What Is the Relation of Alchemy to Physics?
At first glance, physics and alchemy are completely unrelated. Physics is a fundamental science which explains the laws of nature and it is built on solid scientific research and validated theories. Alchemy is not considered to be a science since its methods of research are far from being scientific. Alchemy is considered a pseudoscience, representative of which (alchemists) tried to create the Philosopher’s Stone, which theoretically could turn any metal into gold. The only thing that connects these two areas of knowledge is attempting to find ways to control and transform matter. The difference is that alchemists failed in that mission. With the help of literature review, I will examine the works of alchemy in the context of physics, namely transmutation as a means of changing one element into another. It should provide a clear understanding of the peculiarities, difficulties, and prospects of this technique. The results of the research should explain the place of transmutation in the context of physics. The purpose of this study is to find out whether alchemist transmutation is possible according to the laws of physics.
As is known, alchemy has existed for more than a thousand of years, and the peak of its activity falls on the Middle Ages. It was during this period of world history when alchemists actively developed the concepts of transmutation, the philosophical stone, and eternal life. According to their theory, everything in the world came from a single fundamental element, which was assumed to be gold. Alchemists always believed that all elements without exception have a vital energy, that is, they grow, develop, born, and die. In this context, gold was perceived as a perfect element. Indeed, gold has many advantages in comparison to other metals. It never rusts, its color never fades, and due to its flexibility, it does not lend itself to destruction. Thus, the alchemists believed that gold possesses some magic power of infinite value. That is why they wanted to create a philosopher’s stone. According to its characteristics, the philosopher’s stone was a kind of red or orange substance that does not have a definite shape and smell. This stone, as the alchemists thought, could raise everything it touches into an absolute. That is, if the philosopher’s stone touches any other metal, it would immediately turn into the absolute metal, that is, gold. If it touches a person, then he or she will acquire the properties of a primary metal, that is, would obtain immortality, get rid of any human diseases and vulnerabilities.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, alchemy became a rather popular profession, and many wealthy and influential personalities considered it their duty to have one or even a whole team of alchemists who could provide them with gold or even immortality. At the same time, there was a growing number of frauds who called themselves alchemists, but in fact, they just wanted to earn money. They covered any metal with gilding and sold it as gold. Because of a large number of such affairs, the Pope issued to prohibit any activity related to alchemy. Since then, alchemy was considered a pseudoscience and its works were ignored for hundreds of years. The purpose of this research is to find out whether alchemical transmutation is possible according to the laws of physics.
Modern scientists do not recognize alchemists as scientists, and there are many reasons for that. However, in his book “The Philosopher’s Stone: Alchemy and the Secret Research for Exotic Matter,” Joseph Farrell argues that alchemists gave birth to modern scientific methods and were first who started to research the matter and its states. Farrell is convinced that modern physicists have a lot in common with ancient alchemists. He shows that physicists use ’coded language’ (mathematical symbols and formulas) which is unknown to ordinary people. The same situation can be observed with alchemists and their writings which were recognizable only to them. The same parallel can be drawn to experiments. In other words, alchemists were ancient prototypes of modern physicists. Moreover, alchemists worked on many issues which modern physicists try to resolve today.
As is known, Newton is one of the greatest physicists of all times as he made a great contribution to the understanding of phenomena of nature, which later became a base for modern physics. One more fact known about Newton is that he was fond of alchemy and many of his discoveries were built on the ancient alchemical texts. Prajit K. Basu, the author of “Newton’s physics in the context of his works on chemistry and alchemy” (1990), researched this issue and came to interesting conclusions. The author regarded four different approaches to Newton’s works in the context of alchemy and found out that Newton’s theories of optics and movement are greatly influenced by his alchemical research.
Michel Casse argues that all matter existing in the universe have a common origin. Thus, it can be changed from one state to another and from one element to another. His book “Stellar Alchemy: The Celestial Origin of Atoms” discusses peculiar characteristics of atoms and argues that alchemy paved the way for both modern chemistry and physics. “However, the secret of transmutation did not lie in chemistry and the peripheral electrons that determine the chemical properties of the atom. Instead, the solution to this mystery had to be sought in the nucleus of the atom and the strong and weak nuclear interactions which organise and structure it. The physical and chemical properties of an atom are determined by the number and configuration of electrons in its electronic retinue” (Casse, Michel 64). The author discusses the process of transmutation, which originates from alchemists, and states and alchemists gave birth to modern issues existing in chemistry and physics.
Mark Stavish is also convinced that most of the modern properties of physics derive from alchemists’ experiments. “Physics and chemistry are indebted to these early ‘puffers’ as they are despairingly called, for from their hours of sweat and travail, and host of modern advances came: porcelain, alcohol distillation, acids, salts, and a variety of metallic compounds, are the results of early alchemical experiments” (Stavish, Mark 1997). In his text called “Alchemy, It’s Not Just for the Middle Ages Anymore,” the author also discusses the relations between quantum physics and alchemy. He further refers to certain documents proving that the theories of alchemists have a real scientific application.
In 2004, a group of Japanese physicists headed by Yasuhiro Iwamura intended to find out whether transmutation of elements is possible attempting to transmute Barium into Samarium. For their experiment, they used Pd complexes to increase the atomic mass of Barium. “In these experiments, the atomic mass increase was 12 and atomic number increase was 6” (Iwamura, Yasuhiro et al.). Therefore, physicists proved that transmutation is possible and therefore, it should be possible to manipulate atomic mass turning one element into another.
At the beginning of the XX century, scientists worked on the idea of the transmutation of different metals into gold. There are also statements about the chemical transmutation of mercury into gold (which never confirmed yet). Alchemists’ major purpose was to transmute lead into gold. The atomic number of lead is 82, and for gold, it is 79. Therefore, the transmutation of lead into gold requires changing the number of protons. As it was said, it cannot be achieved using chemical reactions. However, physicists have some ideas on this account. Glenn T. Seaborg proved that it is possible to transmute Bismuth (which has the same structure as lead) into gold: “The results of cross section measurements for the reactions 209Bi (12C,X) Au, E = 4.8 and 25.2 GeV and 209Bi (20Ne,X) Au, E = 8.0 GeV are reported” (Aleklett, K. et al. 1044). Therefore, it is one more proof that nuclear transmutation is possible.
One more option is biological transmutation (change of one element into another in living organisms). Antoine Lavoisier, a well-known chemist of the XVIII century, argued that elements cannot be synthesized or created. He conducted dozens of experiments proving that transmutation is impossible regarding chemical reactions. However, “From 1960 to 1980, Kervran reported the astounding results of his research showing that living plants were able to accomplish limited transmutation of elements” (Biberian, Jean-Paul 634). It hypothetically means that chemical transmutations are also possible in certain conditions.
The most efficient method for this research will be a literature review. There are many points of view on alchemy as the progenitor of modern physics and have analyzed a lot of sources; it will be possible to establish a connection between these fields of science. Also, a review of the literature will help to learn a lot of new facts about alchemy and the history of its development, since to date, alchemy is considered pseudoscience, and there are not valuable studies in its field. Using this method of research, it will be possible to analyze all potential points of contact between alchemy and physics and find out what is common between them. In this study, I hope to find out whether the activities of modern physicists in the field of transmutation are based on the works of alchemists hundreds of years ago. Each source will be thoroughly studied and verified for reliability. The facts and evidence found in these sources will be analyzed in the context of the research question.
The atom is a kind of a miniature solar system, where “planets” are similar to electrons with a negative charge, revolve around the “sun,” the nucleus, which is integrated into the turn by two types of particles: neutrons (uncharged) and protons (positively charged). Each chemical element is characterized precisely by the number of protons its atoms contain. For example, a helium atom contains two protons, one of lithium contains three protons, one of coal, six protons, one of gold, 47, and one of uranium, 92. In contrast, the number of neutrons contained in the nucleus of an element is not always the same. For example, a natural oxygen atom possesses eight protons and may have atoms with eight, nine, or ten neutrons in the nucleus. These sibling particles, known as isotopes, have the same chemical properties.
Thus, the transmutation of an element requires that there be a change within its nucleus, and in particular in the number of protons. It is sufficient, therefore, to remove a proton to the mercury atom (80 protons) or to add a proton to a platinum atom (79 protons) to form a gold atom (79 protons). A question appears how to incorporate or snatch protons into the nucleus of an atom. Let us assume that the core is a fully packed subway car, which opens its doors only to accept more passengers (protons or neutrons) if they are strong enough to push their occupants. Conversely, an occupant of the car (proton or neutron) will be able to leave if it has the necessary force to make way for the rest of the passengers (protons and neutrons). In both cases, passengers, i.e., neutrons or protons, are required to possess sufficient energy to overcome the nuclear forces (wagon passengers) that prevent their passage or exit from the core of the atom (wagon) that is desired to transmute. An atom can be transmuted by hitting particles or atoms at high velocity. Accelerating a particle is increasing its velocity by some mechanism that imparts energy to it, such as a particle accelerator or a nuclear reactor.
An accelerator takes a particle, accelerates it using electric and magnetic fields, and letting an element to be transmuted. Accelerators work, in principle, much like a television. In this, a filament at high temperature, like that of a bulb, releases electrons, which are accelerated towards a positive electrode. Finally, magnets guide these electrons to concentrate in a beam and bring them to the screen. Analogously, an accelerator has an ion generator (electrons in the case of the television), produced from the emission of radio waves from atoms in gaseous form. We call ions of the atom that have lost or gained one or more electrons. Ions are therefore positively or negatively charged atoms. These ions are then driven and therefore accelerated towards a counter electrode against the ion charge as a result of the forces of attraction and repulsion caused by the electric field applied within the accelerator. The focusing or concentration of the ions towards the material to be transmuted is also made by magnetic fields; that is, magnets. Finally, at the exit of the accelerator, the ions collide on the white material, producing the transmutation of its constituent elements. This process is commonly known as a nuclear reaction, and gives rise precisely to the production of artificial radioisotopes, i.e., they do not exist in nature and are created by human. In particular, when two different atoms are joined together to become a heavier element, reference is made to a fusion reaction.
The heritage of alchemy is underestimated in modern science. It is worth to mention that modern physics has a lot in common with the experiment of medieval alchemists. One of the major purposes of alchemists was turning less precious metals into gold. According to their hypothesis, gold was the fundamental element of all other matter in the universe. Therefore, the purpose of alchemy was to find a way of changing one element into another. They lacked necessary technologies and equipment that are available in modern science. The process of changing one element into another is called transmutation, and it is widely used in current research in physics. As far as physicists learned how to work with atoms, they understood that alchemical transmutation is possible. Alchemists failed due to a lack of technological advancement and attempts to achieve transmutation using chemical reactions.
Since the beginning of the XX century, scientists started to developed theories and hypothesis about how transmutation can be realized regarding physical experiment. It is also undeniable that first steps in this direction were made by alchemists. In 1941, scientists experimented bombarding atoms of mercury with high-speed particles. In result, they got a small but observable portion of gold. Therefore, after half a thousand years, the mission of alchemists was finished. However, this experiment required 30,000 volts to accelerate the particles to the required speed. Consequently, the cost of the experiment exceeded the costs of obtained gold in hundreds of thousands time. The transmutation was considered possible but impractical since then. In our time, the development of quantum physics and new knowledge about atomic nucleus structure, the scientists return to transmutation once again. It can help to resolve such an issue as nuclear waste. Some radioactive elements do not decay for billions of years contaminating the environment. With the development of transmutation methods, such elements can be disintegrated within several seconds.
According to the results of the literature review, it is possible to conclude that transmutation can be realized using physics. The technique that is the most practical for this purpose is a fusion reaction. It can be done with the help of acceleration of particles using magnets. In results, this process is capable of changing the number of protons in the nucleus of an atom and, as a result, transmute one element into another.
Aleklett, K. et al. “Energy Dependence Of 209Bi Fragmentation In Relativistic Nuclear Collisions.” Physical Review C, vol 23, no. 3, 1981, pp. 1044-1046. American Physical Society (APS), doi:10.1103/physrevc.23.1044.
Basu, Prajit K. “Newton’S Physics In The Context Of His Works On Chemistry And Alchemy.” Indian Journal Of History Of Science, vol 26, no. 3, 1990.
Biberian, Jean-Paul. “Biological Transmutations.” Current Science, vol 108, no. 4, 2015, pp. 633-635.
Cassé, Michel. Stellar Alchemy. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Farrell, Joseph P. The Philosophers’ Stone. Port Townsend, WA, Feral House, 2009.
Iwamura, Yasuhiro et al. “Observation Of Nuclear Transmutation Reactions Induced By D2 Gas Permeation Through Pd Complexes.” Eleventh International Conference On Condensed Matter Nuclear Science, 2004.
Stavish, Mark. “Alchemy, It’S Not Just For The Middle Ages Anymore.” Atlantis Rising, 1997, pp. 1-6.
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