Monday, 8 August 2011

Romancing the Stone

This was my first article in The British and Irish Skeptic (shortly to change its name to The Skeptic), edited by Steve Donnelly and Toby Howard. It appeared in Vol. 4, No 1, January/February 1990, pp.16-17. The title was mine, a nod to the 1984 film. The illustration is the one the editors chose to accompany the article.

Romancing the Stone

The lure of alchemy continues...

You might be forgiven for thinking that alchemy had been consigned to the dustbin of history. If the Times Higher Education Supplement [1] is to be believed, it is currently undergoing a resurgence of interest, albeit for its role in the growth of modern-day chemistry rather than any intrinsic merits in its methodology. At the recent annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement’s of Science, its History of Science section held a session on gunpowder. It emerged that alchemy has a respectable pedigree.

There are two variants, stemming from Egypt and China. The former propounded the familiar Aristotelian notion of the elements of earth, air, fire and water, and the possibility of combining them in such a way as to produce gold. The latter, together with Greek ideas, formed a synthesis which was imported into Europe by Arab migrants and gave rise to such words as alkali, alcohol and naphtha. Ironically the Chinese interest in gunpowder originated in alchemical research into immortality. Richard Gregory of Bristol University is quoted as saying that Newton ‘probably spent more time on his alchemical and biblical studies than on his laws of motion, gravity, optics and colour, and mathematics’, although whether he is being admiring or quizzical is not made clear.

The answer may be given in another reference to Professor Gregory, printed in the Daily Telegraph, in an article which also concerns the British Association [2]. It states that CSICOP speakers at the annual meeting would be demonstrating how ‘stories about spoon-benders, ghosts, UFOs and communication with the dead can be exposed. In this context, Professor Richard Gregory, of Bristol University, will describe how, in the light of 17th century science, people stopped believing in alchemy and witchcraft. Superstition faded, and the modern scientific method was born.’ Alas Gregory’s pronouncement seems to be a non sequitur, else CSICOP would not feel compelled to expose cases which flagrantly have not been subjected to current scientific methods.

It does seem that there is a belief in certain religious quarters that alchemical processes can occur, though in this context it can hardly be said that these are precursors to modern science. Two recent news items give details of supposed miraculous transformations in Texas [3], California and Medjugorje in Yugoslavia [4]. The Californians had been on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, where miracles linked to sightings of the Virgin Mary had allegedly occurred. The description of the Texas incident does only state that ‘dozens reported that the silver beads on their rosaries turned to a gold colour’. The participants in the Californian and Yugoslav events appear to have been more specific, and asserted that the metal had changed from silver to gold (or copper). Happily for the owners, who might have had their faith tested by the power of Mammon, a jeweller who examined one such rosary said that the colour change was due to tarnishing.

Perhaps here the matter would rest, except for an odd story which appeared in the Guardian earlier this year [5], concerning a bizarre little organism called Thiobacillus ferro-oxidans. It would seem that it lives, by some unspecified means, on inorganic matter, and can liberate precious metals (including gold) as a by-product of eating spoil heaps containing such small quantities of the desired materials that it would not be economically viable to recover them mechanically. This may not be exactly what ancient alchemists had in mind, but I am sure that it can be seen as the transmutation of something worthless into something valuable. It so happens that the philosopher’s stone turns out to be organic.

There has to be a catch, and not just the possibility that the main beneficiary would be South Africa, the largest gold supplier and therefore the possessor of the biggest spoil heaps. It transpires that T. Ferrooxidans has a very low tolerance of temperature variations, making industrial applications too expensive and complicated. The article largely concerns the efforts of a team at King’s College London to improve the organism so that it will flourish in a much wider temperature range. Unfortunately, it claims, commercial exploitation of the new version had been slow due possibly to an unconscious aversion to the prospect of using organisms in an industrial process(presumably brewing does not count?).

By definition, of course, this loose usage of the term ‘transmutation of elements’ is about the closest one can come to the alteration of one element into another by chemical means. An element is denned as a substance which cannot be changed into or from simpler forms, except by a change in its atomic nucleus. In theory it would be possible to produce gold from cheaper elements, but the energy required to do so would be so expensive that the technique would not be viable whilst substantial stocks could be dug out of the ground.

However, I came across a reference to an alleged Russian process [6] which claimed to be able to turn lead into gold in an atom smasher at a very cheap rate (about $600 per oz) as opposed to previous processes which produced gold at a cost of between $3,000and $3 million per oz, a considerable reduction and one which would have significant consequences for the world market. However, this item appeared in 1980, and nothing seems to have been heard of the process since. Fool’s Gold perhaps?


1. Martin Ince, ‘Rich seam of explosive ideas amid the mumbo-jumbo’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 15 September 1989.

2. Roger Highfield and Adrian Berry, ‘Britain needs major initiative on science’, Dally Telegraph, 11September 1989.

3. ‘Hundreds of people stay in St John Neumann Roman Catholic church, Texas to talk about alleged miracle’, Associated Press, 17 August 1988.

4. Robert Sheaffer, ‘Psychic vibrations’, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol 14, No 1, 1989, pp. 23-24.

5. Dan Van Der Vat, ‘Answers lie in the soil—How science is harnessing the microbe to turn base metal into gold’, The Guardian, 28 February 1989.

6. ‘The escalating price of gold could make nuclear transmutation economically sensible, and the Soviets may have a method’, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 27 January1980.

Tom Ruffles is a commercial analyst, but finds parapsychology rather more interesting.