Better Living Through Alchemy

The New York Times has a fascinating article examining the history of alchemy. The author, John Noble Wilford (great name, by the way, very alchemy-y), discusses both the fact that alchemy spurred interest in chemistry and also held back real scientific knowledge of the discipline, keeping it a good century or so behind other fields like biology and physics.

As Wilford explored the religious and political influences that promoted alchemy over more honest scientific inquiry, I couldn’t help but think of how the situation has recently cropped up again in a different form — that of creationism trying to crowd out biology. Alchemists found many possible uses for their art, including attempting to explain the origins of life. It was this pursuit that helped give it a step up over the seemingly atheistic studies of serious scientists. Wilford mentions vague similarities between alchemists and people who are today trying to undermine science, but sadly he doesn’t explore it in depth. The article is still worth a read, though.

I had heard before that there are still people who buy into the alchemy business today, which is just so incredibly sad you know it must be true. A quick Googling led me to this page, which invited me to take a free quiz. How could I resist?

Question one asks me to choose the animated gif that best describes what a video of my mind might look like. You know those little wooden toy animals standing on a pedestal, and when you push the button under them they go all limp in their legs or neck, and pushing the button repeatedly with varying amounts of pressure makes them do a funny little dance? None of the options looked like that, so I chose randomly. Two more questions about my energy level and current favorite color comprise the “lunar test.”

Next came the solar test, which was just a bunch of standard personality test questions, until the last one — what’s the answer to THE RIDDLE?


“The key to life and death is everywhere to be found, but if you do not find it in your own house, you will find it nowhere. Yet, it is before everyone’s eyes; no one can live without it; everyone has used it. The poor usually possess more of it than the rich; children play with it in the streets. The meek and uneducated esteem it highly, but the privileged and learned often throw it away. When rejected, it lies dormant in the bowels of the earth. It is the only thing from which the Philosopher’s Stone can be prepared, and without it, no noble metal can ever be created.”


I thought about this long and hard. First, I know it’s something one would find in the home (and that if I don’t have it in my home, I probably should). That narrows it down significantly. Children play with it, and poor people have more of it than the rich. Morons really like it, intelligent people throw it away.

. . . I’ve got it. The key to life and death is . . . a commemorative Dale Earnhardt, Jr. NASCAR bobblehead.

The multiple choice options were Energy, Matter, Light, God, Soul, Love, or Hate. I was instructed to choose the selection that “comes closest” to what I think the answer is, so I chose Hate.

The third section of the quiz offered an optional paid consultation. Wha? It cost just $75 but somehow I managed to pass it up and move onto Section 4: YOUR QUIZ RESULTS.

My lunar (intuitive) score was 21. Woo hoo! Sounds good.

My solar (intellectual) score was negative 8. Uh-oh.

My hermetic (metaphysical) score was 1. Hm.

My total score was 14, so I clicked the appropriate link: “Total Score of 0-14.” I didn’t like the looks of this.

The page that I am now looking at is a long essay of crap. Some choice quotes:

Calcination means literally “reduced to bone” by burning in an open flame.

If you do not begin Calcination with the right attitude, it can be a negative and even frightening experience.

Like it or not, you are moving to a higher level of consciousness, and the stronger you cling to the previous level, the hotter the fires of Calcination become.

Surprisingly, it is not until these fires are burning that your transformation begins, for the only way out of Hell is rise up with the flames.

During Calcination, you use the flames of consciousness to burn through illusion, self-deception, defense mechanisms, bigotry, and all the other dogmas and dramas of the Tyrant Ego that has usurped the throne of the transpersonal Self, who is the rightful ruler of the personality. As in the Grail legend, the kingdom of your personality will wither and decay until the true King is restored.

People describe being in the presence of a calcined person as “refreshing.” They sense the freedom of no longer having to be manipulated or controlled by deceits of someone else’s ego.

So, I’m going to hell to burn like a forgotten bag of popcorn. Once all my bigotry and self-deception are burned out, my inner hobbit will lead a band of fairies and gnomes to reclaim the One True Ring that is my inner self, and then I won’t be such a manipulative lying bastard.

Yeah, that about sums it up.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Rebecca, if you're going to burn up like forgotten popcorn, be sure to open your windows or spray around some Febreez or something. That smell is pretty unpleasant, not to mention persistent.

    Alchemy is definitely my favourite pseudoscience, though.

    "Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is Alchemy's First Law of Equivalent Exchange. In those days, we really believed that to be the world's one, and only, truth."

  2. Yeah, like every other pseudo-science, it works though quantum physics… :) From the site:

    "you study alchemical philosophy and see how it evolved from its roots in ancient Egypt right up to its modern rebirth in the principles of quantum physics."

  3. “Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is Alchemy’s First Law of Equivalent Exchange. In those days, we really believed that to be the world’s one, and only, truth.”

    Hooray for FMA! If alchemy really worked like that, it would be the coolest thing ever. Except for all the evil bits, of course.

  4. Interesting, I got a 47. I started to read what my score meant, but my head started to hurt after the first sentence. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've gotta use my dad's fishing sinkers to make my mom some gold earrings for her birthday.


    Oh, and FMA ROCKS!

  5. I can really only skim blocks of text that start with phrases lke "personal transformation".

    on the up-side, I forced myself to read the WHOLE FIRST SENTENCE of my horoscope at the end of the quiz and apparently I am "about to experience a joyous and life-enhancing empowerment of your personality."

    That sounds sweet! I can't wait.

    So when did alchemy go from turning lead into gold to being about the personal chakra crystal feng shui healing arts of the ancient Far East masters of the Face on Mars?

  6. Actually, health stuff was always a part of it. Lead to gold is sort of the popularised version, but a lot of alchemists were looking for medical cures and the secret of eternal life as well. They had the idea that the human body and other biological things had alchemical transmutations going on inside of them that sustained life.

    The New Agey reinterpretation came about whenever the new agey stuff itself came about.

  7. i got 56: "According to Tantric alchemists, the phallic-shaped pineal gland at the center of the brain and the bilobed pituitary gland play the roles of King and Queen. Their union, achieved through meditative exercises, produces a Pill of Immortality, which is released at the back of the throat and is activated when it reaches the stomach. This inner sex act initiates a Second Puberty that perfects and rejuvenates the body."

    um, so let me get this straight: my pineal gland is going to roger my pituitary gland, they're gonna gave a baby in my throat, which i'm gonna eat? Can't i just take a multivitamin or something?

  8. Joshua thank you, all I needed was to more fully understand the origins of alchemy. Now I can't be sefl-righteously ignorant of moronic pseudo-sciences.


  9. Joshua wrote:

    "They had the idea that the human body and other biological things had alchemical transmutations going on inside of them that sustained life."

    Perhaps they weren't transmutations per sé, but you could say they were on to something. Of course, science caught up and incorporated whatever turned out to be correct

  10. That's the cool part about science, and something that woo-types completely fail to appreciate. If something works, science will take it and run with it, even if it came from a bunch of weirdos and crackpots trying to scam the ruling class who happened to have a few actually bright bulbs among them. The main reason science hasn't adopted homeopathy or astrology or chiropractic or whatever else isn't that scientists are blinded, it's that all that crap just doesn't work. If homeopathy worked, you'd see all kinds of people, from quantum physicists to obviously medical doctors, studying the HELL out of it, just because of the incredibly profound implications it would have to every field of science. But of course it doesn't work, so real scientists just don't waste their time.

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