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Sunday, 31 July 2011


The first reference to alchemy, the search for an elixir of immortal life, was made by a Chinese Taoist in approx 140BC. These early alchemists were seeking to convert other metals into gold, not to create wealth, but as a step towards discovering the recipe for eternity. Among their experiments were an attempt to develop an immortality pill through refining mercury sulphide: The use of this poisonous substance lead to many deaths, including Tang emperors.

The phrase "talk gibberish" alludes to the Persian scientist and alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (c. 721 – c. 815), whose name was latinised as geber. Gibberish referred to the incomprehensible jargon he used when describing how to turn base metals into gold.

In the 9th century Chinese alchemists in search of the elixir of life created a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal. Ironically, short of a path to immortality, they had discovered gunpowder.

The medieval alchemists failed to form gold out of cheaper metals. However, in the process of searching, they discovered the strong acids: sulfuric acid, nitric acid and hydrochloric acid - substances much more useful to modern industry than gold could possibly be.

The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone, by Joseph Wright, 1771

Had the medieval alchemists learned how to make gold out of lead, it would have been an economic failure. The large increase in the gold supply would have decreased its value.

On January 13, 1404, King Henry IV of England signed into law the Act Against Multiplication, forbidding alchemists from turning base metals into gold.

Sir Isaac Newton, who revolutionized mathematics and physics, spent almost as much time writing about and studying alchemy, and firmly believed in its viability as a science.

In 1980, nuclear physicist Glenn Seaborg transmuted several thousand atoms of bismuth into gold at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. His experimental technique, using nuclear physics, was able to remove protons and neutrons from the bismuth atoms. Seaborg's technique would have been far too expensive to enable routine manufacturing of gold, but his work was close to the mythical Philosopher's Stone.

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