Alchemy: Lead into Gold

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Alchemy is both a philosophy and a practice with an aim of achieving ultimate wisdom as well as immortality, involving the improvement of the alchemist as well as the making of several substances described as possessing unusual properties. The practical aspect of alchemy generated the basics of modern inorganic chemistry, namely concerning procedures, equipment and the identification and use of many current substances.

The fundamental ideas of alchemy are said to have arisen in the ancient Persian Empire. Alchemy has been practised in Mesopotamia (comprising much of today's Iraq), Egypt, Persia (today's Iran), India, China, Japan, Korea and in Classical Greece and Rome, in the Muslim civilizations, and then in Europe up to the 20th century, in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2500 years.

The best-known goals of the alchemists were the transmutation of common metals into gold (called chrysopoeia) or silver (less well known is plant alchemy, or "spagyric"); the creation of a "panacea", or the elixir of life, a remedy that, it was supposed, would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely; and the discovery of a universal solvent. Although these were not the only uses for the discipline, they were the ones most documented and well-known. Certain Hermetic schools argue that the transmutation of lead into gold is analogical for the transmutation of the physical body (Saturn or lead) into Solar energy (gold) with the goal of attaining immortality. This is described as Internal Alchemy. Starting with the Middle Ages, Arabic and European alchemists invested much effort in the search for the "philosopher's stone", a legendary substance that was believed to be an essential ingredient for either or both of those goals.

Lead (atomic number 82) and gold (atomic number 79) are defined as elements by the number of protons they possess. Changing the element requires changing the atomic (proton) number. The number of protons cannot be altered by any chemical means. However, physics may be used to add or remove protons and thereby change one element into another. Because lead is stable, forcing it to release three protons requires a vast input of energy, such that the cost of transmuting it greatly surpasses the value of the resulting gold.

Transmutation of lead into gold isn't just theoretically possible - it has been achieved.. There are reports that Glenn Seaborg, 1951 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, succeeded in transmuting a minute quantity of lead (possibly en route from bismuth, in 1980) into gold. There is an earlier report (1972) in which Soviet physicists at a nuclear research facility near Lake Baikal in Siberia accidentally discovered a reaction for turning lead into gold when they found the lead shielding of an experimental reactor had changed to gold.