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[GUEST POST] Alma Katsu on Alchemy: Science or Magic?

Alma Katsu is the author of historical fantasies but has worked in telecommunications, encryption and computer science for most of her life. She is currently a senior analyst with the RAND Corporation, advising US federal agencies on technology policy. The Descent, the final book in The Taker Trilogy, is now out. The first book, The Taker, was named one of the ten best debut novels of 2011 by Booklist and the series has been published in over a dozen countries. For more information on these novels or the author, please visit

Alchemy: Science or Magic?

by Alma Katsu

It seems many novels these days use alchemy as the device by which magic is introduced into the story, my Taker Trilogy included. Well, why not? Alchemy was hugely popular in the real world, studied and practiced for over four millennia across half the planet, from China to North Africa. I find that readers are generally confused about what alchemy is — not that I blame them; it’s not a subject taught much in schools these days. Not that I am an expert, either, though I have done a fair amount of research on the subject, as you can imagine.

The chief confusion seems to be over whether alchemy was a science, or another word for magic. I find that readers tend to think of alchemists one of two ways. Some think of him as a kind of wizard or magician trying to turn base metal into gold or to make the fabled elixir of life. Others-hearing that great men of science such as Isaac Newton, physicist and mathematician, were also alchemists-imagine that alchemy was strictly a precursor to modern chemistry and physics.

The answer is that it was neither exclusively and, in many instances, it was both. In the present day, we tend to put science and the metaphysical in separate boxes. But alchemy was practiced in a world where the exact opposite was true. It is a mistake to try to understand alchemy without putting it in its historical context. The fact is that into the eighteenth century, man pretty much viewed everything through religious terms. There was no divorcing the natural world (things you could see and touch) from the supernatural world (meaning beyond the natural world, not necessarily ghostly in nature). That’s why godly reasons were attributed to any and all occurrences, why (to use a hackneyed example) a solar eclipse would be viewed as a sign that your god was unhappy about something as opposed to being an unusual alignment of planetary bodies.

This is why alchemy was neither superstitious hocus-pocus nor straight-laced science: alchemist were experimenting in the physical world-changing the physical states of materials, observing, measuring, quantifying-but trying to explain the outcomes in metaphysical terms. It was an insistent blending of two realms that we know today to be separate1 but, at the time, believed were linked in some hidden way.

Alchemists could be split into two general camps: those who were interested in natural philosophy and those who were drawn to occult philosophy. Those who worked principally in the realm of natural philosophy tried to figure out how things worked in nature. But there were plenty of alchemists who were also interested in occult philosophy, that is, the school of thought concerned with the metaphysical world. The religious tenor of the times would determine whether or not you could openly display an interest in occult philosophy. Even Isaac Newton could be thought of not as “the first of the age of the reason, but [as] the last of the magicians,” as famed economist John Maynard Keynes said.
To an extent, my alchemist Adair has a bit of Newton in him: a man who believed all the secrets of the physical world belonged to God and who wants to steal them for himself. I think that’s what makes him so fearsome and fascinating to readers: that combination of cool intellect with unstoppable passion. The scientific and the divine.

1. Well, we think the two worlds are separate. One or two more breakthroughs in physics and we’ll probably see that we’ve been in some god’s hands this entire time.

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