Experimental Recreations

One of my academic passions is the recreation of historical experiments. Walking down the same experimental paths opened by men and women in history who dared to meddle with nature is particularly fun and sometimes very useful for historicizing science.

Experimental recreations have been especially useful in my field, the history of early-modern chymistry and medicine. For especially useful examples, see Lawrence M. Principe's article on alchemy and impurities, and Princeton Historian Jennifer Rampling's thoughts here and here. Another example is provided by Cambridge's Hasok Chang here.

Such recreations are also valuable within the classroom to provide a visual and experiential aid, but they also allow students to wrestle with the actual practices of science. In several past classes at Indiana University I asked students to recreate an experiment of their choosing from the entire history of science and to write a paper and produce a short documentary based on their findings. Some students chose to use Volta's method to make his electric pile, others recreated Pasteur's famous Swan-neck flask experiment, and some especially ambitious students attempted to recreate Galileo's inclined plane experiment. They even used a water clock in order to avoid anachronism!

Such endeavors help students to appreciate, first of all, that individuals in history were often much more intelligent, systematic, and skilled in their use of experiments than they are given credit (for instance, in the popular press). Struggling through a primary source to create an experimental protocol, let alone carrying it out, shows students the subtlety and complexity of earlier science.

Alchemy provides an excellent example of this. While alchemists have nearly always been portrayed as fools and deceivers, this was not always an accurate representation. Indeed, as the research of recent historians have shown, many iconic figures in the history of science practiced alchemy. Sometimes, they sought to transmute base metals into gold, but they also used chymical experiments for a variety of purposes.

In 2010, William R. Newman and I carried out a recreation of an experiment devised by Robert Boyle, the so-called Reduction to the Pristine State of Camphor, in which Boyle defended a particular philosophical position about the nature of mixture based on a rather simple and visually striking experiment.

Here is the video:

Boyle's Reduction to the Pristine State

Here is another video in which Prof. Newman and I recreated part of Robert Boyle's famous Redintegration of Niter.

YouTube Video

In my work on the Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project I spent several semesters in the laboratory (and the backyard of my Ph.D advisor) recreating the historical alchemical experiments of Isaac Newton and other alchemists.

For instance, I (at times with the help of Evan Ragland and Prof. Newman) used Newton's methods for creating mineral acids.

The following photos were taking during the recreation of the experiments.

"Oyl of Vitriol" Distillation

Copper + Stibnite Regulus

posted May 16, 2010, 3:43 PM by J.A. Klein

Nitric Acid Distillation - KNO4 + Fuller's Earth

posted May 16, 2010, 3:41 PM by J.A. Klein

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