Astonishing Science

I’ve posted before on shifting scientific paradigms and how long-accepted ‘facts’ change (see here).  But, have I got a story for you today, related.
Did you know that in the seventeenth century there were serious attempts to turn urine into gold?!

The Village Alchemist
Jan Steen (1662)

Throughout the world, alchemy had been a field of serious study and experimentation, from the early centuries CE.  So serious, in fact, that even the genius Isaac Newton pursued it at one time, and during the Middle Ages alchemists had to do their work in secret because rulers were afraid their success would undermine the gold standard, and corrupt the gold supply in Europe!

Through those centuries, of course, nothing was known of chemical ‘elements’, as we now understand.  Matter was thought to be made up of earth, air, fire and water; and there were mysterious, imagined substances such as phlogiston, caloric and aether.  (Aether was conceived as a substance that must exist in space so that light (thought to be a wave) could pass through, not unlike current (mis?)conceptions of dark matter and dark energy that are supposed to exist if contemporary cosmological theories are to hold.)

A ‘scientific’ name for alchemy was ‘transmutation’, the act of changing a substance from one form or state into another. To alchemists, this mainly meant the conversion of base metals such as lead into silver and gold, aided by spiritual and magic ‘arts’.

Well, they were wasting their time (and arts), of course, but Hennig Brand and Karl Scheele are worth a second look.  In 1675 Brand fancied that urine – similar in colour to gold – could perhaps be converted.  He sourced a lot of it (using contributions from soldiers!), stored it in buckets for months until it dried to a paste.  Of course, although it stank, and upset Mrs Brand, it never became gold, but it did glow in the dark, and became spontaneously combustible!  [Further incensing Mrs Brand … don’t try this at home.]  So leading to the discovery of phosphorus!  Which at the time was more valuable than gold anyway.

Scheele (around 1760) found a way to manufacture phosphorus without stockpiling urine.  But the more interesting thing about Scheele was that he insisted on tasting all the substances he worked with, including cyanide and arsenic.  Such that, “aged just 43, he was found dead at his workbench surrounded by an array of toxic chemicals.”  (For this and other fascinating insights into science in the ‘golden era’ – and in many other eras – read Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.)

Perhaps less astonishing but just as remarkable, transmutation of the elements was finally achieved in 1919 by Ernest Rutherford who, with a group of student scientists, converted nitrogen into oxygen: they bombarded nitrogen in the air with α-particles (actually helium nuclei) to produce oxygen and a proton (a hydrogen nucleus). This reaction can be written as 14N + 4He → 17O + 1H.  Actually, similar processes had occurred, unnoticed, since the beginning of time – for example, uranium decaying to lead, a natural process of transmutation now recognised and fully understood.

Science, eh.  There are some sensational stories.
Hints of the wonder and fascination of our world and universe: the jaw-dropping phenomena of Physics; the magic of chemistry; the mysteries of biology; and the astonishments of all the other -ologies.  And around and behind and undergirding them all, their absorbing human histories.
The order and predictability of our universe, its design, but its inscrutabilities too.  And, ultimately, the great whodunnit.  Whence came it all to be, and how?

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