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Sunday, April 13, 2014

From alchemy to modern chemistry

Chemistry as a modern science began in the 17th Century, where the scientific method and empiricism were applied, but this modern science still had roots in the past. Modern chemistry was built upon a long history of alchemy. Alchemy was associated with the philosophy and science of trying to turn base metals into gold and creating an elixir of life. Alchemy started somewhere in the Persian Empire, but has been practiced widely across the globe.  Alchemists have made notable contributions to the field of Chemistry. In fact alchemy lead to the development of many of the apparatus that is used in laboratories today [1].

The distinction between alchemy and chemistry began to emerge when a clear differentiation was made by Robert Boyle in his work "The Sceptical Chymist" (1661). Chemistry is considered to have become a full-fledged science with the work of Antoine Lavoisier, who developed a law of conservation of mass.  Boyle (1627–91) is often called the founder of modern chemistry (an honor sometimes also given Antoine Lavoisier, 1743–94) [2].

Indian Chemistry Through The Ages

The story of early chemistry in India begins from Indus valley civilization (2600-1900 BC). Production of pottery and bricks could be regarded as the earliest chemical process in which materials were mixed, moulded and fired to achieve desirable qualities.  Rasāyana (the way of the rasas) is the Sanskrit term employed in South Asian texts for "alchemy." In about the 8th century BC, the term rasa-rasāyana first appeared in Buddhist and Hindu tantric texts in reference to the supernatural power (siddhi) of obtaining a magical elixir. In India the history of education and training in chemistry dating back  to over 2,600 years. Taxila (6th century BC) one of the earliest universities had medicine, surgery and metallurgy as the major fields of study [3].

Alchemy in India flourished in the medieval period (AD 800-1300). Numerous alchemical texts were written between the ninth and the fourteenth centuries AD. Nagarjuna was the most prominent scholar in the field of Indian alchemy. But from the early seventeenth century onward a marked decline in the alchemical writings was observed. After the decline of alchemy, iatrochemistry probably reached a steady state over the next 150-200 years, but then it too, declined due to the introduction and practice of western medicine in the 20th century. There was a large time gap between the giving up of old methods of production of certain chemicals and the adoption of newer methods based on modern chemical ideas [4].

India's chemical traditions were rich and varied, fused with a spiritual component. Although they may not have directly contributed to the birth of modern chemistry, they did considerably contributed in fields like metallurgy, gemmology and medicine.


Contributions in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

As British power spread across India in the nineteenth century, in part through the use of superior technology, Indian intellectual leaders beginning with Raja Rammohan Roy realized that they needed to understand the revolution that had occurred in European knowledge systems. Eventually they created three major new institutions. The first was the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, which was established in Calcutta in 1876 by the medical practitioner Mahendra Lal Sircar. It was here that C. V. Raman later did the work in spectroscopy for which he won the 1929 Nobel Prize in physics. The second was the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore by Jamshedji N. Tata, an industrialist from Bombay who saw, long before others, that a Western sense of the pursuit of science as an intellectual discipline was essential for the well-being of India and its industry. Although initially resisted by British commercial interests in India, the Institute began work in 1909–1911. The third institution was the Indian Science Congress, which held in 1914 the first of a series of annual meetings of all Indian scientists. These enterprises were quickly followed by a variety of other initiatives, and Indian scientists began to make a mark at the Presidency Colleges of Madras and Calcutta, and in universities elsewhere.

With the end of British rule, the new Indian Republic led by Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors took massive initiatives for the growth of science, leading to the establishment of new institutions or the vigorous expansion of older ones, including the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Department of Atomic Energy, the Defense Research and Development Organization, the Indian Institutes of Technology, and the Indian Space Research Organization, among others [5].











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