It is a substance believed to be able to turn base metals into gold and give humans eternal life, but has modern science ever been closer in creating an actual “Philosopher’s Stone”?
By: Ringo Bones
It seems that the now mystical pseudoscience of alchemy was born out of humanity’s historic search for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone – a substance believed to be able to turn base metals – i.e. common cheap metals like lead and iron – into a noble metal like gold. The first alchemist ever to record their activity that survived to posterity were Alexandrian Greeks who thought that metals could directly be transmuted into gold as then theorized by the Greek philosopher Aristotle – but most later European alchemists believed no one could transmute anything until he (or she) had formulated the “Philosopher’s Stone”.
Since the decline of the Roman Empire, alchemy then found its way into every corner of the civilized world – from the hills of China, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean eventually to the European laboratories. There were many theories about the nature of the Philosopher’s Stone – whether an actual stone, a tincture or a powder. But the main theory on how to use it when turning base metals into gold was to encase it in wax and then drop it into the molten metal that was intended to be converted into gold. During the Medieval Period, news spread throughout Europe that Chinese alchemists were reputed to have successfully created gold from base metals and the life-preserving potion then called the “Elixir of Life” after discovering the secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone.
With persistent tales of being successfully able to turn base metals into gold during the Medieval Period, European royalty – fearing the depreciation of the monetary value of gold – once declared that the practice of alchemy is punishable by death. During 1457, a group of 12 leading British alchemists wrote a petition to King Henry VI of England seeking exemption from the law banning their practice. The written petition survives to this day and is even preserved and put on display in the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford. Despite being denied success on their search for the Philosopher’s Stone, alchemy managed to survive a few centuries more in Britain where even the great Sir Isaac Newton was reputed to have been a practitioner of alchemy whenever he’s not to busy engrossed in refining his then newly discovered mathematics called calculus.
For all their mumbo jumbo about three-armed dragons and parboiled kings, alchemists managed to leave behind a proud record of their achievements. Alchemists has since been credited with the discovery of five elements – i.e. antimony, arsenic, bismuth, phosphorus and zinc – as well as alcohol and many of the acids and alkali substances found and used in today’s chemistry laboratories. Even though alchemy never manage to achieve its ambitious quest of turning base metals into gold via the Philosopher’s Stone as smug Victorian era scientists laugh at the goal itself. But 20th Century nuclear physicists eventually found a dramatic version of the Philosopher’s Stone in the neutrons that started the chain reaction which set off the first atomic bomb and transmuted uranium into some three dozen different chemical elements. The crafty old alchemists may have had the last laugh after all.
Today – if you have a modest fortune to spare and have the requisite knowledge of chemistry and nuclear physics – you to can convert a lesser valued metal into gold. Today’s small research nuclear fission reactions found in most ivy-league colleges that are primarily used to produce radioactive isotopes for medical use that costs 200 US dollars an hour to run can be used in your very own alchemy experiment. Using ordinary mercury – which is mostly composed of the stable isotope mercury-193 – put it into the nuclear reactor to be bombarded by neutrons and it will be turning about 1/3 of a US cent of the isotope gold-192 a day.
Even though the “synthetic atomic gold-193” is chemically indistinguishable from the good old fashioned mined gold – producing it is so much more - really much more - expensive compared to conventionally mining gold that the world’s gold dealers won’t be fearing their product being depreciated in value by artificially produced atomic gold-192 anytime soon. Maybe you should just make some radioactive gold-198 to be sold for intracavitary use in metastasized cancer treatment in order to recoup some of the costs.