Monday, February 2, 2015

The Golden Sun Reprise

The Sun, Robert Fludd
from Utriusque Cosmi (1617),v. 2, p. 19.
Today, Antonio Neri is best known for his 1612 book, L'Arte Vetraria, in which he exposes the secrets of the art of making glass. In publishing his volume, he helped to fuel new discoveries in chemistry and medicine simply by making glass apparatus more available to experimenters. A 1662 translation of his book into English was one of the first acts undertaken by the newly formed Royal Society in London. Neri himself lived for only two years after his book went to press, in his native Florence, and never saw the seeds of his labor come to fruition. If he had lived, he might well be surprised that his legacy is in glassmaking, and not in the subjects that he himself held most dear.

In his death at the age of thirty-eight, Neri missed a rapid advancement in our basic understanding of nature. In the space of only a few decades the face of science and medicine would start to change irrevocably. Soon, experimenters were finding new chemical elements and began to map out the periodic table, often with apparatus made of glass. For centuries, the ancient Aristotelian concept of air, earth, water and fire as the basic building blocks of the universe had endured. By the end of the seventeenth century, the inadequacies of the old model were becoming clear. 

But Neri was not privy to any of this. In his time, any cracks in the Aristotelian model were minor. Like his sponsor, Medici prince Don Antonio, Neri was an adherent of new doctrines of the physician Paracelsus, who rebelled against the old system, but was still very much a product of it. First and foremost, Neri thought of himself as an alchemist. While history has not generally been kind to his ilk, a true understanding of early modern science rests on the methods and reasoning developed by alchemists like Neri. 

Although alchemy covered a wide range of activities, it will forever be associated most closely with the mistaken notion that base metals such as lead or iron could be transmuted into gold. Once science had established this idea as specious, the race was on to separate "new science" from the old. It became fashionable to cast alchemists into the mold of charlatans, tricksters and self-deceived fools. While many such characters did exist, Neri was not one of them; his work was based on careful reasoning and experimentation. The final irony is that through the kind of advancements that he himself helped to pioneer, the majority of his life's work has fallen by the wayside. What has endured the test of modern science is his treatise on glassmaking.

As early as the age of twenty, Neri was demonstrating transmutation to expert gold refiners. As late as the year before his death he was writing authoritatively and coherently on the subject. To understand how this is possible – to be rational and methodical, and at the same time completely wrong – is to get a sense of the true difficulties involved in science. Based on what he was taught, what he read, and his own experimentation, Neri thought metals and other materials "matured" over time. He thought that more "imperfect" metals like lead and iron were part of a continuum that ended with the "perfect" metal gold. Furthermore, he thought that primordial "seeds of gold" left over from the creation of the earth could be mined and isolated. Like wheat and other plants, given the correct nurturing, and conditions, this seed material could be encouraged to mature into vast quantities of gold. Writing in his 1613 manuscript Discorso, he says,
The response is that the chemical art lets the gold proceed from that present and immediate cause, because this is the seed of gold, which acts naturally when art cooperates. The chemist does nothing but extract the seed from gold and apply it to suitable bodies, with which it is united to render the fruit multiplied in the same way that the farmer does. He does not produce the fruit, but provides and prepares the earth and the seed, uniting them in such a way so that they bear fruit.*
Neri thought that ultimately, for gold transmutation to be successful one needed the blessing of the Creator. He documented his process in a heavily coded (and incomprehensible) recipe he called "Donum Dei" (the most precious gift of God). This name traces to alchemical writings from as early as the fifteenth century. He maintained that those who might harm society with this knowledge or wished to profit personally or swindle others would be denied the blessing and therefore be unsuccessful. 

The remarkable thing here is that Neri's understanding of chemistry was supported at every turn by experimentation. His recorded methods, for transforming lesser metals into one-another, were repeatable and stood the test of scrutiny by contemporary experts. In the light of modern chemistry, these transformations depended on subtle physical processes and chemical reactions that would not be understood for another century or more. By performing these experiments under controlled conditions, he was taking the first steps in what would become modern science. Eventually, it would be understood that while chemical compounds can be created and destroyed by various manipulations, individual elements cannot. Today we know that iron, lead and gold were formed in the cores of ancient stars, not too different from our sun. Lighter elements are successively transformed into heavier ones under a star's "nurturing" conditions. While he lived in a period in which he had no chance of getting the particular details correct, in a poetic sense Neri was not far from the truth.

* See Maria Grazia Grazzini, “Discorso sopra la Chimica: The Paracelsian Philosophy of Antonio Neri” Nuncius 27 (2012) 311–367.

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