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From Alchemy to Chemistry, with Rainbows

Posted on the 15 March 2018 by Calvinthedog

The name Chemistry is said to be derived from the Arabic word Kimia, something hidden or concealed, and from this to have been converted into Xyueia*, a word first used by the Greeks about the eleventh century and meaning the art of making gold and silver. Between the fifth century and the taking of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, says Dr. Thomson, in his History of Chemistry, the Greeks believed in the possibility of making gold and silver artificially; and the art which professed to teach the processes was called by them Chemistry. This idea, however, has long since been thoroughly discarded, and is now no longer heard of.

Revered Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Introduction to Chemical Physics, 1881

My what a fine bit of trivia/pedantry I found here. The famous modern author, Thomas Pynchon, also has the name Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, but he is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon 5th to be precise. The 19th Century Thomas Ruggles Pynchon became president of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he taught chemistry and math.

We see here that the root of the word chemistry derives from alchemy, the process by which men for centuries tried to create gold and silver out of other metals via chemical means. The chemical process by which the alchemy was done was then called chemistry.  The original root is Arabic Kimia, hidden or concealed, as it was thought that the gold or silver was hidden somehow in ordinary metals and could be brought to the surface via chemical transformation.

When you open a copy of Introduction to Chemical Physics, the first thing you see, before the text even begins, are rainbows created via a chemical spectrometer.

From Alchemy to Chemistry, with Rainbows

An illustration of rainbows in Principles of Chemical Physics, which appears before the text even starts.

When a material is heated to incandescence, it emits light that is characteristic of the atomic makeup of the material. Particular light frequencies give rise to sharply defined bands on the scale which can be thought of as fingerprints. For example, the element sodium has a very characteristic double yellow band known as the Sodium D-lines at 588.9950 and 589.5924 nanometers, the color of which will be familiar to anyone who has seen a low pressure sodium vapor lamp.

His descendant, the author Thomas Pynchon, is the author of one of the greatest works of modern English literature, Gravity’s Rainbow* (1973). Hence the descendant is foreshadowed by the ancestor, a man perhaps born a century too soon. And there is indeed a lot of science in Gravity’s Rainbow, much of which concerns the commercial applications of chemistry. So here the descendant offers a flashback to the ancestor and takes reverent bow at his gravestone.

* You know,  if you haven’t read it yet, you really need to read this book if you are into literature at all. It’s not easy reading at all. It’s on a par with James Joyce’s Ulysses and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and in fact, all three would be a good choice for the best English novels written since 1850. Don’t worry if you don’t understand what’s going on. Believe it or not, it doesn’t even matter if you understand what’s happening. It’s a magical mystery tour all the same. Just buckle your seatbelt, open the pages and sit back for the ride.


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