I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately and there more to come. We have the best interviews here using the best words ever. Great words, great guests and of course, a great host. What more could you ask for?
But this week, we are going to do something different. Today we are going to plumb the depths of history, explore the limits of our incredulity and see if perhaps we might learn something about ourselves in the process. That sounds deep, huh?
Well, you know things are gonna get interesting when I start quoting the Bible. Specifically, according to Ecclesiastes 1:9, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” For those of you out there suffering from the mistaken notion that we in this generation, in this modern era, are the best and brightest who have ever lived, let me go ahead and just rob you of that illusion. Every generation gets this one wrong. You think back in Roman times, as they sat at the baths with one guy sitting on the pot next to another guy, butts out to the world, you think they didn’t tell each other that was the best of all possible worlds they were living in? Of course they did.
Our technology has evolved over the last century in extraordinary ways, and in some ways we have definitely advanced beyond our ancient forefathers, but unfortunately our ways of thinking have not really been keeping up and it’s a good idea for us to sort of keep that in mind from time to time. I don’t think a little humility ever hurt anyone. But yes, I am trying so hard right now to not make a political joke. Must. Resist.
Alright, now more to the point of this week’s show, I thought we might take a journey down memory lane but not just for the sake of gabbing about ancient history. I thought instead that we might begin what could be a long series of periodic episodes of the Sensibly Speaking Podcast where we do some in-depth exploration of where some of our thinking and ideas come from.
You know, I’ve said before that there is two-dimensional thinking and then there’s thinking in three dimensions. Now that’s just an analogy and I’m not talking about how your brain works, but it’s a pretty good analogy if I say so myself. You can have a surface level understanding of something where you learn a piece of information and you accept it or reject it based on whatever is in your head at that moment, but we know that’s not a full understanding. If you want to really grasp knowledge, or grok it as Heinlein used to say, then you need to drill down into the details. You need to go deep and get where things come from and get all the details of it. Then you can understand why people may think something is true and you can really play with that knowledge. Plus, when you understand something at that level, people are going to have a much harder time pulling one over on you.
Last December, in Episode 69, A Little Science Never Hurt Anyone, I spent some time discussing the layers of scientific knowledge: at the core there is the tested and true science which we generally accept and teach in schools and that kind of thing; the next layer is the actively investigated frontier which is something scientists of all kinds are working on advancing all the time; and then the last is the loosely formulated and hard-to-scrutinize fringe. And you may recall that in the fringe, we have these zombie ideas. That’s a proposition that has either been disproved or is not even testable, but like a zombie, it continues to live and feed out on the fringe of science even though there’s no real life in it. Zombie ideas usually shamble on because they appeal to our deeply held beliefs, so people choose to stick with them for emotional reasons and to hell with whatever the evidence says. Generally speaking, a lot of the pseudoscientific nonsense that still flies around on social media and in the world today are just zombies which have been dressed up in new clothes so they don’t look like they are shambling around on broken legs and about to fall over. My good friend Nick helped me in putting that science episode together and he also supplied me with a lot of the original material for this episode, so thank you Nick.
Now, just because we have developed a lot of technology doesn’t mean we are really so far advanced in our thinking from our ancestors. There have been lots of zombie ideas in our history. Some of them are still shuffling their feet in search of brains to feed on. Others, mercifully, have been put to rest. I thought it would be instructive (and kind of fun) to discuss a zombie idea occasionally. So welcome to the Zombie Idea Project!
Where do we start? Well, let’s go really far back. When it comes to zombie ideas, very few are as old and have history as rich as that of the philosopher’s stone. When we call it a stone, we aren’t talking about a literal stone like a rock. It has been referred to as an elixer or an alchemy substance. No one really knows for sure what it was supposed to be or what it looked like. But whatever this stuff was, it was also called the stone of the philosophers, lapis philosophorum, basilicus, philosophic mercury, talcum, herbalis and thesaurus. It is supposed to transform things into gold. There was even a special word for this imaginary transformation; it was called “transmutation”.
Now what kind of stuff can this philosopher’s stone turn into gold? Well, it used to depend on who you asked. Some self-appointed experts would say anything, others would limit the choice of source material to any metal, yet others would be even more particular and say that only specific metals (like lead, copper, or both) were suitable for transmutation. There were also claims that the philosopher’s stone could be used to produce an elixir of eternal life, but we won’t get into that whole thing until I’ve had time to more closely investigate Bette White and Keith Richards.
So first things first: where would the idea of transmutation even come from? Well, truth be told, we don’t know; we can only make guesses. Let’s dive into some really ancient history and see what we find.
Ancient Greeks loved the story of King Midas, the ruler of Pessinus, a city in the region of Phrygia [Free-ghee-ah], which is located in present-day Turkey. There were many versions of this story and I’m sure some of you have heard of this but in case not, here’s how it goes: Once upon a time, the god Dionysus (the god of wine, fertility and ritual madness) wanted something with his old teacher, Silenus, but he couldn’t find him. You see, Silenus was a satyr (which is a half person and half goat) and ol Silenus, he sure did like to drink. So it turned out that Silenus got drunk, nothing new for him, and fell asleep in King Midas’ rose garden. When the King found Silenus, he recognized him, invited him in and entertained him as a guest of honor for ten days. To thank Midas for his graciousness, Dionysus granted him a wish. King Midas was one rich dude and it’s not like he needed the money but you know how rich people are. So he wished that everything he touched would turn into gold. The wish was granted, but it didn’t take too long for the king to begin to regret it. You see, everything he touched turned into gold, even the food he was trying to eat. Midas quickly came to resent his divine gift and begged Dionysus to please take it back. After laughing his butt off over poor Midas’ misery, Dionysus told him, “Alright, alright, go immerse yourself in the river Pactolus”. As soon as Midas entered the river, the power was sapped from his hands. And just so you know, this is how the placer deposits of gold actually formed along the river Pactolus, which still flows through Turkey today. Yeah, really. It was Midas. I’m telling you.
Now that is all an ancient legend, but like most legends, there is some actual history that goes along with it. Caesar Augustus had a librarian named Gaius Julius Hyginus [Hie-gie-nus]. Now Hyginus was one clean guy. (pause) But whatever else he may have been known for, Hyginus is also famous for two books, Poetical Astronomy and Fabulae. We don’t hav a copy of Fabulae anymore, but we do have some notes other people made from it. In these notes, we understand that the Fabulae was a collection of 300 or so stories commonly known and often told in the Greco-Roman world. Story number 274 tells of inventors and their inventions, including King Midas, a Phrygian, who it says first discovered lead. So there is reason to believe that there was a real King Midas and he may have had something to do with the first uses of lead. Remember that because you’re gonna be tested in a few minutes.
You’ve probably never given this a single thought in your life, but lead was widely used in the Greco-Roman world. We know how toxic lead can be, but back then, not so much. It was easy to produce and easy to work with so of course, people were using it all over the place. In fact, lead might have been the first metal ever smelted by humans; the oldest known lead artifacts are about nine thousand years old. And what’s even more interesting is that those old lead artifacts were found in modern Turkey. That place just keeps coming up.
The Greeks and Romans made all sorts of things out of lead, from beads to drinking cups to figurines. So the discoverer of lead, assuming there was such a person, could conceivably have gotten very rich. Figuratively speaking, he would have turned lead into gold, see?
Of course, the historical King Midas, if he existed at all, didn’t necessarily have to discover lead to profit from it; he might simply have had a rich lead mine in his kingdom. But the important thing is, long long ago, people told and heard a story of a man who discovered lead and a story of the same man who could turn things into gold. These kinds of stories can get a little out of hand when being told over and over again.
Now let’s set the mythology aside and take a look at the ancient metallurgy. Here, we can fully appreciate the strangeness of the ancient world, where people sometimes did things they couldn’t understand or explain. Then again, when you look at how many people call tech support in a murderous rage because they didn’t realize the batteries on their remote control have gone dead, you may wonder if we’ve really changed so much.
Bronze is an alloy or mixture of copper and tin and was very well known in the ancient world, so much so that historians even refer to a whole period of time as the Bronze Age when people were using it for pretty much everything. Brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, was rare for a long time, but eventually was also in widespread use by the first century BC. It is likely that early, rare brass was obtained by accident; people smelted copper from ores that along with copper also had some zinc in it. The resulting metal looked a lot like gold, even though it was produced by the same process copper was. The Greeks called this metal oreíchalkos, [oh-rei-khal-kos], literally, “mountain copper”, from óros (mountain) and chalkós (copper). In Plato’s times back in the fourth century BC, the “copper of the mountains” was still rare and almost as valuable as gold. Plato himself wrote of its production in the legendary land of Atlantis. The Romans latinized the name the Greeks used into orichalcum [oh-ree-khal-kum], but also were not above spelling it aurichalcum [au-ree-khal-kum], which was suspiciously close to aurum [au-room], the Latin name of gold, and literally meant “golden copper.” So these old words for gold could easily have gotten confused, which isn’t hard to understand, considering that I don’t know whether I’ll be able to weather the weather this weekend or how bored I’ll be at my next board meeting, or if Mary rode her bike up the road to Rhode Island to whine about the quality of the wine. Language can be funny stuff.
Eventually, people learned not to depend on accident and began to mix ores containing zinc or droplets of metallic zinc into copper ores to reliably produce brass. Now what’s interesting is that people didn’t really understand what zinc was; many thought it to be a special kind of silver possessing a magical ability to ennoble copper by transforming it into a gold-like substance.
In the first century BC, brass found its way into coinage. One of the first places to have brass coins was Phrygia, the home of the mythical King Midas. A few decades later, brass coins were introduced throughout the empire. In 23 BC, Caesar Augustus instituted a currency reform, under which brass could be used to make specific types of coins, including one called the sestertius [ses-ter-tee-us], which would become one of the most common Roman coins and the main unit of money, like our current dollar, for the next 300 years.
As the Roman Empire went down the tubes during the Third Century Crisis, the quality of monetary brass declined as well. The last of the sestertii [ses-ter-tee-ee] were struck in the late third century AD. It was at this time, around 300 AD, that we have the earliest known mention of the philosopher’s stone. The man who put it in writing was Zosimos of Panopolis. Little is known about him, other than he came from Egypt, which is where Panopolis was located and is now called Akhmim and that he probably lived in Alexandria and he was almost certainly a Gnostic by faith. We also know when Zosimos lived because in his works he quotes a writer who died around 240 AD and mentions a temple in Alexandria that was destroyed in 391. He wrote at least 28 books, but very few of them survived; most are known to us only because they were mentioned by later writers. Small fragments also exist in translation; he wrote in Greek and later scholars translated his books into Latin, Syriac, and Arabic. We don’t have birth or death certificates or his driver’s license or bank statements, but it’s kind of interesting how we can still verify and even recreate parts of people’s lives who lived so long ago.
Zosimos’ works are the earliest known statements of what came to be called alchemy, a set of doctrines that tied chemistry to spirituality for over a thousand years. And this wasn’t just a passing thing for him. Zosimos was big into alchemy and the philosopher’s stone was definitely something he wanted. He described various instruments and pieces of equipment that he used in his laboratory and the experiments he conducted, including making alloys resembling gold and silver. He also liked to talk a lot about his Gnostic beliefs. Transformations of substances, according to Zosimos, correspond to transformations of the human spirit in its quest to know God. Transmutation of lowly copper and lead into noble gold or silver would only be possible if the practitioner of chemical arts had purified his spirit and achieved the knowledge of the divine. Zosimos also wrote that the origin of these arts is supernatural; he said that chemistry and metallurgy were first taught to humans by fallen angels, the same fallen angels who are mentioned in the book of Genesis and some other books that didn’t make it into the Christian canon, such as the Book of Enoch and the Apocryphon of John. There are actually quite a few of these Christian texts that never made it into the Bible that talk about all sorts of interesting things but maybe that’s a subject for another podcast.
The Roman Empire recovered from the Third Century Crisis and kicked around for a little longer, but eventually fell for good. And then came the Dark Ages… If antiquity was the time when people could do things they couldn’t explain, the Dark Ages in Europe was the time when people read about things the ancients did (or claimed to do) and wondered what kind of magic they must have possessed.
But truth be told, even if the Dark Ages were really dark, which is something many modern scholars actually disagree with, that happened mainly in the West. In the East, in the lands known as Greece and Turkey today, things were very different. A new empire, called Byzantium, emerged out of the Roman ruins and stood for a thousand years before falling to the Turkish invasion of 1453. Chemical arts were definitely practiced in Byzantium, but often under a shroud of secrecy. Byzantine chemists developed a particularly effective flame thrower, known as “Greek fire” in the West. It was a fearsome weapon used in naval warfare and occasionally in siege and counter-siege. The burning compound was extremely flammable and extremely sticky. It was also lighter than water, so it could burn on top of water. You couldn’t just douse it with water because it would just slosh around while continuing to burn. The general concept of the flame thrower, strictly speaking, was known in antiquity, but the Byzantine version was superior both in terms of the fuel being thrown at the enemy and the piping through which the throwing was done. The secret of Greek fire was so well protected that it died along with the empire. Probably the closest we’ve come to replicating it is napalm.
Meanwhile, other works of Greek alchemy were finding their way to the outside world. Both Western and Eastern scholars had a great deal of interest in the achievements of the Greeks. Greek manuscripts on alchemy have been found in old libraries in places as far apart as Dublin and Tehran. While the philosopher’s stone was still nowhere to be found, the Greek alchemists figured out ways to do a number of practical things, from dyeing fabrics to whitening pearls. But something strange happened; over time, the practical Byzantine chemistry diverged from the more introspective, spiritual aspects of alchemy. Greek alchemists of the seventh century were by and large content with speculative writing on the mystical aspects of alchemy and weren’t doing too much lab work. Of course, opium was much more broadly in use back then too, so it may be that these alchemists were getting all the mystic ideas they needed from their midnight oil.
For a long time, alchemy flourished in the Muslim world and enjoyed the highest levels of patronage. The legendary and historical Harun al-Rashid, who was the Caliph of Baghdad from 786 to 809, employed an equally legendary (and equally historical) alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan [Jah-beer ibn Hie-yahn], known in Europe as Geber. About 200 books are ascribed to ibn Hayyan, although it’s possible that many of them were actually written by later authors who either were trying to ride on his coattails or pay homage to him.
Centuries went by, practical stuff was developed all the time, but the philosopher’s stone remained elusive. Some time in the early thirteenth century, the Muslims learned the secret of gunpowder, most likely from China, because they called many things related to gunpowder “Chinese this” and “Chinese that.” Saltpeter, for example, was called “Chinese snow”, “Chinese salt”, or “the salt of Chinese marshes” so there’s a pretty strong case that it was Chinese. Along with gunpowder came the gun, although it was the Turks, rather than the Arabs or Persians, that used this new weapon to the greatest effect. In 1453, the Turks completed their conquest of the Byzantine empire, and Constantinople, the capital of the empire, became known by its current name, Istanbul. One particular cannon built around that time, known in Europe simply as The Great Turkish Bombard, was almost 17 feet long, weighed 37,000 pounds, and remained in service over 300 years. It was used in actual battle against British ships as late as 1807. In 1866, it was presented by Sultan Abdulaziz [Ab-dool-ah-zeez] to Queen Victoria of England. For a while, it was displayed at the Tower of London, but later, it was moved to Fort Nelson near Portsmouth [Ports-muth], where it remains on public display to this day.
Long story short, in the Muslim world, just like in Byzantium, alchemy gave birth to a number of engineering specialties and then simply withered away without any movement on the philosopher’s stone. The practical chemistry aspects lived on as long as politics and religion allowed, but the spiritual aspects fell by the wayside. So how did things work out in Europe then?
Well, after the fall of the Roman Empire, there seemed to be no trace of Latin alchemy for centuries. We simply don’t know whether the Latin alchemy disappeared altogether or went maybe it went underground which is why you see traces of it popping up now and again amongst secret societies and even on modern conspiracy theory websites.
The rebirth of European alchemy is usually attributed to an English linguist who lived in the twelfth century and was known simply as Robert of Chester. During the 1140s, he lived in Spain, where he encountered and translated into Latin several books by Arab authors, including those on alchemy and that other al-thing. I mean algebra, not alcohol, although the word “alcohol” is in fact an Arabic word and did enter European languages through translation of the works of alchemy. That’s right. We might still be calling our drinks drekk or bouse if it wasn’t for those alchemists.
Following Robert’s work, numerous other Arabic books have been translated. This caught the attention of the two great (and competing) monastic orders of the Catholic church, the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Both groups actively collected written knowledge, whether it be Latin, Greek, or Arab. Eventually, both orders not only amassed vast collections of books, but produced people who read and understood them. The Dominicans’ point man was Albertus Magnus, of Saint Albert the Great, who lived in Cologne in the present-day Germany; the Franciscans had Roger Bacon, based in the English city of Oxford, at the now-famous university. And by the way, both men taught at the University of Paris at the same time, so it is likely they knew each other.
Albert’s relationship with alchemy was arm’s length; for a while, it was thought that he wrote an entire book on the philosopher’s stone, but today, this book is thought to have been written later and attributed to Albert. His practical chemistry, however, was a totally different matter. He is believed to have discovered arsenic and experimented with silver nitrate’s sensitivity to light. Before you photo bugs out there jump the gun, Albert’s work on this was forgotten and re-done many times afterwards and that work eventually lead to the development of early photography in the nineteenth century.
Roger Bacon was also hands-on. He is thought to be the first European to work out the recipe for gunpowder based on what he read in the Arabic manuscripts. Unlike Albert, he did write on the philosopher’s stone; he even produced a formula for it. Needless to say, nothing tangible ever came of this line of research.
European monarchs often fought long and ruinously expensive wars. So when they began to hear stories of a way to produce cheap gold, some went for it whole hog. The ruler with the greatest degree of affection for the idea was probably Rudolph the Second. He was the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and ruled between 1576 and 1612. To be fair to Rudolph, he didn’t care much about war, because he was too busy enjoying the lifestyle of the rich and famous. He bred horses. He collected rarities. He was a major patron of arts. And he was seriously into alchemy and astrology. He even moved his royal seat from the busy Vienna to the quieter and artsier Prague. During his rule, Prague became home to a number of leading European alchemists, who came from as far away as England. Not content with being simply a patron, Emperor Rudolph had been known to perform his own research in his own laboratory. Finding the philosopher’s stone was his lifetime ambition but, once again, nothing tangible ever came of it. Prague, however, still remains steeped in the legend. There’s a short street called Golden Lane on the grounds of the Prague Castle, which is said to have housed Rudolph’s alchemists. It was even called Alchemist’s Alley even though the truth is that there’s no real evidence that alchemists ever lived or worked there, unlike Diagon Alley which any fan of Harry Potter knows is absolutely real.
Speaking of evidence, we have now reached the time when the scientific method started being formally developed. Francis Bacon, one of the forefathers of the scientific method, was a contemporary of Emperor Rudolph, born only a decade later. Bacon, time and again, emphasized the importance of reliable and repeatable observation of the natural phenomena. And while Bacon did work on trying to figure out the philosopher’s stone, he actually took serious issue with the practice, or should I say ‘mispractice’ of alchemy. “The alchemist,” he wrote, “nurses eternal hope and when the thing fails, lays the blame upon some error of his own; fearing either that he has not sufficiently understood the words of his art or of his authors (whereupon he turns to tradition and auricular whispers), or else that in his manipulations he has made some slip of a scruple in weight or a moment in time (whereupon he repeats his trials to infinity).” In other words, Bacon thought alchemists believed their old books despite the fact that many things written in them cannot be reproduced reliably, if they can be reproduced at all.
So what exactly was the evidence for the existence of the philosopher’s stone? Realistically, the evidence was never strong. Essentially, it boiled down to unsubstantiated legends (such as that of King Midas) and honest mistakes, like people accidentally smelting brass instead of pure copper and thinking that they actually produced gold.
Little by little, the great minds pieced together a very complex picture of how chemistry works. On the fundamental level, chemistry turned out to be a branch of physics; the properties of substances are determined by the properties of atoms comprising them. If we are going to get scientific for a moment, an atom of gold has a nucleus consisting of 79 protons and 118 neutrons. There are also 79 electrons orbiting the nucleus, and their orbits have a very stable configuration, which is difficult for other atoms to alter in order to form a chemical bond with an atom of gold. So, compared to other metals, gold is reluctant to form chemical bonds with other elements, which makes it relatively free from corrosion.
The rarity of gold, incidentally, also has an explanation. As Carl Sagan famously said, we are made from star stuff. The early universe consisted mostly of hydrogen and helium. Stars, through nuclear fusion reactions, transform those into heavier elements, such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and calcium, which are prominently featured in the composition of the human body. Bigger and heavier stars with more mass can produce heavier elements. Only giant stars, for example, are capable of producing iron, and even they can do it only in the very late stages of their lives. But gold is heavier still; how did it come to occur in nature?
One plausible theory was advanced by none other than Fred Hoyle. You may remember me talking about him back in Episode 69; he was the one who came up with the name “Big Bang” to make fun of the idea of an exploding universe. Hoyle proposed that the heaviest elements, including gold, form in supernova explosions. Those explosions are rare, and therefore, so are heavy elements. Other possible explanations have been proposed, but they all have one thing in common: astronomic events leading to production of heavy elements are relatively rare. So we won’t be setting up any gold mines in space anytime soon.
When people understood that what sets gold apart from lead or copper is the nuclei of its atoms, it became clear that transmutation is simply not possible in a chemical lab which is why everyone was failing for centuries to get the job done. Turns out, the philospher’s stone they were looking for was a nuclear reactor. To transform one kind of nucleus into another, you need to have one of those. In 1924, a Japanese physicist named Hantaro Nagaoka produced the world’s first synthetic gold. To make the transformation easier, Nagaoka had to use mercury, rather than lead or copper, as source material. By bombarding mercury with neutrons, he forced some of the mercury atoms to lose a proton and thus turn into gold. However, this isn’t a permanent change. Hantaro was able to produce only the unstable gold nuclei. They had the right number of protons, 79, but the number of neutrons was different from the magical 118, so Nagaoka’s gold decayed in a matter of days.
What is interesting about Nagaoka’s experiment is the publicity it received, or, rather, didn’t receive. Nagaoka published his results in a German journal, and very few people have read it. So few, in fact, that in 1941, an American research team conducted a similar experiment independently, completely unaware of Nagaoka’s work.
Today, we have found that the philosopher’s stone isn’t actually a nuclear reactor, but instead a particle accelerator. It is possible now to obtain stable gold from either mercury or platinum, but the cost of those processes is so prohibitive, it’s not worth doing. Platinum is also way more expensive than gold, so downgrading it to gold is kind of silly.
So where does all this leave the ancient, and for a long time unkillable, idea of the philosopher’s stone? Scientifically speaking, it’s been dead for centuries and now features mostly in the works of fiction. The first book of the Harry Potter series, for example, was originally titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, although the U.S. publication carried a slightly different title, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It seems that some people in these parts haven’t even heard of the philosopher’s stone…but we’ve taken care of that now, haven’t we?
I hope you enjoyed this episode and hopefully learned a few things too. One thing is for sure – you’ll probably never fall for anyone trying to sell you a transmutation device that will turn your lead pencils into gold sticks. Go ahead and let me know if you think further episodes of the Zombie Idea Project should be produced. I welcome all of your comments and feedback, good, bad or sideways. Rest assured, there’s plenty more where this came from. We have a whole list of these we want to talk about.
Please link this podcast on Twitter or around the interwebs and if you haven’t subscribed to my YouTube channel, now’s a great time to do so. This is Chris Shelton, the Critical Thinker at Large thanking you for listening and I’ll see you next week.