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Science and art at Fisher.

Science and Art at Fisher

In the waiting room of a clinic in the Little Italy section of Toronto hangs a reproduction of an etching of the head and shoulders of Galileo Galilei. Physicians and laboratory personnel find it reassures the clinic's elderly patients to see the portrait of their eminent countryman on the walls.

Another reproduction, this time of Wei-Po Yang, AD 142, hangs in the Tokyo office of the CEO of Japan's largest biotechnology company, a reminder that experimental science quite likely began in the East, with a Taoist philosopher-alchemist, almost 2,000 years ago.

And in a high-security research laboratory in the vast Oak Ridge, TN, facility, atomic scientists have hung a colour print of a Dutch Master painting called The Alchemist's Experiment Takes Fire. It bears witness to the fact that reactions could be sudden and violent in the 17th as well as in the 20th century, that scientists of every era are brothers (and sisters) under the skin.

In each instance, the pictures cited are reproductions from The Fisher Collection, three out of the thousands of prints made available through the years by the Fisher Scientific home office in Pittsburgh, PA, and the Fisher Scientific Canada home office in Ottawa, to laboratories on every continent.

The Fisher Collection ranges from the aforementioned Wei-Po Yang, father of Chinese alchemy, to the Curies and the dawn of the Atomic Age. One of several oustanding scientific collections in industrial, academic and museum hands, the Fisher Collection was gathered by the 87-year-old scientific equipment manufacturer/distributor from sources throughout the world. Begun in the early 1990s by Chester G. Fisher, founder of the company that still bears his name, the collection is still evolving: only recently it added a rare manuscript letter by Louis Pasteur, a note written by Robert Wilhelm Bunsen, and a curious little painting of an alchemist using a live scorpion as the chief ingredient of his `synthesis,' which a Fisher research chemist discovered during a trip to Zurich.

Alchemical art is a fascinating record of the people, the apparatus and the accomplishments of the early years in which the physical and life sciences grew to their present preeminent positions. Among these scientific delineations are 42 masterworks of the 17th and 18th-century Dutch and Flemish schools. Even if not seen in person, these treasures are known to several generations of science students through frequent appearances in textbooks, monographs and articles and histories of civilization. In fact, for many future chemists, these reproductions were their first glimpse of the early laboratories in which scientists probed the secrets of matter and energy, of disease and health.

One original, The Alchemist, a 1648 wood-panel painting by David Teniers the Younger, has been reproduced so widely it may well be the quintessential example of scientific art, the ultimate delineation of the way things were, in real-life household laboratories, three centuries ago.

In painting upon painting, etching upon etching, the alchemist watches a liquid evaporate. Nothing (including brawling children, antagonistic wives) can disturb his concentration. He may pore over ancient manuscripts, conduct endless literature seaches, set up additional apparatus. But again and again he is shown starting over, attempting the experiment once more, as the years slip by, unnoticed. Alchemy, it becomes clear, was a lifelong dedication. The alchemist was obsessed with the conversion of ordinary metals into gold.

But this is only half the story. Alchemy, as extant art works make clear, was a complicated phenomenon, based on the practical skills of early metalworkers, on Greek philosophy and on the Eastern mystic cults that sprang up in the first centuries after Christ. When alchemy flourished, no line divided science from magic (the influence of the planets, the effect of certain numbers of letters on human life, all were perfectly acceptable to the scientist). Thus the other half of the story of alchemy is spiritual. Gold, bestower of wealth and power, came to stand for excellence, wisdom, enlightenment, perfection. It took on a symbolic as well as a material significance.

Alchemists embarked on both quests at the same time, believing that success in one meant success in the other. The first quest was material transmutation. The second, the spiritual progress of the human soul from its ordinary state to one of perfection. If the universe was permeated by a spirit linking everything together, this spirit could be reproduced and compressed into a magical substance, called the Philosopher's Stone. Once created (from the right raw materials and through endless chemical processing), a small quantity of the stone could change an ordinary metal into gold. Taken internally, as a medicine, the same substance could cure. (It might even confer immortality, and was sometimes called the Elixir of Life.)

In short, the endless experiments alchemists carried out in their household laboratories were ultimately motivated by the search for the Philosopher's Stone, and it was in the course of this search they established an impressive array of chemical facts and developed an impressive array of laboratory apparatus. (The designs of the Arab alchemist Jabir, AD 722-815, led to the modern still.)

Today chemists have succeeded in the alchemical dream: they have transmuted basic raw materials into the gold of commerce, have even changed one element into another, with awesome releases of energy. Furthermore, biomedical research has conquered disease to the extent that we have a foretaste of the Elixir of Life. Life-spans now exceed the Bible's three score and ten.

Recently, John C. Pavlik, long-time curator of The Fisher Collection, told a meeting of the American Chemical Society: "After years of studying alchemical art, I continue to find fresh meanings in each work, subtle new bits of symbolism and iconography. Here a hint of the origins of the contemporary test tube, in a curious vial held up by an iatrochemist; there the use of giant `burning glassess' to attempt to achieve the heat of contemporary gas burners. The only works that do not seem to grow in richness for me are the `closet' pictures of the philosopher's study, of the `hands-off' or nonscientist who pondered what Aristotle might have thought about a phenomenon or process, never questioning, never testing, never experimenting. A look at alchemical art reminds us that, in such situations, science stagnates. It was only when the indefatigable, if often misguided, alchemist took science out of the study and into the laboratory that knowledge began to make the great strides that have been the glory of modern times."

Perhaps this is why the Fisher Collection has an entire gallery of portraits, books, notebooks, letters and actual laboratory apparatus involving one man, the French chemist Pasteur (1822-1895). It was Pasteur who demonstrated that science can be applied to the benefit of all people, and his words appear on the walls of the Pittsburgh gallery:

Take interest, I implore you, in those sacred dwellings

one designates by the expressive terms Laboratories.

Demand that they be multiplied, that they be adorned.

These are the temples of the future -- temples of

well-being and happiness. There it is that humanity grows

greater, stronger, better.

PHOTO : David Teniers, the Younger's The Alchemist, painted on a wood panel and signed and dated

PHOTO : 1648. Today's conception of the appearance of the chemical laboratory of three centuries

PHOTO : ago has been attained principally from Teniers' work. His skill in producing the illusion

PHOTO : of a third dimension in his composition is remarkable.

PHOTO : Death masks of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, 1794. This curiosity is just one of the

PHOTO : collection's several hundred portraits - oil paintings, etchings, engravings, woodcuts,

PHOTO : lithographs, photographs, sculptures, medallions - of early scientists. Lavoisier has

PHOTO : been called the father of modern chemistry.

PHOTO : On the light side: Pierre-Francois Basan engraved this humourous scene from an earlier

PHOTO : painting of the same name by David Teniers the Younger. It was Teniers' way of showing

PHOTO : his feeling that, in addition to serious alchemists, the field also had an army of

PHOTO : `puffers', whose main tool for attempting to transmute lead into gold was a wish and a

PHOTO : pair of bellows.

PHOTO : A 17th-century explosion in a Dutch researcher's laboratory is captured by Justus van

PHOTO : Bentum (1670-1727). Alchemist, wife and child all express the high drama and tragedy of

PHOTO : the moment. The painting also shows the influence of Rembrandt in its masterly use of

PHOTO : sienna.

PHOTO : A comprehensive look at a mid-18th-century laboratory is provided in this engraving,

PHOTO : complete with alchemical symbols for a variety of elements, substances and processes, from

PHOTO : Denis Diderot's famous Encyclopedie.

PHOTO : Bustling, crowded, but orderly and organized was the laboratory of Justus von Liebig in

PHOTO : Giessen, 1842, at the time the Mecca of chemical training. It is a far cry from the murky,

PHOTO : hazardous, crocodile-hung laboratories of alchemy, recorded in such loving detail in The

HARRY SCHWALB Senior Editor, Fisher Scientific, Pittsburgh, PA
COPYRIGHT 1989 Chemical Institute of Canada
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:art collection of Fisher Scientific
Author:Schwalb, Harry
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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