I have found more new friends (and books to add to my TBR pile!) over at the Nerdy Book Club. If you don’t follow that blog, I encourage you to. I recently read a post by Mary Losure, about her new book Isaac, the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d (Candlewick) and immediately reached out, inviting her to be a Friend Friday guest. I was thrilled she said yes and you’ll be thrilled, too.
Transformations ~ by Mary Losure
When I began writing about Isaac Newton as an alchemist, I knew what alchemy was, sort of.
In theory, it was “searching-for -the-philosopher’s-stone-that-would-lead-you-to-the-elixir-of-life.” It was “seeking- to-transform-base-metal-into-gold.” That’s all very well when you’re writing fantasy, but I was writing non-fiction. I needed to know what alchemy really was. In the real world, what did the alchemists actually do?
On a website called The Newton Project (http://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/ ) I found a list of real books of alchemy that were once in Newton’s own personal library. I noticed to my surprise that many of them are now at University of Wisconsin, Madison, resting in the darkened vaults of the Duveen Collection of alchemy and early medicine—a day’s drive from my home.
The books Isaac Newton owned cannot be handled, but the Duveen Collection holds many others you can (very carefully) read for yourself. When I emailed Robin Rider, the curator, she understood exactly what I needed. When I arrived at the archives, she brought out centuries-old volumes illustrating the real tools of the alchemists’ trade— strange glassware, furnaces, iron vessels—as well as actual recipes used by both alchemists and their somewhat less secretive fellow-practitioners, apothecaries.
Take tin, one recipe said, put it in a heat-proof vessel, and set it a furnace. When it’s red hot, throw in some powder of antimony [a shiny, metal-like substance known since ancient times]…toss in some saltpeter [an ingredient used in gun powder]. An explosion will follow, and when the sparks die down, put the mixture into an “Iron Mortar” greased with suet, and hit it with hammer….and so on.
I began to realize that in real life, alchemy was taking a bunch of magic-seeming ingredients you didn’t really understand, stirring them together, and seeing what happened. Sparks! Fires! Stinks! Bangs! Clouds of colored smoke! Wizardly special effects galore!
In books from the Duveen Collection’s vaults, I also found recipes for potions and elixirs made from ingredients like mandrake root, dried toads, or dew collected first thing on a May morning. I was able see the giant, leather-bound volumes known as “herbals,” which were used to identify the wide variety of plants that went into the potions and elixirs that in those days passed for medicine.
The alchemists always believed if you mixed the right ingredients in the right order, what you’d started out with would, by magic, be transformed into something else.
These days, I’ve been doing a little alchemy of my own. If you take the purple liquid made from boiling a red cabbage and add vinegar, the purple changes instantly to red. Purple cabbage-water plus a little ammonia turns a startling green. Mix some washing soda with warm water, put it in a jar, and watch while (over time) crystals form. Today we know these are chemical reactions, each one explained by a formula. But these seeming transformations are also mysterious and beautiful.
I’ve begun to wonder whether if, when we’re first teaching kids about chemistry, we might want to spend a little more time watching and wondering, and less time trying to explain things like “acid base reactions” and “ions.” Science, after all, is about searching for answers, not being told them. It’s about solving mysteries. It’s about watching the world, just as the alchemists did, amazed at what seems like magic.
These days, I see the world around me in a way I didn’t before I began delving into the world of alchemy. I notice things I wouldn’t have. I like being able to see the world the way the alchemists did.
It’s been a transformation, after all.
Mary Losure writes innovative nonfiction (and the occasional fantasy) for kids.
Her books have been praised in The Wall Street Journal, Kirkus, Booklist, School Library Journal, and other publications and have been selected for several “best of” lists for children’s literature.
Her most recent book, Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d (Candlewick, February 2017), has received three starred reviews. Before she began writing for children, she was was an award-winning reporter for Minnesota Public Radio. A long-time contributor to National Public Radio, she also reported from Mexico and South America for the independent production company Round Earth Media. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with her husband Don (who is currently at work on a book about dragons, etc.) She has no pets, dragon or otherwise.
You can find her on Twitter @mlosure and on Instagram at @mblosure