after being stoned in Tunis.

Ramon Llull title page

Ramon Llull title pagae

I also had the students research what is attributed or credited to the person in tradition and later writings, such as Ramon Llull’s alchemical works and his having created the Philosopher’s Stone.

Uroboros from Michael Maier

Uroboros from Atalanta Fugiens

Each student also had to find an image of the person and include it, then take their short report and convert it to simple bullet points to summarize their findings. I’ve now taken those bullet points and turned them into a Keynote/Powerpoint slide show and added their images as well as photos I took last year at the Chemical Heritage Foundation as part of my fellowship sponsored by the Société de Chimie Industrielle (American Section). This is the first time, except for a few progress report blog posts, where I have started to use all the materials I assembled. I am attaching it here, and hope you enjoy going through it and using it in your own classes.

Alchemy_History (Powerpoint)

Alchemy_History (PDF)

Sorcerers Apprentice

A Sorcerer’s Apprentice Masters the Transmutation of Copper into Gold

It was my privilege last summer to dig into the very books these alchemists wrote, and I’m still digesting what I discovered. One result has been my own creation of the White and Red Elixirs and the formation of the Stone itself; in fact, I demonstrated my alchemical prowess for my students by converting copper into silver and then into gold. Several of my students had achieved the inner transmutation sufficiently to successfully direct the Stone’s powers as well, as shown in the photo. (Of course, we really aren’t making gold. This is the old “Alchemists Dream” activity where copper pennies are coated with sodium zincate [using a combination of 6.0 M sodium hydroxide and zinc powder], then heated gently in a Bunsen burner flame to alloy the zinc with the copper to form brass, which looks like gold).

Basil Valentine

Portrait of Basil Valentine

These student-created projects are part of my overall philosophy of science education and the main rational of this Elements Unearthed project: that students learn best when they are actively involved in sharing their knowledge with others. With modern tools for publishing on the Internet through blogs and PDF files, Powerpoints and videos, students now have an audience for their work that is much greater than simply their peers and teachers in class. Tomorrow is the unit test; we’ll see if my theory holds water then!


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   Last week I drove 2300 miles from Utah to Philadelphia to take up my three-month residence at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Today I’ll describe more about what CHF is, how I came to have this fellowship, and what I will be doing with it.

Entrance to Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia

Entrance to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia

   The Chemical Heritage Foundation was established as the Center for the History of Chemistry in 1982 at the University of Pennsylvania with support from the Americal Chemical Society (ACS) and later from the American Institute for Chemical Engineering (AIChE). In 1987 it incorporated as the non-profit National Foundation for the History of Chemistry, and in 1992 it was renamed the Chemical Heritage Foundation. In 1995, the foundation purchased the old First National Bank building in downtown Philadelphia, having outgrown its space at the U. of Pennsylvania. Today it has several divisions and research arms, including the Othmer Library of Chemical History which houses over 100,000 titles including journals, reference books, portraits, photos, oral histories, and even scientific instruments. It also houses the 6000 titles of the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, a collection of rare books from the 15th Century and later, some 400 titles being unique to this collection.  The Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry manages the research of visiting scholars and fellows at the library.

The Reading Room at CHF.

The Reading Room at CHF.

   In addition to the holdings in the library, CHF has museum spaces and exhibits and a convention center/meeting hall. The First National Bank building was rennovated and turned into museum space which opened last fall for the permanent exhibit called “Making Modernity,” which is a collection of instruments and artifacts that helped define the rise of chemistry as a science, with everything from samples of ancient Roman and medieval glassware to 20th Century pH meters, electron microscopes, and mass spectrometers. They also have changing exhibits such as “sLowlife,” a look at the adaptations and movements of plants; “The Whole of Nature and the Mirror of Art: Images of Alchemy” which is a series of photographic reproductions of illustrations from medieaval manuscripts; and “Transmutationa: Alchemy in Art” which displays paintings of alchemists by various artists. CHF also has traveling exhibits and the Ullyot Meeting Hall for conferences and conventions. It is a unique space for such meetings, since we are located right in the historical district of Phildelphia at 315 Chestnut St., diagonal to Carpenter’s Hall (where the First Continental Congress met in 1774) and just two blocks down from Independence Hall.

Roman glass display in the "Making Modernity" exhibit at CHF.

Roman glass display in the "Making Modernity" exhibit at CHF.

   The fellowships and travel grants managed through the Beckman Center are provided by the donations of individuals and 3rd party organizations. My fellowship is sponsored by the Societe de Chimie Industrielle (American Section), which has as its mission to provide better public understanding of the chemical industries, which is precisely what my project intends to do. I found out about this fellowship while researching grants about 18 months ago, and before that had not heard of CHF. I didn’t think I would qualify, since I don’t have a PhD or a disseration, but then I read the requirements for the Societe fellowship and found I might just qualify. I wrote a proposal and asked two people who know me and my work to write letters of recommendation, and sent the whole in by e-mail in Feb., 2008, thinking my chances were slim. When I received an e-mail from CHF  in April, 2008, I wasn’t able to read it at first because it came into my inbox as Chinese characters. I assumed it was the “thanks for your application we had many great applicants sorry we can’t accept all of them” and so on letter I’ve received before. I hit the reply button so I could get the Chinese translated into English and was amazed to find out this wasn’t a rejection letter at all. I had been selected! What remained was deciding when I would be here. My term of appointment is September 2008 through August 2009, but in discussions with my managers at MATC, they were not willing to let me take a sabbatical, especially in the fall when classes were beginning. Finally we compromised on this summer, the last three months of my fellowship term, when I would have fewer students to leave at MATC. They gave me such a difficult time about it, however, that I decided perhaps the time had come to leave MATC, which I have now done. 

Painting of an alchemist in the "Transmutations" exhibit at CHF.

Painting of an alchemist in the "Transmutations" exhibit at CHF.

   During my three months here, I will be conducting background research into atomic theory and its origins and development through the Middle Ages until revived by Dalton and others. I’ll also be looking at the instrumentation and labware of alchemists and chemists through the ages, and anything else that might be useful (there are some great reference works here, and those oral histories). Basically, this will all become background material for The Elements Unearthed, with images and information used to provide historical depth and richness to our project. I hope to take the illustrations of labware that I find, for example, and turn them into 3D models and animations, perhaps re-create entire laboratories of famous chemists. For all this work, this is the place to be; no other library has so much information specifically related to this project, and this fellowship comes at an ideal point to move into Phase II. I am very fortunate to be here, and so far I am being treated very well indeed.

   My goal is to not only use my time here to finish editing the students’ projects into final video podcast episodes, but to create several new episodes based on the information and images I acquire here, so that about ten episodes will be ready for uploading at last by the end of August. I’m going to stuff as much information as I can find, as many photos as I can get, into a hard drive and use them over the next several years as the project develops. I can’t afford to waste any time, so I’ve set up a detailed research schedule and so far I’m following it well, with some wonderful new information about Democritus and Aristotle that I didn’t know before. I’ll share more of what that is and how my research is going in my next post.

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