01 March 2007

Chemistry and History -- Having Fun Yet?

I am no chemist. I took two semesters of chemistry in high school and did quite well, but with me in a classroom setting, that didn't mean much. Doing well was my intention, not long-term retention.

For my current WIP, set in 1199 AD England, I am having to re-learn and just plain learn quite a bit for my heroine's profession: alchemy. My goal for this MS is to manage all manner of fantastic and explosive happenings, but without any paranormal elements. To have Meg cast spells and be an actual witch (as opposed to "accused of witchcraft," which does take place) just seemed too goofy and ordinary for me, so I hit the books. Any excuse for more research!

My initial goal was to find a legitimate source of information for her. Arab, Indian, and Chinese scholars knew much about all of my "fantastic and explosive happenings," including gunpowder, acids, making fake gold and gems, and medicine. For example, an Arab or possibly Persian scientist named Jabir ibn Hayyan, better known as Geber (c.721-c.815), pictured left, is credited with the first modern scientific inquiry. In addition, he formulated the process to synthesize hydrochloric and nitric acids. Useful and cool. Another scientist, a Persian named Al-Razi (865-925), codified modern distillation techniques and drew from previous works to revolutionize how minerals are classified.

Al-Razi, pictured right, also worked extensively on the transmutation of metals -- turning base metals into precious ones. And Geber believed strongly in takwin -- the creation of artificial life in a laboratory setting. At the heart of their hard science, the goal for most of these great minds remained materialistic. Gold. Everlasting life. Fortune and glory. I like the parallels to today. No scientist can live by altruism and inquiry alone!

However, my difficulty was not pure knowledge, but the proliferation of knowledge. How to get that information to England? Kevin Costner relied on Morgan Freeman's Moorish sidekick in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but what could I manage for Meg? I didn't just want to twang her with more goods than would have been available. I might as well make her a witch.

In my travels through wondrous stacks of library books, I discovered a little-known man named Adelard of Bath (c.1116-c.1142). In his brief life, Adelard traveled to Spain and North Africa where he became fluent in Arabic, studied at Arab universities, and translated seminal works into Latin -- including Euclid's Elements, which had only survived as an Arab translation of the original Greek. Adelard believed the earth is round, theorized that matter cannot be destroyed, and studied atmospheric pressure and the vacuum. To say he was ahead of his time is an understatement.

When he returned to England, Adelard became a tutor to King Henry II. He also corresponded extensively with a nephew in letters that were discovered centuries later and subsequently lost. The identity of the nephew is not a matter of consensus. Most believe he was a lay-scientist, perhaps a man with a keen mind and interest in the subject, but without the means or desire to pursue the subject as extensively as had his uncle.

In the twelfth century, because texts were so rare and difficult to produce, a person who owned a dozen books was rich beyond imagination. Correspondences such as those between Adelard and his nephew would have become a near-sacred heirloom for their progeny, full of questions, theories, translations, and knowledge of practical chemistry.

Ta-dah! A light bulb moment. I had discovered a legitimate means of bringing Arab knowledge of chemistry to England at the time of my WIP. Yes, although far-fetched, I decided to make the mystery nephew my heroine's grandfather.

That's my story. Sticking to it. Next month: how medieval folks blew things up.


Camilla said...

I love alchemy! Will she be able to turn things into gold?

Karen Mercury said...

Carrie, I'm an amateur mineralogist, so I always determined to have a character be a geologist. I thought that'd fit in real well with my last pirate book--buried treasure and all. I was lucky enough to find on ebay an 1871 Dana's Manual of Mineralogy, so at least I could get that far back, for a start.

It was a long hard road, though. The only mineral of note in Madagascar is celestine, not suited for jewelry, but it is a component in fireworks--it makes the color red. Now, why the hell are these Chinese pirates killing everyone to get the celestine? Wait just one second...Didn't the Chinese invent fireworks? :)

It turned out it was the Italians who turned fireworks from yellow/white to colorful, so I just had my hero sell all his celestine to the Italians.

A fanciful stretch perhaps, but based in logic, and it was sure fun figuring it all out!