A team of science historians are attempting to re-create recipes from sixteenth-century alchemy texts

Historians in the News
tags: Columbia, History related to science, Center for Science and Society, alchemy

The drawers at the Making and Knowing Lab, at Columbia University, have labels rarely seen outside a Harry Potter novel: “Ox Gall,” “Spiderwebs,” “Powder for Hourglasses,” “Dragon’s Blood.” The denizens of the lab re-create old recipes from alchemy-era texts—primarily of the sixteenth century—and this brings them into contact with some unusual ingredients. On a recent Monday morning, Joel Klein, a redheaded history-of-science postdoc who studies Isaac Newton’s alchemical work, sniffed a bag of flakes labelled “Rabbit-Skin Glue.” “It smells like skin,” he said. Another sniff. “Although I’m not sure what a sommelier would say.”

The Making and Knowing Lab is run by Columbia’s Center for Science and Society. Its recipe re-creations take place in an old chemistry lab and are supported by $436,000 from the National Science Foundation. The goal is to help science historians understand the materials that craftsmen used centuries ago, as well as the technologies and techniques that were available at the dawn of the scientific revolution. Elsewhere in the lab, a dozen students in white coats bustled about. Siddhartha Shah, an art-history graduate student, was making counterfeit emeralds. The recipe involved mixing red lead, copper, and other ingredients in a ceramic crucible, then melting everything with a blowtorch in a small furnace, which he’d constructed from bricks and wire.

Although his first attempts had flopped—the “emerald” looked like a nub of coal—Shah wasn’t discouraged. “It was fascinating to watch the color change from red to green to black,” he said. “Then our crucible exploded.”

The sixth and seventh attempts produced two translucent green buttons. Shah removed his own emerald ring—he also wore emerald earrings—and held it next to the buttons for comparison.

Pamela Smith, a science historian who directs the lab, exclaimed, “They’re like real emerald!” ...

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