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24-karat gold in the air

March 12, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the authors.
Sydney Reaper

For our inaugural installment, we will be turning words into gold. Think Aristotle, think Jabir ibn Hayyan, think Phillipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim. Think Rumplestiltskin, but if that little man were a chemist. This week, we’re exploring the bizarre “science” of alchemy! And those quotes are intentional. Alchemy is definitely not a credible science in the way we would think about it today, though people vibing in the Middle Ages certainly thought it was. Alchemy is the theoretical process by which base metals, like lead or copper, are chemically transformed (via transmutation “magic”) into silver or gold.

Alchemy promotes the alluring possibility of creating the “Philosopher’s Stone,” a substance that can supposedly transform any material into gold and/or bring about immortality. If all of this sounds dubious, that’s because … it is. Mostly. While no one has yet discovered “the elixir of life” that was a common goal of alchemical experiments, attempts in more recent history have brought us closer towards alchemy’s other highly valued goal: becoming a modern-day King Midas. In 1980, Glenn Seaborg, an accomplished researcher at UC Berkeley, managed to use a particle accelerator to remove protons and neutrons from several thousand atoms of bismuth, changing the atoms to that material with which alchemists (and many others) are so obsessed: gold. Unfortunately, creating just one-billionth of a cent’s worth of gold through this version of transmutation costs nearly $10,000. So, while it may fulfill the hopes and dreams of any alchemists amongst you, it is not a particularly practical way to earn money. If you were banking on alchemy as your day job, don’t.

Alchemy is based on metallurgy, the practice of extracting metals from ore and melding them together to make alloys. Aristotle is, in a lot of ways, the godfather of alchemy. He believed all compounds were made up of a combination of the four elements (cue “Avatar: the Last Airbender” opening): water, earth, fire and air. Aristotle was convinced that compounds were not fixed; with the right tools and materials, they could be transformed into something entirely new, possibly even something with transcendent properties. His theories, combined with metallurgy and some Egyptian ideas about transmutation, fueled alchemical study in both the Islamic world and the Christian West during the Middle Ages.

As far as alchemists were concerned, metals were all compounds made of varying quantities of mercury and sulfur. We know today that metals are elements, made up of like atoms, but before this knowledge existed, the whole mercury/sulfur concept seemed like a great idea! It was believed that it was possible to fudge the whole “mercury and sulfur equals metal” process by finding the one true transmutation agent that could make a base metal into a valuable one: the Philosopher’s Stone. Alchemists sought to make the Stone through heating up a mixture of ingredients for a very long time. We’re talking days here.

The ingredients always varied because alchemists couldn’t agree on the “right” formula. This could be related to the fact that almost no alchemist ever wanted other people to be able to understand their work, so they wrote about it in strange codes. One, when referring to potassium nitrate, described it as the “cold dragon who creeps in and out of caves.” Try baking with an ingredients list that cryptic, and I promise your cookies will turn out about as well as historic alchemists’ attempts at the Philosopher’s Stone.

If done properly, however, this mixture was supposed to turn black, then white, then yellow and, finally, red. The red substance was the magnum opus of alchemy; when combined with even the most boring of metals (like lead … because ew, lead), the mixture would turn to gold like Cinderella’s fairy godmother had waved a magic wand over the whole situation.

Alchemy was incorrect in a lot of ways, but it is also incredibly important to the history of modern science, and especially to the development of modern chemistry. Many of its tenants may seem marginally insane to the modern reader (and we didn’t even dive into the really crazy stuff like homunculi created from feces here!), but it inspired a way of thinking about the world that paved the way for further investigation and led to many legitimate discoveries along the way. And, if nothing else, it led to the creation of many a fun fact and a collection of wild stories that we’re all richer for knowing. I, for one, would not give up my knowledge of the existence of a name like Phillipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim for anything.

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