By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
What if transmutation of base metals to precious metals actually succeeded?
Alchemistry (or “alchemy” which is a restricted alchemical discipline dedicated to metal transmutation) has its roots firmly embedded in the ancient Greek “Atomist” movement, ca. 350 B.C. The atomists beat Dalton’s Atomic Theory (1803) by introducing the concepts that all matter is composed of a limited number of elements. The elements of the atomists were earth, wind, fire and water. The alchemists further suggested (again beating Dalton) that these elements combined in different ways to form all other matter.
The Greek Tablets on Alchemistry were translated into Arabic ca. 750 AD, leading to the earliest attempts to purify gold. Around the 12th or 13th century, these tablets were translated from Arabic to Latin, bringing Alchemy to Europe.
There were two branches of the philosophy of Alchemy (which was more spiritual and philosophical than actual science). These branches revolved around the “philosopher’s stone”, a necessary component to successfully transmute base metals (such as lead or mercury) to precious metals (such as silver or gold).
One of these branches suggested that possession of the philosopher’s stone was simply a necessary component in some form of ritual that would transmute the metal. The other branch, the one on which I will focus, believes that the philosopher’s stone is nothing more than a highly purified example of the target metal of the transmutation. Careful and proper mixing of this stone, then, was believed to be able to “re-arrange” the elements in the base metal to match the arrangement in the precious metal, thereby transmuting it. Why, exactly, it wouldn’t work in reverse is beyond me, but perhaps we’ll put that question off until a later blog.
But here is the thing that I find fascinating; alchemy existed for at least two centuries (and perhaps as long as 9 centuries) before Robert Boyle wrote his treaties, “The Skeptical Chymist” in 1661 which is largely regarded as the “death knell” for the practice. How is it possible for so many people to spend so much time and so much money on a practice that never worked?
To address this question, I would like to briefly visit the primary functions of Alchemy. They were skilled at, and worked to improve the practice of: calcination (burning to ashes); dissolving; separation; fermentation; distillation; condensation; and mixing. Many of the skills learned in these years are still in use by chemists today, but, in early alchemy, they must have been crude and ineffective.
So here is my hypothesis. What if an early alchemisty (say, maybe sometime in the 13th century) managed to create a “philosopher’s stone” of the type described as a highly purified example of the target metal, say, for example, silver. This alchemist might have put this silver “philosopher’s stone” with the base metal mercury, and mixed them in a furnace to the point that the silver melted. (For any chemists reading this, alchemy writings do describe a procedure of “refluxing”, meaning this could have been done without losing significant mercury content.) The silver and mercury would have melted together, and in the correct ratio resulted in a high quality amalgam (mixture) of silver and mercury.
The upshot of this is that the alchemist may have made a silver alloy with properties so close to pure silver that the instrumentation and techniques of the time could not distinguish it from the pure metal. To the alchemist, the result would be what appears to be a pure silver metal with more mass than the philosopher’s stone (because of the mercury content). As such, the conclusion must be that the mercury had been successfully transmuted.
Unfortunately, had such a success occurred, it certainly couldn’t last. Word of the success would have traveled far and wide, no doubt, leading to the chemical equivalent of “gold rush fever”, but skills were continuing to improve. More alchemists would lead to improvements in determination of properties, and skills such as separation and purification. Perhaps the first hint would be that the philosopher’s stone, itself, could not be used more than once, so if it were truly transmutation, why, then wouldn’t they be able to continually propagate the silver production? Now we have the problem of a group of alchemists who truly believe in the former successful transmutations (which they did reference in their writings), but who were just too skilled for their own good to be able to repeat the experiment.