This time, delving deep to find order and beauty. What is the world made of? Appearances deceive. Beneath the surface our world is stranger, that we can possibly imagine. Standing here, it certainly feels as if I am standing on a solid surface. But this is an illusion, however convincing. Nothing is really solid. And you and I? well, we consist almost entirely of empty space. If you took the entire population of the world, all six billions of us, and removed that empty space, then we could be squeezed into a cube smaller than that. And it gets stranger. Mobile phone and other electronic devices which we rely on. Well, they rely on particles buy any normal definition, simply don’t exist. These insights all come from our attempts to find out what the world is made of.
Over the millennia, our understanding has moved ever deeper, revealing new layers that make up the material world. It may seem like an academic, esoteric quest. It’s anything but. Everytime we’ve gone down a layer and achieved a deeper understanding of matter, that knowledge has spawned new technologies and huge amounts of wealth and power.
The first people who systematically tried to unlock the secrets of what the world is made of, and to alter it, were the alchemists.
They flourished in the late middle ages, working in secret, protecting their knowledge with codes and ciphers. Its easy to dismiss the alchemists as deluded mystics, forever trying to turn lead into gold. Or, perhaps, conmen, who used simple chemistry to impress the gullible. But the roots of a scientific investigation of what the world is made of, lie in their secret laboratories. The alchemists’ beliefs about matter were largely based on ideas that had come down from the ancient Greeks, who believed that, well, pretty well everything around you was made up of earth, fire, and water. Theirs was a system of beguiling simplicity. Everything in the world was a combination of just four idealized elements… earth. Water. Fire. Air.
Now, they were completely wrong in that, but the central principle, that you can explain a complex world by just simple building blocks or elements, that was important. But what really interest me about the alchemist is their practical abilities.