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     Alchemy in Asia
     Science's siesta

17th - 18th century
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Alchemy in Asia: 8th - 10th century

There are two important centres of alchemical experiment in medieval Asia. One is Baghdad under the caliphate, where from the 8th century there is enthusiastic translation and study of Greek scientific texts. Arab alchemists, in their pursuit of synthesized gold, make practical advances in techniques of distillation. And they identify several chemical substances.

The other great centre is China, where alchemical experiments have a slightly different purpose. The quarry is still gold, but as an elixir of eternal life. This is the pursuit of the Daoists (one of whom describes, with gentle irony, an Experiment which goes wrong in the 9th century). It is Daoists who make the most startling chemical discovery of the period - gunpowder.


Gunpowder: 10th century

In about 1040 a Chinese manual on warfare is issued under the title Compendium of Military Technology. It is the first document to describe gunpowder. This black powder, formed by pounding a mixture of saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur (a dangerous process if the pounding is overdone), seems to have been developed in the small chemical laboratories attached to the temples of Daoists where research is conducted mainly on the secret of eternal life.

At this early stage in China the military use of gunpowder is limited to grenades and bombs lobbed at the enemy from catapults. Its real destructive force will only emerge when the explosion is confined, in the development of artillery.


Science's siesta: 8th - 15th century

In the profoundly Christian centuries of the European Middle Ages the prevailing mood is not conducive to scientific enquiry. God knows best, and so He should - since He created everything. Where practical knowledge is required, there are ancient authorities whose conclusions are accepted without question - Ptolemy in the field of astronomy, Galen on matters anatomical.

A few untypical scholars show an interest in scientific research. The 13th-century Franciscan friar Roger Bacon is the most often quoted example, but his studies include alchemy and astrology as well as optics and astronomy. The practical scepticism required for science must await the Renaissance.


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