Principles of Alchemy

Frequently Asked Questions

Your questions might be answered by having a look at the "Hypertextbook Instructions" which explains the computer side of things and "Learning with your Hypertextbook" which tells you more about the specifics of the course and how to get the most from Principles of Alchemy.

This Alchemy stuff is cute, but who is Merlin - really?

Dr Jamie Love is the man behind Merlin. Over the years Jamie has taught a wide variety of science subjects to a wide variety of students. Dr Love earned his PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Louisiana State University Medical Center (New Orleans) in 1990 and soon after moved to Scotland, a part of The United Kingdom. (The best part! ) The UK is home to the oldest, biggest and most distinguished distance-learning university in the world - The Open University. Jamie spent several years studying its methods while working towards his diploma in Information Technology. He also earned an MBA by distance learning (from Heriot-Watt University).
Jamie knows first-hand the difficulties one encounters studying alone.
Jamie touching a rock from the moon
(National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC).

Dr Love started Merlin Science in 1995 - teaching chemistry over the Internet. The following year he published "Principles of Alchemy", his first self-paced, self-learning "hypertextbook". It has become particularly popular among home schoolers.
Being an amateur astronomer, web master and expert in distance learning, Jamie began delivering astronomy courses over the Internet in 1997, as part of "Science Explained". Thousands of eager students visited his website, asking questions about astronomy and getting answers. Several professional astronomers visited the website and congratulated him on his work. With curious students asking plenty of questions and professional astronomers helping him, Dr Love was able to create a first-class astronomy hypertextbook, "Principles of Astronomy".
Earlier in his career, Jamie conducted research in cytogenetics, molecular genetics, medical genetics and transgenics. He also taught Genetics to undergraduates and medical students. Dr Love's third and final hypertextbook, "Principles of Genetics", is his most advanced course.

In 1998 Dr Love joined the Department of Life Sciences at Napier University (Edinburgh) teaching a variety of subjects and developing the department's flexible (distant) learning modules. In that role Dr Love has acted as editor and coordinator of several distance learning books - teaching genetics, microbiology, immunology and biotechnology.
In June of 2000 Napier University awarded Dr Love the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. This certificate is awarded to those who complete a series of classes, workshops, peer review and an educational project. Jamie chose as his project to create a web-based, self-learning minicourse in evolution.
Dr Love was an Adjunct Associate Professor (part-time) with the University of Maryland University College. Via distance learning he taught "Selection and Evaluation of Biotechnology Projects" to students working towards a Master of Science in Technology Management.

When he is relaxing, Jamie (aka Merlin) enjoys bird watching, fossil collecting, and stargazing.

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How about some more information on the reading? How long does it take?

The entire course could be done in 1 month if the student put a great deal of effort into it. If the course is studied regularly, like a normal class, it should take about 3 or 4 months. It should take no more than 6 months for an average student, but every student is different.
Learning is a not a race to be won but an experience to be enjoyed!
There's a lot of reading here but most of it is dialogue,
so it goes faster than a standard science textbook.
The course starts slow and easy with the first Ancient Element, AIR.
Then it gets progressively more detailed.

Here's a breakdown of the entire book. (Q&A are questions and answers.)

Title Page: 5,000 words, 11 pages.
AIR: 25,000 words, 55 pages, 16 diagrams, 25 Q & A.
WATER: 42,000 words, 80 pages, 45 diagrams, 32 Q & A.
EARTH: 46,000 words, 100 pages, 34 diagrams, 63 Q & A.
FIRE: 61,000 words, 125 pages, 14 diagrams, 66 Q & A.

The word count is accurate to within a thousand. The text has a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level of approximately the 8th Grade. (This method is based on the average number of syllables per word and the average number of words per sentence.) However, Arthur's Notes are more condensed and increase the score to the 9th grade reading level.
The number of pages is roughly the amount of text pages produced if printed at standard font size but this book is not designed to be printed out and probably won't do so easily.
The diagram count is the number of unique diagrams - they are used many times throughout the hypertextbook but only counted once. Also, Merlin only counts images used for explanation so he doesn't count the images used to "spice up" the hypertextbook.
Most of the Questions and Answers advance the student's knowledge and are intended for learning, not as self-assessment. However, AIR's Questions and Answers are more for review and to get the student used to the method.

If the lectures are a dialogue between Merlin and Arthur, isn't it full of old English language?

No. "Principles of Alchemy" is scientifically correct, but not historically accurate. The entire hypertextbook uses American English spellings with British grammar. Merlin is Scottish, so he likes to says "aye" instead of "yeah". Other than that, the dialogue reads like any conversation a 21st century chemistry teacher would have with his 21st century student.

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Did you say something about experiments?

It wouldn't be science without experiments!
Each Ancient Element concludes with a hands-on section called "Do This!" Common household materials are used to illustrate some of the concepts learned. "Do This!" is not intended to be a substitute for "real" laboratory work. Merlin cannot sincerely offer a true laboratory class without expecting a significant investment of your time and money. Instead, each "Do This!" is intended to be a "chemistry lab lite". You need not buy a chemistry kit, nor search for exotic (often dangerous) chemicals, to enjoy "Do This!".
However, some experiments do require the student to use a match, candle or stove and there is also the need to use some chemicals that are potentially dangerous if misused (hydrogen peroxide, bleach, etc.).
Parents and teachers should judge for themselves whether their children are mature enough to handle this and provide any supervision if necessary. Otherwise the student should be told NOT to "Do This!".

The very first "Do This!" (in Principles of Alchemy: AIR) is mostly a discussion of safety, like the first lab class in any school.

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Tell me more about the exams.

Each Element ends with a self-evaluation exam. These exams cover everything explained in the Dialogue sections, and reviewed in Arthur's Notes, as well as the more advanced materials taught in the Questions and Answers section. The exams do not cover the experiments in "Do This!" so there is no reason to delay taking the exam after completing the Questions and Answers section. (And having reviewed and prepared for the exam - of course!)

Each exam is composed of 20 questions answered by multiple choice.
Merlin is the first to admit that multiple choice exams are not the best way to test a student's knowledge and understanding. However, computer-based grading does not lend itself to essay questions and even fill-in-the-blanks is a problem for computer-based exams because of spelling or position of spaces that the student uses. Other testing methods, such as matching or other forms of scrambling, are nothing more than multiple choice problems in a different format. Rather than confuse the student by changing formats, Merlin decided to present the exams totally in multiple choice formats.

Besides, a well-written multiple-choice exam can be very good and educational!

What makes a multiple-choice exam "good" and how can it be "educational"?

Merlin wrote the three wrong choices to represent common errors or misunderstandings that the student might have. That makes the choices harder but it also means a wrong answer, with feedback explaining why it is wrong, can turn a multiple choice-exam into an educational exam. When a student chooses an answer s/he gets immediate feedback about the choice. If s/he has answered correctly, s/he is told so and a short repeat of the complete answer is given, reworded a little differently to make it worth reading. If s/he chooses the wrong answer the feedback explains that answer is not correct and goes on to explain why that is the wrong answer and often provides a clue to the right answer.
The only drawback of this immediate feedback is that the student is then free to change the answer! However, that is not the point. Merlin does not write exams that are meant to merely generate a score - they are meant to help the student. Exams without feedback are easy for teachers to grade but provide no learning for students. Merlin believes that learning continues into the tests.

After completing the exam, the student submits it and the computer will generate a "virtual page" that shows the grade and also scores each answer as "Right" or "Wrong". The student can jot down which ones were wrong and close the "virtual page". The exam will have been reloaded so all the previous answers have been wiped away.
At this point the student has two options: take the entire exam all over again (choosing all 20 responses) or click the web browser's "Back Button" to reload all the previous answers from earlier - including the wrong ones and change them. Regardless of which method used, the student is given plenty of opportunities to correct errors and submit a "perfect" test. Please note that the "virtual page" does not print from most web browsers because it is not "seen" by the printer. It is not a real web page because it is generated "on the fly".

The student is encouraged (required?) to submit a "perfect" exam. When a student earns a perfect score s/he is sent to a "Congratulations Page" and instructed on how to pick up his/her certificate. After submitting his/her name, the computer will generate a "Certificate of Completion" for that Element which will include the student's name and date of completion. This can be printed just like any webpage. Check out the sample exam to see this first hand.
The Final Exam is comprehensive - covering all four Ancient Elements - and culminates in a Diploma, which can be printed out, and the student is awarded the Title of "Apprentice Alchemist"!

Of course, the student is on the "honor system" for the exams and the Certificates, Diploma and Title are meant to encourage the student to continue while providing some incentive to achieve a perfect score.

Note : students can take the exams as many times as they like but there is no way to save answers, certificates or diplomas (other than printing them). That is, once you turn off the web browser the answers are gone forever. Merlin experimented with ways to save these exams on the hard disk but it is difficult to get one method to work across all platforms (PCs and Macs) correctly and consistently. Also, most folks do not like the idea of software writing on the disk because it tends to set off the virus alerts!

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What about copyrighted materials, site licenses and stuff like that?

In 2017, Jamie formally retired from his post at the University of Edinburgh and the following year decided to give his courses away for all to enjoy. His hypertextbooks (courses) are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
    This means you are free to:
  • Share copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format
  • Adapt remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially.
    under the following terms:
  • Attribution You must give appropriate credit and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor (Dr Jamie Love) endorses you or your use.
  • ShareAlike If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original.

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How to Get a copy of Principles of Alchemy

Collect your mini-hypertextbook by downloading this zipped file.
Choose "Save File". Remember where you download the file. "FREE PofAlchemy.zip" is about 1.6 MB.
Create a specific (new) directory. Name the directory whatever you want ("alchemy" is a good name). Copy or drag "FREE PofAlchemy.zip" into this directory.
Unzip the course packaging with decompression software. Most operating systems already have decompression software installed, but if yours does not, you can use software such as WinZip or Stuffit. Note: Windows will let you browse into a Zip file without unzipping, but the links will not work.
Once you have the book extracted or unzipped, start your book by viewing "alchemy1.htm" (not "FREE PofAlchemy.zip") with your web browser set to autoload images, and with javascript enabled. (These are usually the browser's default settings.) I suggest you then bookmark it ("alchemy1.htm") so it is easier to find later.

Principles of Alchemy (Chemistry)

chemistry - merlin's castle

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chemistry - flask and mouse