Secrets of Alchemy

a pyramid among gold

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Michael Dziedzic (CC0), Peter Olexa (CC0), and Joshua Sortino (CC0)

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September 19, 2020

Once upon a time, science and magic were two sides of the same coin. Today, we learn science in school and save magic for children’s books. What if it were different? What would it be like to see the world as an alchemist?


Alchemists believed that if they could transform matter, why not also the spirit, or the self? That last part is what’s attracting new followers today, like Sara Durn.

alchemical recipes

Pamela Smith's science history students spend a semester taking medieval alchemical recipes and re-creating them in a lab.

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton wrote more than a million words on alchemy over his lifetime, conducting decades of alchemical experiments. But he did it all in secret. Why? The question fascinates historian Bill Newman.

"The most important colour in alchemy was red. It was a symbol of life, blood and the Sun."

Alchemy left its mark on Prague — and on our producer, Charles Monroe-Kane, who lived there as a young man. He says the Czechs are still uncovering alchemical secrets.

crystal meth

When anthropologist Jason Pine traveled to rural Missouri, he wound up spending a lot of time observing underground meth labs. And he came to a startling conclusion: that the meth cooks of the Ozarks are today’s alchemists.


Show Details 📻
September 19, 2020
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October 22, 2022
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Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Today, if you're looking for something more exciting to do than read the news, how about trying your hand at alchemy, turning base metal into gold, hunting the philosopher's stone, brewing up the elixir of life. Once upon a time, science and magic were two sides of the same coin. Today we learn science in school and save magic for children's books. But what if it were different? What would it be like to see the world as an alchemist.

Sarah Durn (00:44):

Alchemy itself has molded through different religions.

Anne Strainchamps (00:52):

Here's Sarah Durn, who at 25 years old, sees alchemy as a spiritual practice.

Sarah Durn (01:02):

It was started in Alexandria in Egypt, and there were Egyptian gods interwoven into alchemy and Greek gods interwoven into alchemy, and then it morphs in the middle ages into a Christian religion. A lot of Christian iconography goes into alchemy. It was taking on different forms and different religious cloaks. When reformation started to bubble up and Protestant revolution started happening, the Catholic church became much more aware. Because it was always like this thing that happened in dark rooms and out of sight. We can't have anyone saying that they have a direct connection to God. The only way to have a connection to God is through our priests.

There was, at that time, these type of alchemists called the puffers. They would get hired by Rudolph the Second and these different cords across Europe. A king, yeah, I can make you go real easy. The king was like, "Dope. This is great. You're hired." But we have evidence they were painting rocks gold. Then the Enlightenment happens and alchemy gets replaced by chemistry. We're not all chemists, but being curious about the world is its own sort of alchemy, trying to see the magic in the every day.

Anne Strainchamps (03:03):

If you put it that way, maybe practicing alchemy is just what we could all use today. To be clear, alchemy was an early kind of proto chemistry. Practitioners using some of the same lab equipment we do today experimented with transforming matter from one state to another. They melted metal, turned liquids into gas, reduced solids to ashes, and they also believed that if they could transform matter, why not the spirit itself? That last part is what's attracting new followers today like Sarah Durn, as she told Charles Monroe-Kane.

Sarah Durn (03:47):

Alchemists saw the world with such curiosity and wonder, and we're constantly investigating the world around them, like how do you get water into ice? Alchemists were just so enamored by that transformation, and then how ice goes back to water and then can become a gas. They talk a lot about these seven transformations of alchemy and how each transformation is an opportunity to purify a substance.

Charles Monroe-Kane (04:18):


Sarah Durn (04:18):

But then there's a whole other side of alchemy. They call it esoteric alchemy, where it's all about trying to purify yourself into its most reduced form, and it's like hitting Nirvana, becoming enlightened.

Charles Monroe-Kane (04:35):

Can you real quickly run through the seven steps?

Sarah Durn (04:38):


Charles Monroe-Kane (04:39):

Just let's hear them.

Sarah Durn (04:40):

It starts with calcination and then it moves to disillusion and then separation and then the conjunction phase and then fermentation, distillation and coagulation is the last one. What alchemy means to me is looking for transformation all around you. Every transformation we go through as human beings, be it something traumatic like a car accident or just even reading a good book, that's an opportunity for transformation, just like water moving into ice, moving into gas.

Charles Monroe-Kane (05:26):

You right now, 2020, is this your religion, or is this just a metaphor you use to help guide you?

Sarah Durn (05:35):

I mean, it's esoteric. It is this mystical understanding of the world. It defies explanation in many ways. Trying to talk about alchemy is trying to talk about starters. It doesn't really make sense, but it does also make a lot of sense in terms of God is within and that we are all divine and that there's very practical ways to reach that divinity and purify it. It's just that's what's left of you.

Charles Monroe-Kane (06:10):

I would say what's interesting for me, I think, is that it's still grounded in a bunch of people in a lab a long time ago actually physically doing things. It's not just spiritual, it's also practical. I think that's something really appealing.

Sarah Durn (06:25):

That's why I got into alchemy. It's sort of this marriage of magic and science. At a time when those two things there wasn't even conception that they would be different. When the Egyptians and the Arabs and the medievals were working with alchemy, they saw it all as part of this great work and tribute to God. It was all connected. In the alchemist's perspective, you had to actively be doing the experiments in order for the inner alchemy, the inner work of becoming your purest gold inner self.

Charles Monroe-Kane (07:09):

There's probably a question. I think a lot of curious people would be asking, say, "How do I get into this? How do I start?" Because it's so confusing and mystical. I think people are like, "How do they start?"

Sarah Durn (07:22):

I think it can start with just ... Next time you're cooking, say you're cooking spinach for dinner, if you really look at the leafy greens, look at the leaves and how fresh it is and think about where it came from and the ground and the seed that it came from, and then you put it in your pan and you saute it with olive oil and salt and pepper and then you put it on your plate. Thinking about the transformation that just one side goes through at dinner, that's its own kind of alchemy. If you can find wonder and be curious in that, you're a step closer to how the alchemists saw the world, or try to see the world.

Charles Monroe-Kane (08:05):

Wow. I mean, I thought you were going to say you're a step closer to God.

Sarah Durn (08:10):

Yeah. I mean, you are, according to the alchemists, and I think to me.

Anne Strainchamps (08:29):

Sarah Durn is the author of The Beginner's Guide to Alchemy. Charles Monroe-Kane talked with her. Science history students at Columbia University don't have to imagine what it was like to be an alchemist. If they take one of Professor Pamela Smith's courses, they can spend a semester reading medieval alchemical manuscripts, translating recipes for making emeralds returning silkworms into gold, and then they can recreate those experiments in a lab, which can be quite an adventure. How do you make an Emerald?

Pamela Smith (09:09):

Well, you take ground crystal, ground rock crystal, which is mainly silica, and red lead which is powdered bright orange lead, and a little bit of copper to make the green and some salts and you heat it all together. We tried it, the grad students and the postdoc who was working with them, tried it about 10 times and got ashy ash, just ash to begin with. Then they got black glass.

Anne Strainchamps (09:50):

It really does take skill?

Pamela Smith (09:52):

It does. Finally, on about the eighth try, they got green, beautiful green emeralds.

Anne Strainchamps (09:59):

Are they real emeralds?

Pamela Smith (10:01):

Oh no. I mean, they're glass, right? They're colored glass.

Anne Strainchamps (10:06):

What's the weirdest ingredient you've had to try to find?

Pamela Smith (10:10):

That's such a good question. I mean, the students had to do all kinds of sourcing adventures. I mean, adventures in sourcing was actually fascinating. To get silkworms we found a supplier in Long Island or somewhere who could get us silkworm eggs, and we grew the silkworms, the student grew the silkworms. Now it was winter and he had to keep the silkworms at a constant temperature of about 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Anne Strainchamps (10:43):

How did he do that?

Pamela Smith (10:44):

Yes, good question. The manuscripts says to keep the silkworms in a vessel in horse dung, and that's ... It sounds ... Oh, well, I'll tell you a story about horse dung. But I mean, that sounds very exotic but that's a very, very common thing that you see in recipes at this time because horse dung and cow dung actually are hosts to thermophilic bacteria. Horse dung and cow dung stay at a constant temperature as long as the bacteria stays alive. So if you have composted horse or cow manure, you'll see how it steams in the morning. Well, that's because it's full of thermophilic bacteria. Actually it's a very good way to keep something warm at a constant low temperature.

Anne Strainchamps (11:30):

Wait. What did your students have to do? Go around looking for fresh horse dung to surround your beaker full of silkworm eggs?

Pamela Smith (11:39):

Well, we tried that to start with. First of all, it was New York City. We even called up the stables in New York City, but there was no way that we could actually have a pile of manure composting anywhere on campus. Besides, it was winter and it wouldn't have worked. So what the student did was he found the top of the boiler in his building, in his apartment building. He made a special wooden box and kept the silkworms in this wooden box and fed them mulberry leaves.

Anne Strainchamps (12:15):

I'm trying to imagine this student explaining all of this to the super in his apartment building.

Pamela Smith (12:20):

Yes, exactly.

Anne Strainchamps (12:23):

Don't touch those. Those are my silkworms.

Pamela Smith (12:25):

Yeah, exactly. It was amazing. He actually hatched silkworms, interestingly enough.

Anne Strainchamps (12:31):

Tell me about that silkworm recipe because that one, I mean, it's more than just a scientific formula. There's a lot of symbolism attached to it, right?

Pamela Smith (12:40):

Very much so.

Anne Strainchamps (12:42):

This is the one that is about trying to make gold.

Pamela Smith (12:45):

Yes, that's right. The timing of the whole recipe in terms of the liturgical calendar, the calendar of the church, is very significant also. St. John's Day is when it starts the summer solstice and so on and so forth.

Anne Strainchamps (13:01):

So you have to do this at a certain time of year? It's not just-

Pamela Smith (13:04):

Yes, you do. Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (13:05):

... get your hot dung and get your silkworm eggs and combined them?

Pamela Smith (13:08):

Yeah, right. Yeah. Then you take the silkworms, you grow them and then you put them in a flask all together and you keep that flask in hot dung again. They grow bigger, you continue to feed them egg yolks and they grow bigger, and then you feed them gold leaf. Eventually, the recipe says they will kill each other off, and there will be one super silkworm left, and that's-

Anne Strainchamps (13:43):

Wait, wait, wait. So you're raising cannibalistic silkworms that will then eat each other?

Pamela Smith (13:49):


Anne Strainchamps (13:50):

And you're supposed to just watch until there's one winner-

Pamela Smith (13:53):


Anne Strainchamps (13:53):

... who's vanquished and eaten all its brothers and sisters?

Pamela Smith (13:56):

Right. Then you are supposed to carefully ... The whole vessel is sealed closed. Then you're supposed to put a ring of coals around that vessel, carefully cover the vessel, the glass vessel is coated in clay so that it won't crack when you put the ring of charcoals around it, and then you're supposed to heat it to kill the silkworm and turn it into powder. Then you have to-

Anne Strainchamps (14:23):

You've gone in all this trouble of raising the silkworm and feeding its brothers and sisters, and now you're going to kill it?

Pamela Smith (14:29):

Yeah. Because that then burn it so that it creates this powder, and this powder is supposed to be able to make things gold. The point about a recipe like this is not that it's necessarily pseudoscience. It seems as though the author practitioner had a very straightforward practical approach to it, but I don't think it could ever actually work. The importance of this recipe is in its symbolism and in its antiquity. These people have the focus on the same kinds of questions we have like what generates life, what can regenerate growth, like growth of a limb or growth of an organ? So the focus is the same, but the way they're answering them is often different within a different cosmic understanding.

Anne Strainchamps (15:21):

Yeah. What fascinates me about this is the almost mystical symbolism attached to this because it seems like there are all these references to rebirth and resurrection, both the rebirth of the animals and then the death of the animals, and then coupled with the Christian calendar and the date of the resurrection seems like it's part science or part chemistry, but with this strong mystical component.

Pamela Smith (15:49):

I mean, I guess it's mystical, it's religious. You have to think that their whole world view at this time was very much shaped by religion. People understood nature through religious texts and practices. So it's not surprising that something that gave rise to new life or gave rise to the ability to ennoble a metal or some other material would be compared to Jesus's resurrection.

Anne Strainchamps (16:22):

I know that seems maybe primitive to us today when science and religion are so often considered just antithetical to each other. But is there something that interests you or seems valuable to you about that worldview?

Pamela Smith (16:40):

It's valuable in ... I mean, knowledge has different statuses, right? We have a particularly pretty much instrumental view to the way that natural knowledge is pursued today. People want to do something with it. They want to make natural materials, but they also want to understand the universe. There are simply different understandings of the universe. I'll just say that, I think that realizing those different understandings and not putting them on a hierarchy from primitive to modern is very important. Because if you think about something like sustainability, the world view that saw humans as a part of nature and not a master of nature, the worldview that saw humans as a part of nature might have led to a different attitude to nature that would not have landed us in this crisis. Now as a historian, you can't say what if. There's not much value to that. But still to be aware that different ways of understanding the universe might have value, I think is important.

Anne Strainchamps (18:09):

Is there any practical value to recreating older alchemical experiments? Has anybody who's done this discovered anything that might actually be useful today?

Pamela Smith (18:21):

Yes. There was a literature professor at the University of Nottingham who wanted to try out a panacea, so something that was supposed to cure everything, and he worked with a biology lab and they tried it out on various bacteria and they found that it actually had an effect against MRSA, the very persistent bacteria that penicillin-

Anne Strainchamps (19:02):

The antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Pamela Smith (19:04):

Yes, exactly. It's now in trials there. I mean, you can find it on the internet.

Anne Strainchamps (19:11):


Pamela Smith (19:11):

But there's an example of something that was potentially extremely interesting to scientists, to medical researchers.

Anne Strainchamps (19:24):

Pamela Smith teaches history of science at Columbia University, where she runs the Making and Knowing project. If you want to try out one of those recipes yourself, you can explore the lab's new digital edition of a 1580s manuscript, Secrets of Craft and Nature. The links on our website at What do you listen to while brewing up a potion or two? Alchemical music, of course. (singing) In the early 1600s, German alchemist, Michael Meyer, moved to the court of Emperor Rudolph the Second, and he became Rudolph's position and counselor and composer. (singing) This is one of 50 fugues he wrote. They were published in 1617 in a book called Atalanta Fugiens. It's full of alchemical symbols and incantations, and we don't know exactly what they were all for, but it's fair to speculate that this was music to be sung or performed maybe even at critical moments during the alchemical practice. (singing)

To hear all 50 fugues, just go to our website at Next Isaac Newton and the alchemical roots of the scientific revolution. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. No one did more to usher in the scientific revolution than Isaac Newton, the mathematician, physicist and astronomer, the man who gave us Newton's laws of motion, Newton's laws of universal gravitation, Newtonian fluids. But Newton was also an alchemist. He spent half his life pursuing the philosopher's stone, and he kept his observations in secret coded notebooks and manuscripts. As the economist, John Maynard Keynes, said when he bought them at auction, Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians. Well science historian, William Newman, has now decoded and even reproduced some of those experiments, and he's written the definitive book on the subject, Newton, The Alchemist. Steve Paulson has been reading it.

Steve Paulson (22:07):

There are a couple of things you have to know about alchemy in the 17th century. First, it was the chemistry of its day, or as historians now call it chymistry, spelled C-H-Y. This emerging science seem to have the amazing capacity to transform matter itself. So potentially you could change one substance into anything else. The other thing, practicing alchemy was dangerous, especially if word got out that you were good at it.

William Newman (22:39):

There are lots of stories about how alchemists were locked up by vindictive rulers who wanted to extract their secrets and wouldn't hesitate to use torture, for example. Some of these stories are actually true. For example, there was an Alchemist in the early 18th century named Johann Friedrich Bottger who was locked up by a Saxon ruler named Algos the Strong, and actually Algos managed to turn him away from his transmutational efforts so that he invented porcelain. That's actually the origin of the Meissen porcelain industry in Germany. It goes back to this man, Bottger, an alchemist.

Steve Paulson (23:26):

The only thing worse than being a successful alchemist, being a fraud.

William Newman (23:30):

There were also alchemical charlatans who were playing the noble courts of Europe in the 16th and 17th century for all they were worth. If they were exposed as frauds, they would typically be executed and often in quite nasty ways.

Steve Paulson (23:49):

So was alchemy considered a kind of magic?

William Newman (23:53):

That's an interesting question. Like most these questions, things can get complicated and nuanced. But to Newton, at least, alchemy and magic were distinct. I think in his mind magic was associated mostly with demonic magic. There is yet another feature though, and that comes out in a letter that he wrote to Henry Oldenburg in 1676, who was the secretary of the Royal Society. In it Newton is very concerned about the fact that Robert Boyle, who by the way is sometimes called the father of modern chemistry, who was a devoted Alchemist himself, Newton is concerned about the fact that Boyle has revealed too much about a so-called sophic mercury, a kind of initial ingredient of the philosopher's stone. So Newton tells Oldenburg that he would like to commend the Boyle to high silence. He's really worried that word will get out. Why? He's worried that scientific secrets of a really radical sort are going to be loosed upon the world, and as a result, tremendous damage could occur.

Steve Paulson (25:11):

The ultimate prize everyone was competing to discover, for the philosopher's stone.

William Newman (25:21):

They even have descriptions of it. It was typically thought to be a ruby red material that was fusible in the heat, and you added it to a molten metal and it would instantaneously transmute it into gold or in some cases silver. Many people also thought that it was a panacea. It could also cure the human body of any sort of illness.

Steve Paulson (25:47):

Today, most of us know the philosopher's stone as a plot point in the first Harry Potter movie, but it wasn't a fairy tale to Newton. He was obsessed with trying to uncover the laws of nature, secrets maybe even deeper than the laws of physics. Alchemy was science back then. Newton run experiments in his lab and kept reams of notebooks. In fact, he wrote approximately a million words on alchemy over his life.

William Newman (26:14):

It's a sort of one damn thing after the next, right?

Steve Paulson (26:19):

The problem for an historian like Bill Newman, these alchemical notebooks were written in code.

William Newman (26:25):

For example, he refers to something that he calls the Green Lion in his experimental notebooks. Nobody's been able to figure out exactly what that meant to him. He talks about, for example, the two serpents. He also talks about something he calls [Sofic Salamuniac 00:26:42]. But what are these things?

Steve Paulson (26:49):

So it's hard to figure out what exactly Newton was doing, but his experiments involved mixing and boiling various metals and ores and dipping them into acids, basically breaking down these substances in order to transform them.

William Newman (27:02):

Newton was trying to create more and more volatile compounds. He was trying to replicate processes that he believed to be taking place under the surface of the earth. So he had a theory that metals are being generated within the earth, always. The earth, according to Newton, is a living being. He calls it a sort of cosmic vegetable, right? This is what Newton thinks is happening within the earth, and it involves heating up materials, vaporizing them. That's really important for understanding what he's trying to do in the laboratory, because he's interested in replicating what's going on beneath the surface of the earth.

Steve Paulson (27:46):

This work in the lab could be dangerous. In fact, Newman has reproduced a number of Newton's experiments at some personal risk.

William Newman (27:53):

This is actually a rather exciting process. You get a quite vigorous reaction of what a lot of boiling and given off, and also yeah quite poisonous red fumes of nitrogen dioxide. The first time I did this, I got some boiling over of the solution. I've always been very careful to do it under a fume hood because I knew that it was likely to release this poisonous gas. But anyway, that's exciting all the same. I've done it many times and you just have to be careful and control the situation.

Steve Paulson (28:31):

So you have to remember Newton was doing all of this in secret. It was very different from his work in physics and optics, which he did want the world to know about. Alchemists on the other hand, had their own private networks and back channels while communicating with each other.

William Newman (28:46):

They certainly presented themselves as a sort of a secret club. The term adept was used for someone who had actually attained the philosopher's stone, who actually reached the limits of the alchemical enterprise. They were considered to be a kind of super human in a way, not only for the fact that they had actually, according to the stories, arrived at the philosopher's stone, but also for their ability to conceal their knowledge while also revealing it to those who were worthy to have it. They were considered to be the chosen sons of God. I mean, this was a term that was actually used.

Steve Paulson (29:29):

But it raises the question of whether Newton regarded himself as some kind of mystic, maybe not in the modern religious sense, but as if he had access to or wanted to have access to secret knowledge in the gnostic sense.

William Newman (29:44):

I think in that old sense of mysticism, yes. The sense that alchemy was a form of secret knowledge that had to be imparted by word of mouth or else had to be intuited by someone who had special abilities, special cognitive powers.

Steve Paulson (30:11):

Newton never did find the philosopher's stone. Though he did create a number of new metallic compounds, some of which have never been reproduced to this day. There's one more thing about Isaac Newton, he had the right temperament to be an alchemist. By all accounts he was obsessive, arrogant and generally not a nice person to be around.

William Newman (30:33):

Yeah. Probably one of the least nice people to be around. Yeah, Newton, he was a loner. When you got close to him, it was dangerous because he can turn on you. I think perhaps some of Newton's personality traits can be explained if you think of him as somebody who was trying to become an adept, an alchemical master, because the adepts were themselves the ultimate loners, because anyone you trusted might reveal that you have the knowledge of the philosopher's stone, then you'd wind up strangled in your bed because somebody would have wanted to steal it.

Steve Paulson (31:17):

You get the sense that given Newton's personality didn't like a lot of people, that actually that fit pretty well with a life in alchemy because you had to be very quiet and secretive about it.

William Newman (31:30):

Yes, exactly. Also, the alchemist was supposed to be essentially smarter than everybody else.

Steve Paulson (31:38):

Newton had no doubt that he was smarter than everyone else.

William Newman (31:41):

He was right, actually.

Anne Strainchamps (31:55):

That's William Newman, talking with Steve Paulson. Newman is a historian of science at Indiana University and author of Newton the Alchemist. If you were an alchemist in the 16th century, the place to be was Prague and the court of Emperor Rudolf the Second, the most famous occult adepts in Europe flocked there. John D., Edward Kelly, Nostradamus. Alchemy left its Mark on Prague, and also on our producer, Charles Monroe-Kane who lived there as a young man. He says the Czechs are still uncovering alchemicals secrets. Case in point, the Speculum Alchemiae, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Charles Monroe-Kane (33:02):

It was discovered just in 2002. So it's not that long ago. Prague had this huge flood. All of Bohemia was just completely flooded by the Latvia River. Afterwards, workers are cleaning up everywhere and taking out mud and debris. I'm sure it was a nightmare and they discovered an underground passage. What the hell? This passage led to a basement of a house. Old house, not only old house, I looked it up it's from 1980. They follow this path underground. They found a dusty alchemical laboratory that had been clearly ripped up for centuries ago. They found loads of alchemical books, the furnace where the alchemists would burn things down to try to create gold, loads of beakers and bottles. They found one that contained 77 herbs, masqueraded in alcohol and opium.

According to the book they found, you take it to induce a days of the senses. The greatest thing they found hanging upside down from the ceiling was a mummified alligator. There aren't alligators in Europe, man. That must've been like a dragon. I mean, it's the 16th century when this was built. [inaudible 00:34:45] Prague, I was like 25, 26 years old. I was still pretty naive about the world, but it was definitely a good place to be in your 20s, that's for sure. Probably the thing that captures Prague for me was around this internet cafe. This guy was a friend of a friend wanted to be able to check his email there. We hit it off. He's this aristocratic guy from England, and I said, "Why are you in Prague?" He said, "Well, with some people in a film crew. We believe we found a bunker from Hitler hidden in this town a couple hours away and we're going to go break into the bunker to see if it's filled with Nazi gold."

So I went. I went. I'm like, "Screw it." I went as me and a couple of my friends and him and we had the film crew and the sound crew. We went and there was a huge argument amongst the people on the crew. We're all conspiracy theorists like you couldn't believe. One, if we kept doing this, would we find gold? Or two, would we find remnants or blueprints for flying saucers? Because these people believe that Hitler was involved in flying saucer technology because an alien had landed in Germany and he used it to create technology. So [inaudible 00:36:09] we were looking for. That stuff's interesting and you don't know if it's half true and these guys are full of crap, but there are these old buildings and frescoes, you get caught up in it. This guy, he was the head of the alchemy collection at the national library. He came with us, [inaudible 00:36:29] the gold by the way.

Every time he would greet us, he would say, "Charles, paradise of the world, labyrinth of the hearts," which is [inaudible 00:36:37] he would say time, which is from this old, old book from the alchemical time, [inaudible 00:36:42]. This was in 1623. That's the name of the book. But I have to say though I found alchemy confusing and I was 100% sure what it was, I like this idea of transformation or even more so this idea of a transmutation, of metaphorically just changing. That's what I take away from alchemy is this idea of that. The other thing I take away from it is ... I don't know. I'm in my mid 50s, I'm fairly educated, I know a bunch of stuff. Where's the mystery? I don't have a lot of that in my life. I'm not 10 anymore. You know what I mean? To me, that's why people got excited in 2002 when the flood discovered this place, because it's like, "Oh, here's the last of this, the last of this idea that there's mystery." How romantic of a notion that some guy underground in Prague trying to invent gold?

Anne Strainchamps (38:05):

Charles Monroe-Kane is our senior producer. He writes more about his Prague adventures in his memoir, Lithium Jesus. Coming up, where do you think you would go to find it alchemy today? One writer says to the meth labs of Rural Missouri. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public radio, and PRX. When anthropologists Jason Pine traveled to Rural Missouri, he wound up spending a lot of time observing underground meth labs and he came to a startling conclusion that the meth cooks of the Ozarks are today's alchemists, turning base metals into gold. His book, The Alchemy of Meth, is a brutal look at the process. When Charles Monroe-Kane sat down with Pine, he wanted to know how easy it is to make meth.

Jason Pine (38:59):

Well, meth is shockingly easy to make for the reason that the materials are entirely accessible, they're all around us and they are ordinary banal, everyday consumer products that can be broken down and recombined, and these include lithium batteries, muriatic acid which is found in Draino, instant cold packs. I don't want to give the full recipe.

Charles Monroe-Kane (39:28):

No, that's fine. Yeah. I was in a bar last night with a bunch of my friends. I was talking about this interview. So we looked up a recipe. I have a friend who's a biochemist, and he's like, "Oh my God, that is so easy to make." But he also mentioned how dangerous it was.

Jason Pine (39:44):


Charles Monroe-Kane (39:44):

Making math is like ... it can blow up right at any moment?

Jason Pine (39:48):

Yes, absolutely. It's incredibly dangerous. If we focus on the newer recipe, it's called the one-pot recipe, and that's all of the ingredients put in a single plastic soda bottle or a Gatorade bottle. The tricky thing about this process is although it's quicker and it's smaller, produces a smaller batch, you have to continually monitor it by shaking the bottle in order to speed up the reaction and then what they call [inaudible 00:40:20] the bottle, open the lid a bit to release the pressure. If you miss a step there, the pressure will build, the acid will burn a hole in the side of the bottle and start converting that into like a spray can of acid fire before it eventually explodes.

Charles Monroe-Kane (40:41):

It isn't a little explosion either.

Jason Pine (40:43):


Charles Monroe-Kane (40:43):


Jason Pine (40:43):

It is catastrophic. It is hot, hot fire and big and it's immense. It's terrifying.

Charles Monroe-Kane (40:52):

It's funny, and I'm not trying to belittle the people that make it or do this, but you got to picture in the person who makes meth. These aren't people who are following all the basic chemical practices. These are people who are likely are on meth themselves. It seems incredible, that situation, if you have someone on or addicted to drugs and making the drug, that's extremely dangerous. That's a seems like that's rot for horribleness.

Jason Pine (41:16):

Yes. It's a recipe for disaster. Although many cooks say that using meth makes cooking meth easier. Their concentration is at its highest, they also are on alert for police that may come and bust them, and also they enjoy the mastery that they feel of recombining chemicals to produce something extremely powerful and valuable. This is an enjoyable experience.

Charles Monroe-Kane (41:53):

People don't make meth. People don't create meth. People cook meth. It's always cooking. The guy that is the person that creates it for the dealers is the cook. That's such an intimate word, cooking. Why do you think the word cooking is used?

Jason Pine (42:09):

Yeah. I've thought about this a lot. The materials are lateral to any kind of ... to a kitchen, but cooking is something, is an act that occurs in a home. It is something that produces a result, a product that is shared intimately, recipes are shared through family generations, they're coveted.

Charles Monroe-Kane (42:38):

But it has that feeling of my grandma making cookies. She had a specific recipe of one kind of sugar cookie, and that was passed down to me. Then it's interesting, it seems a little twisted that the recipes and cooking method is now for making illicit material, for making drugs.

Jason Pine (42:55):

Yes. This is an overarching quality of meth cooking, of the phenomena of methamphetamine production, is that it's like ordinary life tweaked, distorted.

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:12):

There's lots of different ways say a chocolate chip cookie could be made, right? A lot of variants, not butter, butter, baking powder, baking soda, both, whatever. But there's some constants to making a chocolate chip cookie. You got flour, you've got chocolate chips, right? But in making meth, if I understand it correctly, there's one constant you have to have no matter how you do it and that pseudoephedrine. But the thing about pseudoephedrine is that you can't get that at Home Depot. How do you get pseudoephedrine?

Jason Pine (43:36):

Well, it's very easy to get thanks to lobbyists of the pharmaceutical industry who have fought any kind of regulation of the circulation of the drug. I'm talking about pseudoephedrine-based cold medicine. So pseudoephedrine is found in Sudafed, Wal-Phed and many other types of drugs that now there is a law and I think it's nationwide, it comes from what's called the Combat Meth Act, where if you want to buy that cold medicine you have to sign your name with the pharmacist and you only get a maximum of two boxes per month.

Charles Monroe-Kane (44:16):

Right. But it's the secret sauce for meth and lots of methods being made, so there's certainly people are getting it, right?

Jason Pine (44:22):

Yes. It is the core molecule that needs to be transformed.

Charles Monroe-Kane (44:27):

Your book is called The Alchemy of Meth, and then when I was reading the book, I think I first started thinking that this was going to be just a metaphor, but I realize it's not. I was realizing that if I went into Dollar General in Walgreens and got all these banal things and put them all together and made something that made me euphoric and also made me money, and probably in some instances gave me pride for what I was doing, I was doing the alchemical tradition, right? I was turning base metal into gold. Do you really see these cooks as alchemists?

Jason Pine (44:55):

Yes, I do. I'm glad you say that this is not merely a metaphor. It isn't. I consider meth cooking to be the late industrial incarnation of alchemy. For some of the reasons that you mentioned, it's turning base, matter, ordinary common matter, even garbage, transmuting it into something of great value like gold or the elixir of life, and I think for that reason, it's important to understand what meth does, how it feels.

Charles Monroe-Kane (45:34):

Your book is filled with all these passages from alchemists, from the Renaissance and from medieval times, and it really struck me that they were striving to achieve the elixir of life, to achieve the base metal to gold. But it seems that these meth cooks, they've achieved it, they've literally achieved the elixir of life. Do you see it that way? Do you see that they've actually reached this pinnacle that other alchemists have been striving for a long time?

Jason Pine (45:58):

Yes and no. Yes because the elixir of life is contextual. What it means today is different perhaps than what it meant in medieval or Renaissance times. Today the elixir of life means to be alert, ready, courageous, social, productive, to slip on the shoes that are laid out for you that you can become the great, productive being and participant in a late capitalist economy that expects you to extract more and more energy and potential from yourself beyond what is humanly sustainable, and meth cooks, meth users feel that way.

Charles Monroe-Kane (46:43):

It sounds American. Taking meth seems so American to me.

Jason Pine (46:48):

Yeah, it is. Yes. In the context that I studied it, it was also because people needed to work longer hours, longer and longer hours to make a sustainable or a living wage.

Charles Monroe-Kane (47:04):

People are really just taking it to work harder or are they taking it to escape from their lives?

Jason Pine (47:10):

I noticed a lot of people are taking it to work longer, longer hours and they got on it on the job. They were passed it by colleagues that, "Hey, try this. You can pick up an extra shift. You can work faster. You can bare this job better because the drug actually makes repetitive what ordinarily might be boring activities enjoyable." Sure, there is an element of escape as well. It feels good, and everything around you suddenly is transformed into something beautiful. So if your living conditions or your social life, the state of the economy, your sense of possibility in the world, if they're all wilted, dwindling, meth can correct that. So meth does give that sensation of hope.

Actually, the kind of pleasure that you receive from the drug is different from other drugs like opioids, let's say. With opioids, you might want to slip out of the world and cocoon and not participate as much. But with meth, you get the pleasure that's called anticipatory pleasure rather than consumertory pleasure, which is a kind of satiation where you've consumed something good and then you feel good. With meth, you take it and you feel excitement about something good to come. It hasn't arrived yet, and that's like hope.

Charles Monroe-Kane (48:49):

It is hope. That's exactly the definition of hope, anticipation, positive anticipation of things to come, and that's hope.

Jason Pine (48:58):


Charles Monroe-Kane (48:59):

You write in your book that what you're saying is a logical consequence. Where do you ... Okay, you're in that County in Missouri. Where does it go? What happens next?

Jason Pine (49:09):

Wow. You ask a hard question. I have to say personally doing the field work was really difficult and killed whatever hope I did have. I don't know where it's going. It doesn't seem to be going anywhere good.

Anne Strainchamps (49:41):

Anthropologist Jason Pine's book is called The Alchemy of Meth: A Decomposition. Charles Monroe-Kane talked with him. I just want to say, as a staff, we struggled with the end of that interview. It's a pretty hopeless place to leave a show. I want to go back for a sec, and remind you that we started the hour talking about alchemy as a way of thinking that just might have something to offer us today, not recipes for gold, but a way to bridge the gap between scientific and magical or mystical worldviews. The alchemists understood their quest for knowledge as an investigation of wonder, curiosity as a path to grace, and in our angry, fearful, polarized world today, curiosity is still one of the best ways I know to transform brute certainty into what the poet John Keats called negative capability, the radical beauty of uncertainty. In these times, maybe that's the goal we need. Thanks for listening.

Speaker 8 (49:41):


Last modified: 
May 17, 2024