Speaking of Science

Inside the lab of an alchemy expert

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Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

What is alchemy? Where magic meets chemistry, according to pop culture. The wizards in Harry Potter practice it. (The British version of J.K. Rowling's first book, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone,” has an alchemical reference in the title — medieval alchemists sought the titular stone.) Alchemy helps cheat death on the TV show “Fullmetal Alchemist,” a story of two brothers hoping to resurrect their deceased mother. They too seek the philosopher's stone.

An alchemist skilled enough to create the stone, it was said, could transform lead into gold and bring the dead back to life.

If you check in with real historians, you’ll discover alchemists didn’t have pockets full of transmuted gold or the power of life and death. Yes, alchemists have tried to create the philosopher's stone. No, no one was successful. But along the way many made real chemical discoveries. The history of alchemy is the history of early chemistry.

At Johns Hopkins University, chemist Lawrence Principe is recreating these historical steps and pushing the boundaries of what alchemists’ skeptics thought possible. Here’s a peek into his lab.

Spiritus vini

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Principe doesn’t label his lab supplies in the modern academic way. Instead, he relies on phrasing that alchemists of yore would have used. Like this — Spiritus vini. It’s distilled wine. Most chemists would refer to it as ethyl alcohol. But Principe isn’t most chemists.

Lead ore, left, and sulphur, right.

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Lead is common in alchemical recipes. When heated, it becomes red, a change that suggested to alchemists that transmutation could be afoot. Lead became the element that 13th-century chemical explorers desired to turn to gold, but they had no knowledge of elements as we know them now — such as that lead and gold were different on the atomic level. Centuries later, scientists discovered how to transform other elements into gold with a particle accelerator and lots of energy. (It produces just a few thousand atoms of gold, not enough even to see.)

The yellow rock is sulfur. Principe's studies of an ancient Greek alchemist named Zosimos showed he paired sulfur with mercury. Zosimos was amazed to find that vaporized sulfur turned liquid mercury into a yellow solid — an early observation of a change only possible through chemistry.

White lead

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A substance called white lead is in this flask. Principe was able to create white lead through an insight that might have stumped modern chemists used to by-the-book processes: Old recipes don’t translate well to modern labs.

The white lead reaction needed to slowly heat up and cool down along with the temperature of the day. An alchemist's workspace didn't have climate control. By allowing the temperature to rise and fall naturally, the historian was successful. Presto: white lead.

A mortar and pestle

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Temperature isn’t the only thing that means the difference between alchemical success or failure. This is a mortar and pestle, used to grind substances into powders — just like the kitchen tool that you might use to crush avocados into guacamole.

It’s within these tools, too, that Principe found alchemical science: To make a certain type of glow-in-the-dark stone, alchemists needed to introduce copper ions into the mix (though they didn’t know it). But alchemists were successful when they ground a stone in a copper mortar, giving the mineral the ions it needed.

A pelican

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

This is a glass instrument called a pelican, named because it looks like a bird preening its feathers. Liquid heated in one bulb, turns into a vapor, then condenses in the other. Nobody really needs to use these anymore — except for Principe.