Monday, 5 July 2010

So... What is Alchemy?

Alchemy is a fusion of art, philosophy and the physical sciences.

The physical sciences are motivated by a pursuit of pure knowledge. The alchemist, too, is a seeker after knowledge but also brings an element of spirituality to their art. The very nature of spiritual practices makes them difficult to rationalise or even describe adequately. They are seeking after some internal change in their psyches that cannot really be described without resorting to purple prose of Sanskrit nouns that are, in turn, impossible to define without resorting to that same purple prose.

Classical, Muslim or Christian  alchemy seeks to take part in the work of God, to bring the lowly and humble to some state of grace, to implement the philosophical aspects of those religions within the matter worked upon in the belief that this will resonate in the soul of the alchemist and, in turn, bring them to a similar state of grace. In ancient China the prevailing philosophy among alchemists was Taoism. Through experiments in the nature of change they sought to become part of the great process of change that they saw all around them and named The Tao.

(to be continued)

Why Potassium Permanganate?

Some people may find it odd to go through life with a favourite chemical but having passed through a childhood littered with trainspotting, Dr Who, building electronic devices and computers no depth of nerdiness has any surprises left for me any more.

Remember your first images of chemistry: the mad scientist in his laboratory with a huge collection of apparatus on retort stands bubbling away with various coloured liquids. How disappointing those first few chemistry lessons were when nearly all the powders turned out to be white and all the liquids, clear. Where were the pretty colours?! Then, along came Potassium Permanganate! It's just so purple... drop a few crystals into a big flask of water and pretty wisps of pink cloud start to appear... "now this is real chemistry!"

Potassium Permanganate is also a chemical time machine. I may be over romanticising, but that's what this blog is all about. It's a rather strong oxidising agent which gives it a very interesting role in the arts. I'd talked to many of my artistic friends about artificially ageing organic materials: making a sheet of paper or a piece of wood that you'd just got from the shop look as though it'd been kicking round for a hundred years or so. When a very great friend of mine said "oh, don't bother with cold tea... use KMnO4!" and... wow... the effects are stunning. Ask any faker... erm... I mean "restorer" of antiques or any film props man worth his salt how to take a bit of plywood back 3 or 4 hundred years in time and they'll say just the same thing.

The process is a simple one pop a couple of grams in about 100 mL of water and slop the solution on the wood, paper, cloth... well pretty much any organic material and the magic works... bang! it's suddenly a couple of hundred years old.

This piece of wood has just had a quick thin coating so, hopefully, you can see the process in action.

Let it dry out and pop another coat on and you can go back even further. I've been working on a druid staff to pose with at solstice ceremonies and after successive treatments it looks like I've hauled it out of some Iron Age peat bog.

These are just a couple of the wonders of potassium permanganate and there's more to come.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Calcium Carbonate

My main rule with this process of transformation is that starting materials must be dross, detritus, or rubbish so I have had to work backwards from my end product until I have found substances that I can obtain for the lowliest, humblest sources.

So, although I have no need of calcium or carbonate in my end goal, one of the chains leading on to my finished product is CaCO3.

I've looked at many possible sources of calcium carbonate, pure limestones (walking down the street - checking out the paving slabs: "nope - too much iron, nope - too much silica, nope too much... um... 'eugh'!"), sea shells, coral shingle from Connemara but none of them have been humble enough.

I was doing some housework the other day when the plainly obvious smacked me in the face: I live in a hard water area. The kettle here is one of those clever ones that breaks the lime-scale off it's own element. So all I need to do is sloosh out the kettle regularly, dry off the little scales of almost pure CaCO3, and grind them down to a powder.

If only building a lime kiln for the next phase of this chain could be as simple as that. But I must remember, it's the journey that's important not necessarily reaching the goal.

The powder I'm getting out of this operation is very nearly pure... it certainly should be for my purposes. There's probably going to be a little magnesium (bi)carbonate and such like in there. Perhaps purifying it a little more might be a good idea, perhaps not. At this stage, I don't know how I would go about doing that anyway.

The kettle old Chinese takeaway container to dry the scale on the windowsill
and the power almost fully ground in the pestle and mortar.

(Have you noticed that, whilst the Indian takeaways have stuck to good old recyclable aluminium foil for their containers, it seems that all the Chinese ones have gone for microwaveable plastic - can't say I'm happy with that but I prefer a nice bit of aloo saag to a chow mein anyway)


I've been fascinated by the practise of alchemy since childhood despite the medieval mumbo-jumbo that usually accompanies it - all that talk of immortality, making gold and what-have-you. The idea of applying the physical sciences to meditation, of transforming myself internally by applying knowledge of the physical world to transform dross into something somehow magical has been one that has always gripped me.

Over the last couple of years, I've had an idea nagging at the back of my mind that not only resonates with the ideas of traditional alchemy but also with very modern and trendy ideas of recycling. This idea is one of transforming dross, detritus, or rubbish into a favourite chemical of mine (Yes, I do have a favourite chemical. I know it's nerdy and I've learned to live with it), the nearest thing to magic that I've found outside of love and dreams: Potassium Permanganate.

And so, it begins.