The search for gold has had a powerful hold on the human psyche throughout the entirety of human history. Lust for the shiny, malleable metal has driven mankind to extreme lengths, sometimes including violence or even genocide. As far back as historical records can trace, scientists, philosophers, and magicians have attempted to create gold out of thin air - or at least out of other non-gold objects. This ancient proto-scientific tradition known as alchemy held the imagination of learned men and women for centuries. Alchemy was a school of thought that sought out methods - some scientific, some magical - to turn so-called “base” elements into “noble” ones, most notably gold. As modern chemistry and the scientific method developed, alchemy eventually fell to the fringes of pseudoscience and alternative medicine.
However, it seems that not all scientists gave up alchemical pursuit of transfiguring other metals into gold. Indian news outlet The Hindu is reporting that a team of chemists from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras have managed to do just that. Their technique achieved this semi-alchemical transformation by using what I’m guessing to be an unbelievably tiny pair of tweezers to “switch” or exchange gold and silver atoms with one another in two nano-sized samples of each element. At the end of the process, they had essentially turned a piece of silver into a piece of gold - at least chemically speaking.
However similar this might sound to discovering the ancient medieval secrets of alchemy, IIT Madras Professor Thalappil Pradeep claims that their method is decidedly not alchemy but rather an atom-by-atom replacement or exchange:
a structure of gold just becomes another identical structure of silver or vice versa. Number of atoms of gold and silver are the same. No principle of science is violated. We are only creating conditions such that one structure transforms to another.
Hmm…“creating conditions such that one structure transforms to another,” huh? Nope, still sounds like alchemy to me. Even in their recent Nature Communications article, the researchers’ own description of their results sounds a lot like actual alchemy:
Such isomorphous transformations between nanoparticles imply that microscopic pieces of matter can be transformed completely to chemically different entities, preserving their structures, at least in the nanometric regime. [...] We hope that our results suggest the prospect of complete transformation of one piece of matter to another, chemically dissimilar one, one atom at a time, preserving structure in the process.
This experiment touches upon a philosophical thought experiment known most commonly as the Ship of Theseus paradox, or Theseus’ paradox. In the ancient Greek version of this riddle-like thought experiment, the mythical king Theseus exchanges one by one the old pieces of lumber that make up his ship for new pieces of wood. After replacing every single component of the original ship, he then constructs another ship out of the old pieces. The question then presents itself: which is Theseus’ ship?
The answer is simple: the one that was transformed into gold through alchemy, duh. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll be in the basement replacing the base atoms of thin air within my wallet with much nobler atoms of money.