Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and Modern Alchemy

(Originally posted on my Quora blog.)

“The great flow that maintains the universe; call it the cycle of life, the course of nature – each one of us is just a small part of that part. One in the all. Yet without all the individual ones, the all can’t exist. This world flows by following grander laws that we can’t even imagine. To recognize that flow, to work in it. To decompose, and recreate, that is alchemy.”

There’s a romanticism in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood’s answer to the definition of alchemy that intrigues me in a philosophical sense. The idea of change as an eternal quality in the very fabric of the universe is the fundamental basis of everything, as time and matter coincide to give way to the constant ebb and flow of energy and space.

While anime is among the last places someone might look to find philosophy, like any artform, it’s a medium to spread ideas and concepts. FMA: Brotherhood’s scene in Episode 12, wherein a younger Elric and Alphonse are stranded on an island for 30 days by their alchemy master in preparation for their training, tasked with surviving and learning the answer to the question “What is the meaning of One is All, All is One?”, was one of those opportunities.

Alchemy, in Fullmetal Alchemist’s sense, is the based on the fundamental concept of equivalent exchange. Understanding, decomposition, and recomposition are the three stages of transmutation – and the basics of how material change occurs in the universe. Destruction and creation are two parts of the same coin – a coin called transition, from one state to another. Melding a material into another form requires breaking its current state, and transitioning it into another – such as when we smelt ores, freeze or boil water – or, on a very relatable level, digest our food for energy and nutrients.

Equivalent exchange plays a fundamental role in this as, in its most basic form, the laws of thermodynamics – no work can be done without an equivalent amount of force and energy, energy which can only be begotten through the use of energy generation, which requires the conversion of fuel – be that fuel glucose and oxygen, petroleum, or tritium. Furthermore, for a thermodynamic change to occur, entropy has to be present – the dispersal of energy after any given action.

Every minute change in the universe follows the law of thermodynamics and, thus, equivalent exchange – thus linking alchemy as a fundamental step from theology and philosophy to natural science as we know it today.

There is an extensive history between alchemy’s roots in metallurgy and its eventual evolution into modern-day chemistry, aided by the application of empirical study.

So. What is alchemy, really? I provided a definition of it earlier in a universal sense, yet the meaning of the subject of study didn’t go quite so deep as to try and encompass every single change and cycle in the universe as under the study of alchemists. Instead, it takes priority on material goods – most significantly metals. In a historical sense, alchemy involved the study of metallic transmutation – turning base metals (such as copper, lead, iron and such) into noble metals (gold, silver and the like). A far more mythical attempt in historical Arabic and Western alchemy is the study of the fabled philosopher’s stone and the quest for eternal life – a, predictably, major plot point in the Fullmetal Alchemist series.

A major component in alchemy, predominantly its Western kind, was Hermeticism – the study of an esoteric ancient body of work attributed to Hermes (the Greek messenger god and god of alchemy) Trismegistus, which spanned various forms of philosophy, occult works and religion, ranging from Qabbalah and tarot cards to astrology. Philosophically, “One is All and All is One” stems fundamentally from Hermeticism – the microcosm and macrocosm, the understanding of oneself on a fundamental level leading to an understanding of the universe itself, as what happens on one level happens on all others in different scale – “As above, so below.” Furthermore, part of the “Thrice Great” title given Hermes are his “three parts of the wisdom of the whole universe” – alchemy, astrology and theurgy. Therein, he describes alchemy as more than the historical application it has had to metals. He describes it as the study of understanding the complexities of life – specifically death, birth and resurrection, through the study of chemical processes such as fermentation and distillation – hinting at alchemy’s eventual evolution towards chemistry.

The mysticism of this returns in full force with its eventual attempt to create the alchemical magnum opus (Latin for “great work”, used in literature as well to describe someone’s most acclaimed work) – which would lead back to the creation of the philosopher’s stone through several alchemical steps, from putrefaction and congelation to calcination, sublimation and fermentation – natural chemical reactions, observable in various biological matter.

So, alchemy in a historical sense was trying to understand chemical reaction, and using it to cause transmutation – which has long since been discredited as magical, albeit theoretically possible some day, through matter manipulation.

But, speaking of historical senses, when did alchemy originate? And where?

As far as history seems to know, alchemy began in Greece, and thrived in Egypt during the Roman rule. After the Romans fell, the Arabic world got itself caught up in alchemy, before interest reignited in Medieval Europe. On the other side of the Eurasian continent, India and China were separate centers of alchemy, with India having been influenced towards alchemy after Alexander the Great’s invasion. China, on the other hand, has a different approach to alchemy than its Western counterparts.
The works of “Hermes Trismegistus” played part in providing a large body of work for early Hellenistic alchemy, especially in its mythological form – but alchemy in a technical sense wasn’t born until the age of metallurgy.

It happened very simply. Someone must’ve been trying to bake an imprint onto a malachite rock – when the result ended up being molten copper. And thus began the pursuit towards transmutation – turning one thing into something else through chemical react and rituals. This lead to knowledge in counterfeiting – producing imitation gold and silver, dyeing ordinary rocks as gemstones and so forth. Actual papyrus recipes existed of various alchemical experimentation in metallurgy – yet a large number of them are lost forever, after being ordered burned in Alexandria over 1700 years ago.

Alchemy was a world of philosophy, mysticism and, very importantly, symbolism and secrecy – until the fall of the Roman Empire. It was then that, in the late 8th century, another quality was added to alchemy – empirical experimentation. Chemistry, in its prototype form, was exercised by several medieval Arabic scientists, first and most famous among them being Jabir ibn Hayyan.

The Arabs devised distillation, purifying alcoholic beverages into almost pure alcohol, and developed muriatic (hydrochloric), sulfuric, and nitric acids, even coming across what is known as aqua regia – a reddish acid powerful enough to dissolve noble metals like gold and platinum, both of which do not naturally corrode. They still worked around the concept of the elemental bases of alchemy, and of the metals known at the time, the most influential were mercury and sulphur, with salt added later. It was thought that gold was the most “complete” and “perfect” of metals, as it was believed to be composed of one half mercury and one half sulphur.

Mercury played a large role in Indian alchemy as well, as the Indians believed that the treating and ingestion of mercury was essential to enlightenment – a very dangerous process, given mercury’s high toxicity. Sulphur was the mineral embodiment of fire, and combustion – an essential step in the magnum opus, and part of the classical elements.

In China, alchemy was practiced as medicine internally in the form of Qigong – the art of manipulating the life force, or ki/chi/qi within the body, to attain higher strength, health and consciousness. Belief in an elixir of life was also dominant, in the form of a potion concocted by a white hare on the moon.

After the 8th century, when alchemy was reintroduced into the European continent through Spain, an explosion of Hermeticism and alchemical lust ignited throughout the continent. Hermes Trismegistus was associated with having foretold Christianity, and alchemical symbolism blended with the church quite quickly. Several cathedrals began having alchemical design elements, including sigils and encrypted recipes, and the pursuit for alchemical gold led to the mythical creation of the Philosopher’s stone.

Eventually, alchemy began getting a bad, bad rap. Alchemists were hunted and killed, called frauds, and damned as conmen. It quickly developed two distinct branches – the secretive, theological, philosophical Hermetic aspect of alchemy, revived during the Renaissance, and the study of chemical reactions, called chemistry, to divorce itself from alchemy’s horrible reputation.

Eventually, as chemistry developed throughout the 17th century and onward, alchemy fell back, associated less and less with its status as the “supreme science”, as it was for nearly 4 millennia, and associated more and more with snakeoil mysticism and eventually, disproven magic.

But there is an essence to alchemy that is not lost in science – and that isn’t just the science that is chemistry, either. Transmutation and equivalent exchange are both fundamental, universal facts in physics – yes, transmutation is a scientific phenomenon.

“Rutherford, this is transmutation!”

“For Christ’s sake, Soddy, don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our heads off as alchemists.”

In 1901, Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford were studying nuclear physics when they observed the transmutation of thorium into radium via radioactive decay, in a process called nuclear transmutation – often naturally occurring. It highlighted the fact that to change the elemental property of one atom into that of another was a matter of knocking off or adding on some subatomic particles – and the possibility to do so and create stable matter is, in fact, very real, and not just alchemical magic.

Years later, in the 70s (1972, actually), Russians in an experimental nuclear reactor observed the legendary transmutation of lead to gold – however, this gold was quite unstable and quickly transmuted into other, more stable elemental isotopes. It wasn’t until 8 years later that Glenn Seaborg successfully transmuted bismuth into gold by removing protons and neurons with nuclear physics – however, the amount of energy used to achieve alchemical gold, even just the few thousand atoms he achieved, made the synthetic production of gold non-feasible economically.

Furthermore, the Big Bang and subsequent cosmic rays led to the creation of essentially the 5 lightest elements, while stellar transmutation (such as through supernovas) caused the formation of other elements. This process is also seen in the formation of planets, as an originally hydrogen-only core would transmute (or decay) into elements of all kind lighter than iron – a process called nucleosynthesis.

Today’s Philosopher’s Stone is a machine – the particle accelerator, in which the decay and change of elements is a common and naturally occurring process. We’re far from being able to feasibly manipulate atoms on a subatomic level so as to transmute anything from anything else, but we’re getting there.

Equivalent exchange. The idea that all of the material universe was once just 5 of the lightest elements we know – and that nuclear physics – time, motion and energy – led to the creation, destruction, and history of existence as we know it. Degeneration, regeneration – generation. Creation. Destruction. The difference between the two is time and energy – the only other forms of existence we know other than matter itself. Alchemy – transmutation – equivalent exchange – concepts that exist in the universe, as far as we fundamentally know it.

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