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Alchemy: New Light on a Dark Art

Fools' gold, Dr Faustus - traditional images of a Renaissance black art. But was there more to it than that? Zbigniew Szydlo and Richard Brzezinski offer an intriguing rehabilitation.

In June 1897 the French journal La Nature reported that the United States Assay Office had, on April 16th, purchased the first ever gold ingot manufactured from silver.. Six months later, an article in a popular newspaper related that the inventor, Dr. Stephen H. Emmens, was 'producing enough gold to bring him at the Assay Office a profit of $150 a week'. Emmens, an American of British descent, bragged that he had finally mastered the alchemists' art and could produce gold commercially. He let slip that his 'Argentaurum' process worked by the action of high pressure and intense cold on silver, but was eventually exposed as a fraud when he claimed that his process was endorsed by a leading physicist, Sir William Crookes. By 1901 Emmens was nowhere to be traced.

Three centuries earlier, in 1590s Prague, an unknown alchemist of Arabic origin made a flamboyant appearance in a city with a reputation as the alchemical capital of Europe. After courting merchants and bankers, he invited twenty-four of the wealthiest to a banquet, during which he promised to multiply gold. He obtained 100 gold marks from each guest, and placed the coins in a large crucible with a mixture of acids, mercury, lead, salt, eggshells and horse dung. But, as he prepared to operate the bellows of his furnace, there was a tremendous explosion which left the guests spluttering in a fog of fumes. By the time the smoke had cleared, the alchemist had vanished, along with the 2,400 gold marks.

Such stories of fraudsters form the modern stereotype of the alchemist, and alchemy is widely seen as little more than the art of changing base metals into gold. With hindsight we know the alchemists were wasting their time: it is impossible to 'transmute' elements by chemical means, and nothing short of bombardment by neutrons in a nuclear reactor will produce gold from lead, and then only in microscopic amounts.

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