It’s a common myth that enlightenment atheists gave birth to the scientific era by casting off the darkness of the Christian middle ages and replacing magical arts like alchemy with the scientific experimental method. Historians of science know better. A couple of recent articles help set the record straight.
Alchemy has long had a bad rap, but that is beginning to change. Professor Lawrence Princippe (Johns Hopkins University) has spent 30 years investigating the writings and experiments of alchemists, and has concluded that many of them were “real scientists” doing valid work in chemistry. Among the respectable practitioners were Robert Boyle and IsaacNewton.
This does not mean that the methods of alchemists deserve a comeback, or that their belief that base metals could be turned into gold should be taken seriously, but rather that for their time, they were pursuing real scientific questions with the limited materials available to them. Sara Reardon described the growing recovery of alchemy’s reputation in Science.1
In a Nature blog,1 James Hannam, historian of science and author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution wrote to correct misconceptions about the relation of Christianity to science. Right off the bat he made a list:
The ongoing clash of creationism with evolution obscures the fact that Christianity has actually had a far more positive role to play in the history of science than commonly believed. Indeed, many of the alleged examples of religion holding back scientific progress turn out to be bogus. For instance, the Church has never taught that the Earth is flat and, in the Middle Ages, no one thought so anyway. Popes haven’t tried to ban zero, human dissection or lightening rods, let alone excommunicate Halley’s Comet. No one, I am pleased to say, was ever burnt at the stake for scientific ideas. Yet, all these stories are still regularly trotted out as examples of clerical intransigence in the face of scientific progress….
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