Saturday, April 28, 2012

Physica Subterranea


Recently on a BBC 4 programme entitled 'Metal: How it works', the presenter Mark Miodownik chronicled a short history of metal. From early man's mining of copper, to the Bronze Age and Iron Age, to the giant furnaces of the Industrial Revolution and the building of ships and planes, metal more than any other substance has been at the heart of civilization. Mark Miodownik succinctly demonstrated how from the village forge to industrialization and the manufacture of steel, to modern-day electrical wiring to computer conductivity, advancements in metallurgy have significantly altered the lives of each generation in homes, industries and cities throughout the centuries.

One early contributor to the history of metallurgy was the German-born Johann Joachim Becher (1635-1682). In his relatively short life J.J.Becher was an economic advisor to German and Austrian courts. He was also one of a number of 17th century figures who were Janus-like in their intellectual outlook, being  in equal measure both an early scientist as well as alchemist. Not unlike the Belgian alchemist and scientist Jan Baptist van Helmont (1579-1644) and the English physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) J.J. Becher had one foot in the world of early modern scientific enquiry and another in the world of ancient esotericism.

Although the frontispiece illustration of J.J. Becher's Physica Subterranea (above) with its depiction of a mysterious sun-beamed head haloed by planetary symbols is suggestive of the esoteric, in fact it is by all accounts a mundane work of scientific metallurgy which simply lists the geographic distribution of various metals throughout Europe. A copy of Physica Subterranea (1669) is listed as once in  Sir Thomas Browne's library. [1]


J. J.Becher was a contemporary of the British scientist Robert Boyle (1627-91) author of The Skeptical Chemist (1661) which is credited as the first book to distinguish between the activities and preoccupations of alchemists and chemists. Incidentally, Robert Boyle greatly respected Browne's own scientific credentials describing him as 'so faithful and candid a naturalist'. It's not beyond probability that Robert Boyle may have even met J.J. Becher as the German alchemist/chemist travelled from Germany to England in 1678 in order to tour mines in Scotland and Cornwall before dying in London in October 1682. 


J.J.Becher found inspiration in the German polymath Athanasius Kircher's book Mundus Subterraneus (1665) which supported the theories of spontaneous generation, metallic transmutation and the belief that metals grow in the earth. He incurred the wrath and threat of prosecution from Leopold I of Austria when his proposal that the sands of the Danube river could be transformed into gold spectacularly failed . Among his more practical proposals were that sugar and air were needed for fermentation and that coal could be distilled to produce tar. However J.J.Becher also adhered to the core alchemical belief advanced by the seminal Renaissance alchemist Paracelsus that all substances were based upon the trinity of salt, sulphur and mercury, stating- 'nitre, common salt and quicklime contain the principles of all things subterranean'. J.J.Becher also believed that - 'False alchemists seek only to make gold; true philosophers desire only knowledge. The former produce mere tincture, sophistries, ineptitudes; the latter enquire after the principle of things'.

Wiki-link -Johann Becher

[1] Source : 1711 Sales Catalogue of Sir Thomas Browne's Library edited by J.S.Finch and published by  E.J.Brill 1986. Listed on  page 25 no.123 
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