Alchemy: The Quest for Gold Led to Innovations in Science

When I tell people I am a Corporate Alchemist, I get some interesting responses, and none of them are neutral. People are either incredulous, excited or curious. Most Americans I talk to don’t know what alchemy is, and Canadians often reference “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.

What is Alchemy?

The word alchemy was derived from the Arabic word  al-kimiya, and from the Greek kh?meia, the ‘art of transmuting metals.’ Alchemists are best known for their attempts to transmute lead into gold. Paracelsus believed the purpose of alchemy was not to transmute metals but to cure disease. He influenced the development of pharmacology, which gave rise to modern chemistry.

Lead into Gold

“Alchemy may be compared to the man who told his sons he had left the gold buried somewhere in his vineyard; where they by digging found no gold, but by turning up the mould, about the roots of their vines, procured a plentiful vintage. So the search and endeavors to make gold have brought many useful inventions and instructive experiments to light.”
—   Francis Bacon

Alchemists gave Europe some of its key discoveries, such as zinc, phosphorus, and metallic arsenic. Johann Bottger, an alchemist working for the Dresden court, discovered a European version of porcelain and helped break China’s monopoly on one of the world’s most lucrative industries.

Isaac Newton was obsessed with alchemy, and wrote about it extensively, although the Royal Society refused to print it. Alchemy inspired Newton’s work on light and gravity.

Alchemists developed techniques essential to modern-day science: They learned to codify and hand down experimental knowledge through intricate note-taking and diagrams. They also mastered techniques such as distillation and sublimation, and in the process, laid the groundwork for lab work today.

As Stephen Heuser writes in The Boston Globe:

That might seem impossibly distant from the idea of modern science, a world of hard data about discrete physical problems, ruled by observable and reproducible fact. But as scholars reexamine the roots of chemistry, they are now seeing less of a clean break than a subtle evolution from one craft to another. Alchemists tried and discarded theories, like scientists did; despite their occult reputation, they often saw themselves less as conduits to the supernatural than as analytical thinkers trying to accelerate and manipulate real physical processes.

Read Heuser’s article Good as gold: What alchemists got right

Stellar Alchemy

The University of Bristol School of Chemistry has published an extensive resource about alchemy on its website and has some intriguing examples of alchemy: “Of all the alchemists known, the greatest are not human. It is, in fact, the stars, which have mastered elemental transmutations – capable of producing all the elements in the universe from hydrogen and a little helium.”

Remember the line from Joni Mitchell’s classic Woodstock anthem?

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Would this not mean alchemy is part of our DNA?

Dr Carol Mase, biologist, veterinarian, and coach-consultant, says our brains are alchemists.

The tree that we see, the rose that we smell, and the wind chimes we hear all exist as networks of cells that are interacting with each other to capture and record our world. There is no “theater of the mind” where these senses play out for our mental viewing, there is only the complex cross-talk between cells as they go about their work with chemical messengers and electrical potentials. Their “gold” is our world revealed in living color, Dolby sound, and the smell of rain in the air.

Alchemy in Art

Art is inherently alchemic, involving the transformation of the ordinary (paints, oil, water, words, actions) into the extraordinary. As I wrote in Orchestrating Collaboration at Work: “Art-making has an alchemical effect on the imagination. Art takes people out of the realm of analytical thinking and into the realm of silence, reverie, and heightened awareness.” Art at it’s most powerful is numinous, luminous, and soul-nourishing.

 Eudaemonia: Finding Your Golden Self

Alchemy is the art of transforming leaden thinking into the gold of wisdom.

You are an alchemist when you find your golden self. Aristotle said the noblest goal in life is eudaemonia: Striving toward excellence based on one’s unique talents and potential, and experiencing wellbeing. For many, this means finding your calling, reinventing your career and making the shift from success to significance.

Your Magnum Opus

While Alchemy manuals describe the “Philosopher’s Stone” as an Elixir through which impure metals can be transmuted into gold, it was also believed it could immediately perfect any substance or situation.

The quest for the “Philosopher’s Stone” is referred to as the Great Work or Magnum Opus. Magnum Opus also refers to a great work of literature, music, or art, etc., especially the finest work of an individual.

My interest in alchemy, is in the ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary through consulting, training and coaching — to ask, as Matthew Fox did in The Reinvention of Work, “What is the Great Work of our time?”

If you could sculpt your career, design your future and compose your life, what would your Magnum Opus be?

You are an alchemist; make gold of that.
—William Shakespeare, from The Life of Timon of Athens


Alchemy: The Art of Knowing, by C.J. McKnight. Chronicle Books, 1994.

Related Reading: 

The Alchemy of Leadership by Linda Naiman

An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain by Diane Ackerman, available on Amazon

The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, available on Amazon