The Real Philosopher’s Stone: Turning Lead into Gold

The Real Philosopher’s Stone: Turning Lead into Gold


[♩INTRO ] When you hear “philosopher’s stone,”
the first thing that comes to mind might be Harry Potter trying to stop Lord Voldemort
from using it to restore his power. But the idea of a philosopher’s stone has
been around for thousands of years. For ancient alchemists, it was their ultimate
goal in life: to create some kind of object or process that could turn common metals into
gold. They mainly focused on lead, and the recipes
they came up with were as numerous and bizarre as the alchemists themselves. Some called for things like urine, bones,
and cat hairs. They never actually succeeded in their quest
to achieve transmutation—the conversion of one element into another. Or in creating an elixir that would make them
immortal, which is the other thing they thought a philosopher’s stone might be able to do. These days, we still can’t make ourselves
immortal. But with some serious equipment, we can change
atoms into different elements. We can even turn lead into gold. Elements are defined by the number of protons
their atoms have in their nuclei. Lead has 82 protons and gold has 79, so to
turn lead into gold, we would have to somehow force it to lose three of its protons. But that’s not simple. The forces that hold nuclei together are incredibly
strong — I mean, literally, they’re called the strong force. If an atom’s protons want to stay together,
all the cat hairs in the world aren’t going to break them apart. But they don’t always want to stay together. And in the early 20th century, scientists
discovered that sometimes, one type of atom will suddenly turn into another. In 1903, physicists Ernest Rutherford and
Frederick Soddy noticed that some thorium in their lab had converted itself into radium. We now know that’s because thorium is radioactive,
meaning its nucleus is unstable — it doesn’t have a good balance of positively-charged
protons and neutral neutrons. [pic on TB] To fix this, radioactive nuclei eject small
particles, which is what we call radioactive decay. That lowers the energy needed to keep everything
together, so the nucleus becomes more stable. And some forms of radioactive decay change
the number of protons in the nucleus — and therefore, the element itself. In Soddy and Rutherford’s lab, thorium,
which has 90 protons, underwent alpha decay, losing two protons and turning into radium,
which has 88 protons. Supposedly, Soddy said: “Rutherford, this
is transmutation!” and Rutherford replied, “Soddy, don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our heads off as alchemists.” Soddy was right, though: it was transmutation,
and we now know it happens all the time with radioactive elements. But creating gold was another matter entirely. In 1923, Japanese physicist Hantaro Nagaoka
was studying the structure of atoms by looking at the light emitted from them when they were
excited by electricity, and realized that it might be possible to turn mercury into
gold. Mercury has 80 protons — just one more than
gold — and Nagaoka believed that with enough energy, you could rip protons off the mercury
atoms, forcing them to turn into gold. During one experiment, his team applied about
15,000 volts of electricity to mercury, and detected a small amount of gold in the residue. Their work caught the eye of German researcher
Adolf Miethe. He was intrigued because he’d found gold
in the residue from a mercury vapor lamp. So Miethe modified Nagaoka’s experiment
and ran a current through a mercury lamp for nearly 200 hours. He claimed to have made gold, and even filed
a patent for the process. But, there were many, many criticisms of his
methods, and efforts by other scientists to replicate his findings failed. Researchers weren’t completely sure mercury
could turn into gold until the 1940s, after they’d figured out how to force atoms to
release particles by bombarding them with tons of extra energy in the form of neutrons. But there was a problem—the isotopes of
gold that mercury turned into were radioactive. Isotopes are atoms that have the same number
of protons but different numbers of neutrons. They’re the same element, just lighter or
heavier. The isotope of gold we mine from the ground
isn’t radioactive, but plenty of the isotopes we can make artificially are. These particular radioactive isotopes were
heavier than natural gold, with 119 or 120 neutrons instead of the usual 118. And they actually decayed back into mercury,
through a process that involves ejecting an electron and turning one of their neutrons
into an extra proton. So, by the 1940s, physicists knew how to turn
mercury into gold. It was radioactive and unstable and not the
kind of thing you could make coins or jewelry out of, but it was something. Turning lead into gold is a lot harder, though. The lead nucleus is pretty stable — it can
hold a lot of neutrons before it becomes radioactive, which is why we use it to shield nuclear reactors. But once it does become radioactive, it undergoes
a type of decay that makes it gain a proton, turning into an isotope of bismuth. And we do know how to turn bismuth into gold. In the 1980s, researchers used carbon and
neon nuclei to blast protons out of a sheet of bismuth. They produced nine different isotopes of gold,
and the team was confident they’d transmuted at least a few thousand atoms. But a few thousand atoms isn’t much. I mean, we’re talking less than a billionth
of a billionth of a gram. That would be some very small bling. If this all sounds like a lot of work to create
a tiny amount of gold, that’s because it is. Using these transmutation methods, it costs
tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce miniscule amounts of gold — usually
radioactive gold. I know gold is expensive these days, but that
just doesn’t seem worth it. And yet, we’re still performing these kinds
of experiments all the time, because even though it isn’t a very good money-making
scheme, we can learn more from them than the ancient alchemists could ever have imagined. For example, in the late 1980s, researchers
at CERN discovered that the nuclei of some of the lighter isotopes of gold have different
shapes — some are close to spherical, but others are much more deformed. And physicists are still trying to figure
out exactly how that works. So even if we aren’t able to make vast quantities
of stable gold, I guess you could say we finally did discover the philosopher’s stone — or
maybe, the philosopher’s particle accelerator. It’s not making money or turning us immortal,
but it is teaching us a lot about physics. And we didn’t even have to use pee or cat
hair to make it happen. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you want to learn more about the science
of splitting atoms apart, you can check out our episode about the first human-made nuclear
reactor. [♩OUTRO ]

100 Comments

  1. This a metaphor for the movement of cerebrospinal fluid from the 33rd vertibrae to the crystal chamber inside the skull.

    Has to do with the saying

    "Lead in your pencil"

    esoteric knowledge that passes over 90% of those who hear about it.

    All the science fools are trying to literally turn lead into gold……

    They are missing the entire point

    Much like the story of the Bible

    The literal interpretation is nonsense.

    Takes previous knowledge to comprehend the underlying info being relayed through the very absurd story….like trying to turn one metal into another

  2. Just draw a circle and put ur hands on it. Get some materials you need to make stuff you want, and go. THE END. Jk probably would do nothing but worth a try anyways.

  3. a lot of info and bla bla bla , why don't u head to the point directly
    how can i get gold out of nothing in short way , like if u come here
    like me , btw this video doesn't shows it.

  4. Dumbass comment section the transmutation only cost edward his leg! he lost his arm to bond his brother to a suit of armour

  5. I believe the philosopher's Stone to be more something theoretical than physical. I perceive it as an idea. Solid proof that the theories of the alchemists were correct. in a sense we have found the philosopher's Stone, but we have yet to unlock its full potential

  6. well I'm not a scientist or anything, but when it decayed back it lost a neutron, so couldn't we just run through the process again and get the stable 118?

  7. I find it very interesting that he didn't mention that alchemist had been working with mercury for thousands of years and in fact that it could be turned into gold. Even if they used piss and hair sometimes, they were not entirely on the wrong track, he also stated that none of them had been successful but that is actually unknown, there was one that donated a fortune to hospitals and schools. If anything alchemy laid the framework for the experimental science we have today and Newton was also an alchemist. They were not as dumb as you think, a lot of mystics though.

  8. if the first thing that comes to peoples minds when they hear the term philosophers stone is harry potter, we live in a pretty sad world.

  9. In my mind the philosopher's stone from equivalent exchange, renamed projecte, a minecraft mod, comes to mind. It allows the transformation of resources into equivalent valued substances

  10. When old technology was better and advanced than the modern one….Drinking water and looking at It are the two different things ^_^
    I hope It was create and destroy option for Philosopher's Stone….Look what happened to Tesla and electricity

  11. He didn't name the process of turning a neutron into a proton as it ejects an electron and anti-neutrino. It's not a secret; it's called beta decay.

  12. I'm sure the alchemists of olde would have a field day learning that machines could turn quicksilver into cursed gold that will eventually revert to mercury once the spell has worn off!

  13. No ofense3 to harry potter but i am a genius an philosopher but not a fan of books that are fiction cause reality is stranger and more interesting. Stephen king is aight

  14. the philosophers stone is not an object meerly something alchemist understand is achievable by inner alchemy, i discovered the "stone" myself. it is greater than even real gold.

  15. We didn't have to use pee or cat hair… Which implies we DO have to use bones! YOU'RE NOT TAKING MY BONES YOU CRAZY ALCHEMISTS! THE MOON LANDING WAS A HOAX! THE LIZARD PEOPLE FROM THE 11TH DIMENSION USING CHEM TRAILS TO BLACK HELICOPTERS IN OUR BLOODST–

  16. This is foolishness, the philosophers stone is the human mind or human perception to be exact. To take something worthless and to make it valuable…today we have turned paper into gold…think about it!!!

  17. Wow, it's another thing that can be done only by special scientists! Like going to the moon or seeing binladens body we are expected to believe the magic that we can't test or prove ourselves. Turn mercury into gold but its radioactive and will turn back into mercury. Sure.

  18. I would disagree with some of this stuff. The life extension "stone" is mentioned in religion as the hidden manna or Jesus in the flesh. The "stone" of transmutation legends involving gold was not the "manna" but separate. a law was passed in medieval times banning the "multiplication" as they called it, of gold or silver. If there was nothing to the ancient alchemy science of the kings, then it seems there would be no reason to outlaw or ban it.

  19. we can turn lead into gold by teleporting 3 proton atom into other lead using quantum tunneling result 1 gold atom and 1 astatine … nodbody done this experiment because they dont understand quantum mechanics and still performing 1940s experiment..

  20. Philosophers stone for creating gold, is pyrite with black granite.
    But philosopher stone relates to a substance that holds excessive divine energy as such there are many methods of creating philosophers stone. The theory is simple but complex, simple in compounds but complex in process.

  21. Everytime I hear CERN in real life I have a split second heart attack and end up remembering they are real and NOT an evil organization using time travel to take over the world.

  22. This had nothing to do with The Real philosophers' stone as, despite diluted opinions and stories, it had nothing to do with gold… nor was gold through transmutation the "ultimate goal" of most ancient alchemists. The philosophers' stone itself was the ultimate goal as it was a symbol of perfection and bringer of enlightenment and longevity. Their works are the only reason we have chemistry today and if it wasn't for saying they could turn common metals into gold most wouldn't have survived the dark ages and we probably wouldn't have the advances in medicine and many others we have today. One survival technique has turned into a millennia old misconception about some of the greatest people to have ever lived

  23. the stone is a emblem of incorporeal inheritance from God, that was taken away from us when we became citizens of nations. but because this inheritance is intrinsic and innate. you can always transmute back to it. gold refers to your birthrights inherited and common metals refers to you being a common person as a subject of a king or queen. you can always get back your birthrights which is priceless, your cup should runneth over

  24. The philosophers stone is not something physical it is something much more valuable than turning lead into gold, in fact all of us have the philosophers stone's basic component but need to do the work to find the stone searching for actual gold is the reason why you cannot find what you seek.

  25. Maybe everything is worth as much as gold to a Philosopher, and the Stone is just a representation of the Philosopher’s wisdom because of course a metaphor makes sense…

  26. The fact that quarks exist at different masses, or energy levels (e=mc2) likely is a key reason for the differing “shapes” of nuclei.

  27. 3:54 Lead is good as a gamma radiation shielding material but not as a neutron absorber! We use boron, gadolinium, hafnium etc. for neutron absorption.

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