First Paper Assignment

Length: 1200 - 1500 words (4-5 double spaced pages).

Grade: Your grade on Paper 1 will contribute 10% of your final course grade.

Conventional wisdom has long held that the terms "alchemy" and "chemistry" refer to quite different activities. "Alchemy" has usually been taken to mean "the archaic, irrational, and even consciously fraudulent," while "chemistry" stands in for "the modern, scientific, and rational."1 In particular, practicing alchemists from the seventeenth century, such as George Starkey, have been dismissed as self-deluded cranks or frauds, while Starkey's contemporary, Robert Boyle, has been hailed as "the father of chemistry."2 Using two of the primary sources assigned in class—excerpts from George Starkey's Alchemical Laboratory Notebooks and Correspondence, and from Robert Boyle's New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall (especially his accounts of his initial experiments, on pp. 20-37)—evaluate the conventional wisdom.

In what way do these texts resemble each other? How do they differ? Can you detect continuities from either one in today's scientific practice? Put another way, what features of these texts seem similar to your own laboratory notebooks or reports for chemistry courses at MIT, such as 3.091, 5.111, or 5.112? What features are different?

You should articulate a clear thesis or argument, which you defend with specific examples from the readings and lectures. There is no single correct answer to these questions. What matters is how clearly you articulate your thesis, and how well you defend your position with examples and evidence. You are strongly encouraged to work with the Teaching Assistants while preparing your essay. You can meet with them, send them outlines, summaries of your argument, or even drafts. If you have additional questions, you may always consult with Professors Kaiser and Jones. Once we have the final class list, we will assign you to a specific TA for paper purposes.

Many of you will also want to sign up for one of the peer response groups being lead by our class Writing Tutor. These will be available for the first paper, the paper-2 rewrite, and the final paper; all students must do at least one over the course of the semester.

You should use standard footnote conventions, giving full bibliographic information for all sources from which you draw, and include a bibliography at the end. You are not required to consult any sources beyond the Starkey and Boyle excerpts, though you may consider additional sources if desired.

These resources describe how to use other sources properly:

  • Footnotes, Bibliographies, and the Good Life (PDF): examples of appropriate footnote and bibliography formats.
  • Guidelines for Writing Papers: tips on how to organize your essay and information regarding proper use of web-based sources.
  • Academic Integrity at MIT: MIT's own guide to working with sources.

Failure to use appropriate footnote and bibliography formatting will lower your grade. Any evidence of plagiarism (i.e., passing someone else's phrases, paragraphs, or articles off as your own, without giving appropriate credit to the original author) will be referred to the professors and, if necessary, to the Committee on Discipline.

If you ever have any questions about how to cite your sources, please check with any of the instructors.

Sample Student Work

(Courtesy of the students, used with permission.)

"Alchemistry" by MIT student (PDF)

"Alchemy and Chemistry; A Rose by Any Other Name" by MIT student (PDF)

1 Newman, William, and Lawrence Principe. "Alchemy vs. Chemistry: The Etymological origins of a Historiographical Mistake." Early Science and Medicine 3 (1998): 32-65, on 34.

2 Buy at Amazon Newman, William. The Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey, An American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002 [1994]. ISBN: 9780226577142. See also Roger Pilkington. Robert Boyle: Father of Chemistry. London: J. Murray, 1959.