Hap's Corner January 2016

Published 01/02/2016



When I was a working man I earned my daily bread, and my ammunition money, as a high school science teacher. One thing that seemed to be a reoccurring theme, when teaching general science to ninth graders, was that there was always a great confusion in their young minds as they transitioned from qualitative science to quantitative science. Such confusion often led them to believe that astronomy and astrology was one and the same thing. By extension this also covered chemistry and alchemy.

Certainly the two occult pseudo-sciences of astrology and alchemy presaged astronomy and chemistry. As a protoscience each laid down some basic terminology and methodology which gave a start to the rational modern day sciences to which they are related.

Astrology, in Western cultures, believes that a relationship exists between astronomical phenomena and human behavior while claiming to be able to predict future events based on the positions of celestial bodies. As early as the late 1500s, or early 1600s, this relationship was questioned by none other than William Shakespeare who wrote in The Tragedy of Julius Cesar that, "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves..."

Alchemy was primarily devoted the creation of lapis philosophorum, the elusive philosopher's stone, a material that was capable of transmuting base metals to the noble metals, silver and gold. Alchemy, more so than astrology to astronomy, contributed to the study of chemistry. Alchemists can take credit for some actual chemical achievements and techniques. Alchemists' made intricate and detailed notes and diagrams, and developed other techniques important to modern laboratory study.    

The popular image of an alchemist conjures up a bent and wizened old man, perhaps bearded, perhaps not, wearing a long dark robe. His tangled and unkempt gray hair is partially contained by a conical hat while his face is illuminated by a flame which also serves to heat a bubbling retort. Charts with strange symbols cover the stone walls of his dark dungeon like laboratory. A shelf is filled with corked bottles while the table is littered with books and scrolls. A quill pen protruding from an ink well and a mortar and pestle complete the scene.

Alchemists, real or imagined, dot the pages of science history and literature like the freckles on Howdy Doody’s face. Perhaps the most famous literary alchemist for those of my age is Claude Frollo. For my kids it is Albus Dumbledore the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft in the Harry Potter canon, the first of which is titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Frollo, on the other hand, was the Archdeacon of Notre Dame cathedral, in Victor Hugo’s classic epic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The compassionate Frollo adopted a deformed foundling left on the cathedrals’ steps and raises him like a son. He names him Quasimodo because he was found on the first Sunday after Easter; “Low Sunday,” where the first words of the Mass is "Quasi modo geniti infants…” which roughly translates from the Latin as, “As newborn babies….”

More to the point it is widely accepted that English philosopher and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon was one of the first scholars to use experimental methods in alchemy and his early experiments with gunpowder is considered the first European to describe a mixture containing the essential ingredients of gunpowder. He wrote that, “of saltpetre take six parts, live of young willow (charcoal), and five of sulphur, and so you will make thunder and lightning.”

In virtually every part of Western society the arcane art of alchemy has all but disappeared. Yet it is still kept alive by a small band of acolytes of Bacon who slave away in modern environs which could easily be confused with a medieval alchemist’s tower loft or stone walled dungeon.

Surrounded by wall mounted charts of mathematical tables and pictures, a notebook and reference book illuminated by a light at one’s elbow today’s alchemist slaves away. With obscure tools he affixing lead pellets to brass tubes filled with, as the earlier aforementioned Shakespeare called it, “villainous saltpeter…for these vile guns…”

Yes, the modern day alchemist is a rifle shooter. He might be a high power devotee who carefully prepares, weighs, and measures his brass, components, and finished product. He might be a dedicated smallbore shooter who will spend days culling through countless lots of ammunition looking for the elusive “knot lot.”

The rifleman will then take his lapis philosophorum and try to turn the base metal into gold. However, unlike his predecessor who never saw a flake of precious metal evolve from his mechanizations, the rifleman sometimes find success.

After the long hours of toiling over a reloading press or a machine rest to create or determine the best lead bullets the skilled marksman will take them to the range and test his base metal and skill against a lot of like minded individuals. In the end, one of them will best the rest and find that the lead bullets fired down range have been transformed into a small golden token representing the victory.

We live in a rational modern world but in a very real sense the alchemy of old is alive and well on rifle ranges where skilled alchemist/marksman do, indeed, turn lead into gold.