Alchemy? Did anyone ever figure out how to change base metals into gold?

  1. May 16, 2010 #1
    Why is alchemy not real? Did anyone ever figure out how to change base metals into gold?
    What is the closest anyone has ever come to this?
    Assuming they haven't , why can't they do it?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 16, 2010 #2


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    Changing one element into another is, by definition, a nuclear process not a chemical process. It's done all the time. In fact, there is a large facility just a few miles from my house that is currently converting heavy elements into lighter elements.
  4. May 19, 2010 #3
    I actually did a project on alchemy last semester, and here's a little background that might give you some more information, or at least interest you. Alchemists thought that all metals were a mixture of gold (the purest of all metals), sulfur and mercury ("impurities"), in different proportions. The reason that they thought they could turn other metals into gold is because they thought these other elements contained gold in the first place, which they don't.

    Like russ watters said, it's a nuclear process, not a chemical process. Early alchemists wouldn't have been able to perform the processes necessary to actually change one element into another.
  5. May 19, 2010 #4
    I believe that very small amounts of gold have been synthesized in a particle accelerator. The energy required to do far outweights the value of the gold produced. Maybe if it hits a few thousand more an ounce it might be worthwhile. I doubt it though.
  6. May 19, 2010 #5


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    Seems wikipedia has a whole article on the topic.
    Which includes one of my favorite Rutherford quotes, on discovering how nuclear decay lead to elements changing into other elements:

    Which wasn't entirely a joke. Alchemy was not science, but mostly ancient superstition and rumor. It took chemistry quite some time to liberate itself from that 'baggage'.
  7. May 22, 2010 #6
    True, alxm, alchemy wasn't a science, but alchemists did give us quite a few of the early tools needed to begin doing actual chemistry (i.e. chemistry not involving astrology). This is basically just me bragging, but I had to do quite a bit of research on it for the project I did, which I mentioned before, and it turns out the "father of chemistry" was originally an alchemist, Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan. He's credited with the discoveries of hydrochloric, sulfuric, and nitric acids, as well as over twenty pieces of lab equipment (the retort and alembic, to name two). This was all done in the midst of his alchemical pursuits, so alchemy isn't entirely useless after all.

    Sorry for sort of going off on a tangent, but I spent months learning about this stuff and I'm finally getting a chance to share some of it :)
  8. May 22, 2010 #7
    That is a common and intentionally seeded misconception. Actually alchemists LIED about turning metals into gold for monetary support of their studies. IMO they had prior knowledge of everything we are able to do today without understanding it, and tried to come up with it, in somewhat strange and irrational to us ways.

    Keep in mind, the Baghdad battery is almost 2000 years older than Volta, the person who rediscovered it for our own civilization
  9. May 22, 2010 #8

    It wasn't apparent that you had gone off on a tangent at all.
  10. May 22, 2010 #9

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    Ah yes. The Sumerian Spectrometer. The Minoan Mass Spec. The well-known Gas Chromatograph description written on the other side of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And of course, the famous nuclear chemistry lab hidden under the Coliseum, which some scholars think gave Fermi his inspiration to locate his own lab under Stagg field.
  11. May 23, 2010 #10
    Let us not forget the Ancient Apraphulian Computer, first reported in Scientific American, that has as much change as a plating tank of being confused with a battery.
  12. May 23, 2010 #11
  13. May 23, 2010 #12

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    Dgtech, this was a joke. As was the "Apraphulian Computer". The Antikythera_mechanism is a gearbox with nothing to do with chemistry.

    What we were trying to get you to realize that your claim that "Alchemists...had prior knowledge of everything we are able to do today" is just plain silly. There are many things we can do today that they simply had no idea about - look at any chemistry journal: they discuss things we know today that we didn't know a year ago, much less hundreds.
  14. May 23, 2010 #13
    Maybe I didn't put it out well enough. They didn't know everything we know, but they knew eventual possibilities and tried to reach them it what was appropriate during their time.

    For example today general relativity suggests FTL travel is not possible. But if we see an alien vessel that has that technology, we would know it is possible and will being doing all sort of crazy things trying to accomplish it.

    The Antikythera device is simply an example science is not going strictly one direction, there are times of advancement and recession, and the Baghdad battery is another example of this. No one has even explained how primitive people were able to transport 800 ton blocks thousands of years ago, but they did it, that's a fact, and it is an accomplishment that will be even challenging for our own civilization.

    Alchemists knew there were possibilities and were trying to explore them, and in order to have support they have often lied to rich people they are trying to turn ordinary metals into gold.
  15. May 23, 2010 #14


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    Well of course, I wouldn't say otherwise. As Dara O'Briain said about herbal medicine "[People say] 'Oh, herbal medicine has been around for thousands of years'.. Yes, and then we tested it all, and the stuff that worked became 'medicine'.".

    The relationship between alchemy and chemistry is much the same. It's not that alchemy didn't find anything out, it's just that we also have to remember the immense burden of traditional nonsense that it created, which it literally took centuries to liberate ourselves from. (And as the medicine reference shows, we've yet to completely liberate ourselves from these burdens)
  16. May 23, 2010 #15


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    No, they didn't know of the possibilities, because they had no valid theories. They didn't even have empirical theories. What they had, was the kind of 'theories' you get today from a crackpot, or person uneducated in scientific method attempting science: High-flying, speculative, vague loads of nonsense, "explaining" unknown things in terms of ill-defined, mysterious, unobserved (and often unobservable) underlying assumptions. Basically an incoherent mess which could make no useful predictions (and in case a prediction failed, they would rather modify their theory than discard it, or simply deny reality). They never challenged their underlying assumptions (e.g. why four elements? Why those particular four? How would you demonstrate that this is the case?)

    In short, they lacked the scientific method, and with it, the ability to make any kind of predictions about reality.

    They did discover things, but that was essentially through random trial-and-error. Not because of their underlying theories, which were nonsense. Nothing remains of alchemical theory.

    Well first it's Special Relativity that predicts that's impossible. Second, that's wrong. if we made a reliable observation showing FTL travel was possible, then all that would tell us is that there is an apparent way around it. That might not invalidate SR at all (depending on how the FTL occured), or it would imply that SR is not exact and the 'final' theory of that matter. Thing is, I don't think anyone believes our current theories of physics are the final theories. However that does not change the fact that SR correctly explains and predicts an enormous set of things. In other words, whatever replaces SR must still reproduce SR in a large set of known circumstances. So SR is not going to be thrown out, because it's still valid for them.

    Much the same way Newtonian physics has not been thrown out simply because it does not accurately predict the behavior of subatomic particles and things moving at relativistic speeds.

    So any theory which is to replace SR but allow for FTL travel, must be able reproduce all the predictions that SR has correctly made. And to be testable, it must make some additional ones. This is a very difficult thing to do, but there's nothing stopping anyone from trying at the moment. All an observation of FTL travel would do, is imply that such a theory is possible. But it's not the fact that people don't believe in the possibility which is hindering such a theory - in fact, theoretical physicists study all kinds of impossible theories all the time (for 2-dimensional universes or whatever). It's simply the fact that it's difficult.

    Those are not examples of science - they did not have Science. They had trial-and-error. The current age of mankind is profoundly different, because unlike the past, not only do we know things not known before, we know why we know things we did not know before. We know how to systematically arrive at these results.

    This is not a great mystery. We've shown many plausible methods of transporting heavy blocks with contemporary technology. We will never know for certain how they did it, but not because there's no conceivable method of doing so, but simply because we don't have sufficient information to ever determine which one was used.

    What's your evidence that alchemists did not believe themselves that transmutation was possible? They had no reason to believe it was impossible. On the other hand, nor did they have a (credible) reason to believe it was possible. Which is why alchemy is not a science.

    Science does not start with an ad-hoc desired end and try to find a way to achieve it. (which you seem to imply with the FTL example) Science starts with either a theory making a testable prediction, or an empirical observation in need of a theory. It is disciplined adherence to this which is at the center of a scientific mindset. The farther one deviates from this, the more one ends up with bad science, pseudoscience and ultimately, alchemy.
  17. May 23, 2010 #16
    No, that would be engineering :P kekekeke

    By the way, excellent post.
  18. May 24, 2010 #17
    I actually read a couple of books on the history of alchemy, as I was interested in how it provided the basis for chemistry (as a chemist).

    One thing I've learned is, the only people attempting to transmute lead to gold were bad alchemists.

    There are two things associated with alchemy most dearly; transmutation of lead to gold, and creating a way to make a person immortal. There's also a third thing people often forget; alchemists were very secretive. All of their manuscripts and texts were written in what was called the Language of the Birds, using innuendo and double meanings to communicate to fellow alchemists that knew how to read it. To outsiders the texts took on entirely different meanings.

    Hence; many people, especially those who were particularly greedy, were interested in the alchemical ability to transmute lead to gold.

    More likely, both the transmutation of lead to gold and attaining immortality were flowery ways of suggesting alchemy lead to transcendence; transmuting the soul from an imperfect human soul to a perfected enlightened one.

    If you look at Eastern Alchemy, it becomes even more apparent as the Chinese didn't even try to hide the fact they were ultimately looking for enlightenment, and alchemy was a method of striving towards it.

    Looking at the parts of the Great Work alchemists supposedly underwent to create the Philosopher's Stone, it becomes even more obvious what the goal was. You have;

    Nigredo: Blackening, corruption, individuation.
    Albedo: Whitening, purification.
    Citrinitas: Yellowing, spiritualisation, enlightenment.
    Rubedo: REddening, unification of man and god, unification of the limited with the unlimited.

    The Philosopher's Stone was a metaphor for attaining enlightenment; the point wasn't the destination, it was the journey, maaaaaaaan. (Apparently alchemists were proto-hippies in that regard.)

    So yeah.
  19. May 24, 2010 #18
    The philosopher stone was a symbol of enlightenment, but it may have been more than a metaphor, if you have bothered to investigate Mutus Liber - the recipe for the philosopher stone, which seems to include, IIRC dew collected after a full moon and sea or ocean salt that has been exposed to sun rays, those two mixed and transmuted a few times by boiling over periods of time at different temperatures.

    Actually Mutus Liber is not the only recipe - the Emerald Tablet seems to also concern this issue, but more vaguely, which can be attributed to bad translation

    It was exactly the Emerald Tablet that alchemists were using as a guide line, or what I was trying to suggest in my previous posts. It may have been misunderstood as it can also be simply the ultimate recipe for the art of BEING ;)
    Last edited: May 24, 2010
  20. May 24, 2010 #19
    Yeah, there were a lot of fanciful additions to the steps to creation the stone, such as the nigredo step needing to start with soil taken from the Nile river's delta, but most of the procedures specified you had to meditate on the work as you were heating and working with it.

    There are a lot of recipes, and I imagine that was a facet of having a bunch of people all with an inkling of what they were doing but no ability to communicate with one another. So in one area you have an alchemist that writes that dew collected in a full moon is a necessary component, while another writes that the rich black soil of the Nile's delta is the key starting material.

    Given, I'm sure after one of those failed you'd have writing on more materials and details of the procedure.

    What I do find interesting are the stories of the supposed successes with creating the stone. Nicolas Flamel and his wife were some of the stranger ones, with their tombs being found empty after they had died and were supposed to have been placed in them. Sightings of Nicolas Flamel continued up until the 18th century (how could anyone recognize him on sight 300 years after his death?).

    There was also a strange story of a physician in Switzerland who was a skeptic of alchemy until a shadowy man, I believe thought to be Paracelsus, a great alchemist, appeared at his home one night and demonstrated the workings of the Philosopher's Stone before disappearing.

    So yeah, I find all of the myths and legends surrounding alchemy interesting. Sadly, very few fantasy works do them any justice.
  21. May 25, 2010 #20
    Neat, how big was the Apraphulian Computer ? Do we really and truly know that this was a computer and not something else ? It sounds like a loom, to weave fabric with ? Also, what were they computing with it ?
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