Sleight-of-hand magic trickery is the most likely explanation for ancient demonstrations which appeared to turn lead into gold; I’ve been working on a post in my head about this for some time. Golden alloys are a more technical option. Unfortunately, turning base metals into real gold is the least likely option. History, once more, is stranger and more useful than fiction. My dear wife brought home another fun book in the “History of Science” genre, Sam Kean’s _The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements_.
Here’s the story tying together several threads which lead back to China:
In 1701, a braggadocian teenager named Johann Fiedrich Böttger, ecstatic at the crowd he’d rallied with a few white lies, pulled out two silver coins for a magic show. After he waved his hands and performed chemical voodoo on them, the silver pieces “disappeared,” and a single gold piece materialized in their place. It was the most convincing display of alchemy the locals had ever seen. Böttger thought his reputation was set, and unfortunately it was.
Rumors about Böttger inevitably reached the king of Poland, Augustus the Strong, who arrested the young alchemist and locked him, Rumpelstiltskin-like, in a castle to spin gold for the king’s realm. Obviously, Böttger couldn’t deliver on this demand, and after a few futile experiments, this harmless liar, still quite young, found himself a candidate for hanging.
Desperate to save his neck, Böttger begged the king to spare him. Although he’d failed with alchemy, he claimed he knew how to make porcelain.
At the time, this claim was scarcely more credible. Ever since Marco Polo had returned from China at the end of the thirteenth century, the European gentry had obsessed over white Chinese porcelain, which was hard enough to resist scratching with a nail file yet miraculously translucent like an eggshell. Empires were judged by their tea sets, and wild rumors spread about porcelain’s power. One rumor held that you couldn’t get poisoned while drinking from a porcelain cup. Another claimed the Chinese were so fabulously wealthy in porcelain that they had erected a nine-story tower of it, just to show off. (That one turned out to be true.) For centuries, powerful Europeans, like the Medici in Florence, had sponsored porcelain research but had succeeded in producing only C-minus knockoffs.
Luckily for Böttger, King Augustus had a capable man working on porcelain, Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus. Tschirnhaus, whose previous job was to sample the Polish soil to figure out where to dig for crown jewels, had just invented a special oven that reached 3,000°F. (Kean, p. 58)
I’m not very far through _The Disappearing Spoon_, but am entranced and amazed at the stories. Kean ties together science and history in such an entertaining and educating way, I encourage anyone remotely interested in the history of science to read it.
The Porcelain Tower of Nanking was new to me. It was largely destroyed in the Taiping Rebellion. Ironically, Taiping means “Supreme Peace.”
I just ordered _The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story_ which is a whole book on Böttger and the Western discovery of porcelain. I’m interested, of course, in what sort of exposure Böttger had to Chinese ideas. He was apparently looking for the Universal Tincture to turn gold into medicine.
It is amazing to note that Chinese scientists/alchemists discovered and kept secret the making of porcelain for over 500 years. The more I study history, the shorter centuries seem. I recently wrote about 2012 being the hundred year anniversary of the word ‘vitamin.’ The Periodic Table only began to be formulated in the late 1800s. The method by which elements are made in stars, Sam Kean writes, was only hypothesized in 1956.
The early Taoist scientists (I’m not sure when to call early scientists ‘protoscientists’) and mathematicians would be fascinated by modern chemistry. The positive protons, the negative electrons… The way two atoms with one proton (hydrogen) fuse together in a star to make one atom with two protons (helium) is something Taoist alchemists like Ge Hong (Ko Hung) and Tao Hong Jing would have been amazed to learn. The legendary founder of the Eight Trigrams of the I Ching, Fu Xi, would be reassured to know that on the atomic level, most atoms seek to get eight electrons in their outer shell, driving molecular formation.
This is not to say that “they understood it all back then.” However, they did lay some groundwork on which the towering accomplishments of modern science are built. Humans started cave painting about 40,000 years ago (very simplistic, such as tracing around a hand), spending a lot of time with dogs around 12,000 years ago. Chinese first carved symbols into tortoise shells about 8000 years ago, though it was still pretty crude until about 2500 years ago. Here we are now, quickly piecing together how the universe was made. Our species walked on the moon less than 50 years ago, and now you are reading this using a computer with more power than the spacecraft of 1969!
We are still sorting out science from superstition. Some Chinese artisans were discovering porcelain and advanced metallurgy while others were still warning women that looking at rabbits during pregnancy causes harelip. Despite the Communist attempts to remove “feudalist superstition” from Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is much work as of yet to be done to gain a true evaluation and appreciation for the best, scientifically supported practices from Chinese medical history. My explorations of herbs to treat Vitamin B1 deficiency (beriberi) is one example of this.
The most useful practices from Classical Chinese Medicine will one day be verified through chemistry and other modern sciences. When “why” something works isn’t understood, “how well” it works can still be determined with good double-blind studies. There is a scale of plausibility, which runs from superstition to scientific fact. ”Looking at rabbits causes harelip” is on the implausible end and doesn’t need to be subjected to a double-blind study, especially with my tax dollars. ”Dried bean sprouts can treat beriberi” is plausible and scientific fact already, as we know bean sprouts have thiamine, and thiamine deficiency causes beriberi. We aren’t really looking for new treatments for beriberi, and we certainly don’t need to experimentally induce it to test out bean sprout therapy. It would be nice to create a world system that eliminates malnutrition and starvation; economics and politics have a ways to go to be true sciences, these ongoing tragedies tell me.
I’m well aware that some things previously regarded as implausible superstitions are now scientific fact. Burning rocks falling from the sky is top on the list. This is why it’s fun and interesting to sort through what I’ve learned in my Chinese medicine education and point out what’s real, what’s fake, and what’s as of yet unknown. This path has been more controversial than I initially expected, but that makes for better reading and more stimulating conversation. Thanks for joining in!