P. Edronkin

Is The Quest Of Alchemy An Impossibility To Explore?



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Alchemists dedicated their lives in order to attain two main goals: eternal life and a method to produce gold; according to our current knowledge in physics and chemistry, both things are unattainable but is that so or is it that nothing is impossible?

Eternal life is something that we cannot attain simply because we have -at least now - no means to store life in long-life containers that could be replaced over time. In other words, we don't know how to deal with life as if it were information that you would save in a data container, while allowing it to remain functional.

And in terms of their quest for the production of gold in a lab, they indeed tried to become rich and powerful, as well as the patrons that financed most alchemists. But their work was not entirely chimerical, and it is a fact that alchemy produced many discoveries and developments that are useful still today, mainly in the realms of chemistry, biology and medicine.

Some alchemists attained fame, glory and a place in history; and even well-known scientist also experimented more or less with alchemy and its concepts, like Isaac Newton. Naturally, since gold and eternal life were the ultimate goals of alchemy, and since important discoveries were made in the way, this attracted funding from powerful people, and a lot of not-so-little-turf politics evolved around this proto-science.

Many of the great books on alchemy were written using special codes and had to be deciphered, and naturally, alchemists usually kept the codes and keys for themselves. This was done to impress gullible people with thinks that looked mysterious, so as to enhance their reputation, but also because they had to hid failures from their patrons and protect knowledge, which was actually valuable.

Patents and copy rights are a relatively recent thing, and these researchers had no other way to enhance security in their labs. Many exploration trips took place in order to gather material and knowledge for alchemy purposes, and alchemists were for long the sole individuals that kept and transmitted from generation to generation certain pieces ok knowledge, which were considered dangerous, heretical or contrary to religious or state doctrines.

But ultimately, alchemists had no clue about the structure of matter and thus, were in no position to actually change chemical compounds or elements into gold. Now e know that - at least theoretically - such a feat would be attainable by changing the atomic structure of matter, but this is not quite easy.

There are two distinct processes by which matter changes: nuclear fission in one that exists naturally everywhere. Radioactive atoms essentially fall apart one after another by cause of their predecessors (this is the famous chain reaction), creating in the process atoms that have less content in them, thus, becoming lighter and with different properties.

This implies, basically, that atoms corresponding to one element, just transforms themselves into other, lighter, elements. So far, seven different reaction series have been identified in nature, and all of them end producing element Pb, or Lead.

We will not extend this discussion into nuclear physics (look elsewhere in our site for that), but let us say that uranium will eventually end in your plumbing, transformed in the harmless material that we see today. The problem is that depending on the half-life of each isotope, this may take thousands of millions of years, and still, everything will end being lead, and nothing else.

However, lead is not too different from gold, chemically and physically; a quick glance at Mendeleiev's table will tell that their atomic mass and other properties are not far removed one from another. So the key for modern alchemists would be to work on these differences.

The other process, fusion, is essentially the contrary: two light atoms combine to form one that is heavier. This happens all the time within the core of stars, even our sun, but requires much more energy than fission.

In theory, at least, we could develop some way to alter the fission series and produce gold, but the cost with our present technology would be prohibitive. So, if you want to grab gold, for the moment stick to traditional methods, like gambling in a casino.

But it is fair to say we owe alchemists more than is apparent: during their time, before the advent of modern chemistry, they did a significant research job which was not entirely recognised due to religious and political issues, and later, they were ridiculed by modern scientists.

However, within an adequately understood historical context, there is no other option but to say that they did as good as it could get.




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