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A LC H E MY


The dark arts


This painting is part of a contrasting pair. One work shows beneficial activities, such as the production of medicines, while this illustrates more maleficent pursuits.


Place of torment


The word ‘crucible’, used to describe a vessel for heating metals to high temperatures, comes from the Latin crucibulum, meaning ‘little place of torment’.


The futile Sorcerer


Though the title of Oscar-winner William Friedkin’s 1977 thriller Sorcerer is said to have come from a truck that features in the film, it seems strangely fitting for what could be described as a study in futility. Friedkin summed up the plot, which follows four desperate men struggling to transport gallons of volatile nitroglycerine across impossible terrain in order to transform their lives, as ‘No matter how much you struggle, you get blown up’. Commenting on the $21 million production


budget, the New York Times accused this remake of The Wages of Fear (1935) of folly, describing the four protagonists as ‘paragons of pointlessly spent money and film time’. Released at the same time as a film that roundly stole its thunder (Star Wars), Sorcerer proved – as many alchemists did – that it was possible to transform a large pile of money into a small one.


Read


Emsley J. The Shocking History of Phosphorus: A biography of the devil’s element. London: Pan Books; 2001.


Morris R. The Last Sorcerers: The path from alchemy to the periodic table. Washington: Joseph Henry Press; 2003.


Wamberg J. Art & Alchemy. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press; 2006.


Meanwhile the urine had been Making cold fire


Around 1689, German physician and chemist Hennig Brand (1630–c.1710) began experimenting with a liquid whose golden colour had enticed many fellow alchemists to study it: urine. Brand stored 50 buckets of the liquid until some had evaporated and then


— 3 —


undergoing a change in chemical constitution, as was indicated by an alteration of its colour from


a pale straw to a deep amber tint. Joseph Lister writing in the


British Medical Journal, July 1868


boiled and distilled it to create a paste, which he heated for several days. Though his industrious work failed to produce the gold he had hoped for, Brand did end up with a waxy white substance that glowed in the dark and burned while remaining cold. What Brand named ‘cold fire’ was the element


phosphorus, a key constituent of matches, bombs, fertilisers and toothpaste. Brand demonstrated his luminous discovery to King Charles II and sold the secret of how to manufacture cold fire for the present-day equivalent of around £1000.


LEFT: German alchemist Hennig Brand discovering phosphorus Etching After Émile Ulm, 19th century 35429i Wellcome Library


RIGHT: Glass flask used for boiling urine Baron Joseph Lister, 1865–77 A629468 Science Museum / L0058254 Wellcome Images


The Baron’s urine


Two centuries after Hennig Brand had been busy boiling buckets of urine, antiseptic surgery pioneer Joseph Lister (1827–1912) conducted several experiments on his own golden liquid. Boiling it up in flasks of different shapes, Lister concluded that the urine only decomposed if dust was allowed to enter the flask, thereby supporting the germ-theory of putrefaction.


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