number of shops I
frequently visit carry a range of books on alchemy, some of which
appear to claim that it is possible to accomplish a transmutation of
the elements using this method, and it is for this reason that I have
chosen to write an article on the subject.
give a brief history of alchemy, followed by a description of its
theory and practice. This shall then be compared to our modern theories
of matter, followed by a discussion on why some alchemists may have
thought a successful transmutation had been achieved, and how frauds
may have been perpetrated. As the reader progresses, it should become
evident as to whether alchemy works or not.
derived from the Arabic alkimia, in which al is the definite article,
and kima is thought to be derived from either the Greek, chyma, meaning
to fuse or cast a metal, or from khem, "the dark land", the ancient
Egyptians' name for their country.
alchemy can be traced to Greece's Hellenistic period from 300 BC to 300
AD, and is thought to have been centred around the Egyptian city of
Alexandria, which was the cultural capital of the time.
into the Muslim Empire with the fall of Alexandria to the Arabs in the
7th century AD, and then into Europe in the 13th century AD via Toledo
and Sicily, which at the time were Muslim centres of learning.
vigorously in Europe up until establishment of modern chemistry, which
was spearheaded by such men as Joseph Priestley (1773-1804) and Antoine
What is alchemy?
to the legendary Chimaera in that it is a composite creature which
resulted from the union of Egyptian metal working techniques with Greek
philosophy. From this melting pot of ideas emerged a philosophical
system in which laboratory experiments were performed in an attempt to
prove the veracity of spiritual concepts on a material plane.
According to alchemy, both animate and inanimate matter were unified
through the possession of a permanent 'soul' housed in a variety of
temporary bodies, and that chemical change could be shown in terms of
human change, that a union of two substance was like a human marriage,
and that the turning of base metals into gold was mystically linked by
imitative magic to the transformation of the adept's nature into a
nobler state. The successful production of gold was considered to be a
sign that the practitioner had achieved enlightenment.
matter is based upon Aristotle's (384 - 322 BC) theory of the two pairs
of opposed qualities (hot/cold. dry/wet) and the four elements (Earth,
Air, Fire, Water) produced by pairwise conjunction of the four
interchange their qualities to produce others, as for instance: Water
(cold wet) + Fire (hot dry) = Earth (cold dry) + Air (hot wet).
essence of the
four elements was thought to be the Materia Prima, the ‘soul’ of the
matter, which existed only potentially until given form, thus producing
the elements. According to Aristotle, all matter was composed of these
elements in varying proportions, and it was the ratio of these
proportions which produced the multitude of substances that comprise
the material world.
The Philosopher's Stone
philosophical assumptions that the alchemists deduced their own
postulates about the unity of both the material and spiritual world,
and the existence of a transmuting agent called the Philosopher's Stone
which, if produced, could transform base metals into gold,
and act as a panacea when dissolved in alcohol.
confusion as to how the Philosopher's Stone was to be produced, and the
following description is a generalised account of the process. The
first step in the production of the Philosopher's Stone was to place a
substance (ie excrement, semen, thaumaturgic herbs) in a thick walled
hermetic flask. When the planets were in conjunction in the appropriate
zodiacal signs and the invocations uttered, the flask was slowly heated
in the furnace and the substance was though to separate into the four
elements: Earth (the residue in the bottom of the flask), Water
(condensation in the flask's long neck), and Fire (the ignition of
material within the flask).
the process was called the Nigredo. At this stage, the substance had
been reduced to a black inert mass under the vapours that had been
driven off. These vapours were allowed to condense and return to the
black mass in the belief that the spiritual essence of the material
(vapours) that had been driven off from the charred body (inert mass)
would give birth to nobler substance when reunited with it (analogous
with Christ's resurrection).
was repeated many times until it gave birth to the Phoenix, the third
stage, so called because the black mass was said to burst into
expanding feathers of white fire. These flames became red, then golden,
then erupted into a coruscation of colour, the Peacock's Tail, the
fourth and final stage of the process. The explosion of light faded and
left behind a red powder, the Philosopher's Stone, which, when
dissolved in molten metal would transmute it entirely to gold.
The science of matter
an account of alchemical theory and Practice, I shall now seek to
answer the following question: does alchemy work? The answer is no, the
transmutation of the elements cannot be achieved by alchemical methods,
and in order to understand why, we will need to examine the true nature
of matter which has been elucidated by modern science.
composed of atoms, which in turn consist of a nucleus of protons and
neutrons. The number of protons in the nucleus determines the nature of
the element; for example, mercury has 80 protons while gold has 79.
surrounded by electrons whose number is equal to the number of protons;
since the electric charge of the electron is equal but opposite to that
of the proton, the atom is electrically neutral. The electrons orbiting
the nucleus are arranged in shells, and it is the number and
arrangement of electrons in the outermost shell that determine how an
element behaves chemically.
occur when the electrons in the outermost shell of the atoms involved
are shared or transferred so that their total number is eight, that
being the most stable arrangement. Any atom that already possesses
eight electrons in its outermost shell cannot take part in chemical
reactions, as it the case with argon and neon which are inert gases.
experiments were of a chemical nature, and no chemical reaction can
alter the nucleus of an atom. The number of protons in the nucleus must
be changed in order to effect a transmutation. This occurs in nature
with the radioactive decay of elements such as radium which eventually
decays to lead. Radioactive decay occurs because the number of neutrons
in the nucleus is appreciably different from the number of protons.
instability results in three distinct phenomena: the emission of alpha
rays (2 protons and 2 neutrons), beta rays (electrons) and gamma rays
(high frequency electromagnetic radiation). Each of these events tends
to increase the stability of the atom by altering the proton-neutron
ratio to a more equal proportion, or by the release of nuclear strain
through the emission of radiant energy.
transmutation was performed by New Zealand born Ernest Rutherford
(1871-1937) who bombarded nitrogen with alpha particles to produce
oxygen and protons. Armed with nothing more than crucibles, alembics
and other primitive laboratory equipment, the alchemists, with their
erroneous theories of matter, stood no chance of changing one element
into another. Not only did alchemy fail to transform the elements, it
also failed to ennoble its practitioners.
rife in the period 1400 to 1600 and did not always go unpunished.
Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) imprisoned and tortured the English
alchemist Edward Kelly for falsely claiming to be able to achieve
that some alchemists sincerely believed that they had achieved a
successful transmutation. In many cases, they may have succeeded in
giving some other metal a golden colour, and concluded that they had
made gold. Alchemical manufacture of silver has been explained by
reference to arsenic compounds like orpiment and realgar (arsenic
sulphides) which, together with copper, form 'silvery' alloys.
Alchemical gold may have resulted from a combination of calamine (zinc
carbonate) and copper which would produce a brass alloy.
cases where alchemical gold was tested and found to be genuine. In
these instances, fraud is the most likely explanation.
deception have been achieved? One possibility is that powdered gold was
introduced into the crucible via a hollow stirring rod, or the crucible
may have had a thick layer of gold lining its bottom, and concealed by
paint. Alternatively, an ingot of lead dropped into the crucible may
have been a mere shell which encased a solid mass of gold, and in cases
where a sceptical observer provided a sample, the alchemist may have
made a substitution using techniques similar to those employed by
think it can be said that although alchemy made contributions to
chemistry in the area of laboratory techniques, such as distillation,
its esoteric and magical theories have no place in the modem world,
except as signposts to human folly.
world, anyone who suggests that an alchemical transformation of the
elements is possible is either woefully ignorant of some very basic
science or no better than the charlatans of old.
Atimov, L, Asirnov's
New Guide to Science, Penguin Books, London, 1987
Bernal, J.D. Science
in history, Vol 1: The Emergence of Modern Science. Penguin Books,
Boas, M. The Arts of
the Alchemists, Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd, London, 1967
Augustine to Galileo, Vol 1: Science in the Middle Ages, Mercury Books,
Lapp, R.E., Matter,
Time-Life International, Holland, 1965