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This Scientist Dedicated His Life to Unlocking the Secrets of Alchemy

An alchemical recipe, kept secret for 400 years, hangs on a wall in the history department at Johns Hopkins University. The message is hidden in a picture of a large and muscular dragon. On a hill behind the creature, three animals tussle in mortal battle. A rooster pecks at the back of a fox, as if to eat it, while the fox is devouring another rooster.

This was an alchemist’s way of describing a chemical reaction. Understand it, and you will be able to transform gold.

Or you can simply ask Lawrence Principe to explain it to you. Principe, 55, is one of the world’s foremost experts in alchemy. After he solved the cipher of the dragon, Principe commissioned the scene in ceramic and hung it in his office, a scholarly version of a big-game trophy. A historian and a chemist, Principe pores over old treatises, then pours what he learns into antique glassware.

His work shows that alchemy should not be dismissed as cheap tricks. Principe has replicated alchemists’ ancient formulas, taking chemical reactions several steps beyond what skeptics thought possible. He has reproduced alchemists’ unusual materials, such as a glow-in-the-dark stone that remained a mystery for centuries.

Jennifer Rampling, a Princeton University historian who also specializes in alchemy, said:

“He uses practice as a way to shed light on text and text as a way to shed a light on practice”

In his chemistry lab, a short walk from the history department, the cabinets are full of alembics, retorts and other bulbous glass devices. On the counter sits a large jar labeled “Phlegm of acidified urine.” More than one alchemical recipe calls for human pee. Principe said an old Arabic text used the phrase “the secret is within you,” probably meaning: Well, reader, you go figure it out.

Lawrence Principe in his lab. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Lawrence Principe in his lab. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

“But some people took that more literally,” Principe said, “so they ended up using vast amounts of urine.” Urine was cheap and surprisingly useful. It was the crucial ingredient in the discovery of the element phosphorus by Hennig Brand, a 17th-century alchemist whose preferred urine came fresh from beer drinkers.

Alchemists, even when they were mucking about with pub waste, saw their work as a way to improve upon the natural world. They wanted to create more powerful medicines and stronger building materials and, yes, turn cheap metals into gold.

The alchemical practice began about 1,500 years ago in Hellenistic Greece. It came to Europe by way of the Middle East. Like the word algebra, alchemy wears its Arabic influences in its name. Alchemy flourished in Europe between the 13th and 18th centuries. “What happens in the Middle Ages is that alchemy is celebrated — and it might be one of the first disciplines that is celebrated this way — as the power it gives to human beings to control nature,” Principe said.

By the 19th century, alchemists were branded as cheats or occultists. Or they were dismissed as crackpots, hunched over bubbling potions in smoky huts, on a quest for “the philosopher’s stone.” Harry Potter fans might recognize the stone as a minor plot point in the first book. But 400 years ago, alchemists believed that the mythological object was real, and that it would let them transmute lead into gold. (A few people still pursue the stone. “Practical alchemy is by no means dead,” Principe said. Though his preferred response to some living alchemists, he said, is to “run away.”) Until about 1700, there was no practical division between chemistry and alchemy. In his academic work, Principe refers to both under the umbrella of an old phrase, “chymistry.”

Four hundred years ago, Basil Valentine — not his real name — created a cipher, a copy of which is the trophy on Principe’s wall. Valentine believed he was on the trail of the philosopher’s stone. He designed 12 keys, or chapters, describing the steps required to find it. His later keys were conjecture. But his early ones can be replicated.

A reconstruction of Basil Valentine's 3rd Key that hangs on Principe's wall. (Ben Guarino/The Washington Post)

A reconstruction of Basil Valentine’s 3rd Key that hangs on Principe’s wall. (Ben Guarino/The Washington Post)

Valentine’s third key depicts how to turn gold into a large red crystal, which he called the Flying Red Dragon. Principe said:

“The rooster represents gold, which, believe it or not, makes sense because the rooster crows at sunrise … and the sun … represents gold in traditional alchemical analogies.”

The fox is “a particular kind of highly acidic liquid,” which Valentine described in a previous key. If you add gold to the acid, it dissolves: The fox eats the rooster. Distill the liquid, and the gold reappears. The rooster eats the fox.

“As you keep doing this again, and again, and again, you’re making a gold salt that, under just the right conditions, will actually sublime. It will rise in red crystals to the top of the distilling vessel,” Principe said. “And that’s the Red Dragon.”

Turning gold into a vapor remains an unusual feat. “Even today, if you talk to most chemists, and you say, ‘I want to volatilize gold,’ they’re like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Principe said. But he was able to perform the trick.

Principe has been challenging and sometimes vexing other scholars since his thesis work. In 1989, he analyzed pages and pages of Robert Boyle’s writings in the Royal Society of London. Boyle was a 17th-century philosopher and chemist, sometimes characterized as one of the fathers of modern chemistry for his experimental observations.

References to alchemy littered Boyle’s papers. “Everywhere I looked I could find attempts of him doing transmutation,” Principe said. Boyle said he witnessed the transmutation of base metals into gold. His papers included phrases that Valentine and earlier alchemists would have used.

Boyle’s modern fans did not take kindly to the revelation that he was actively engaged with alchemy. During one of Principe’s first talks on the subject, at an international conference, a man stood up in the audience. He opened up a copy of Boyle’s book The Sceptical Chymist, and, with a preacher’s fervor, began reciting passages at Principe. After all, how could a father of chemistry have been infatuated with a subject so foolish as alchemy?

The historian dismisses some criticisms of alchemy as “armchair science.” On paper and in a pictogram, an alchemical text might seem outlandish or impossible. But time and again, Principe has followed these recipes to success, often producing odd, whimsical reactions.

Principe has shown “that the processes the alchemists described were made up of real laboratory steps, not just metaphors,” said Mary Ellen Bowden, senior research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.

Italian and French scholars attempted alchemical reconstructions in the 1950s, Rampling said. But Principe was one of the first people who brought that technique into the mainstream of the history of science, she said.

To bring an alchemical text to life, Principe becomes a chemist of the gaps. Alchemists rarely wrote down the full necessary steps, perhaps because they were not aware that their environments often provided crucial ingredients. Principe was able to create white lead by realizing that it would be impossible to do in a modern lab. The chemical reaction needed to slowly heat up and cool down along with the ambient temperature of the day. An alchemist’s workspace, after all, didn’t have climate control.

Other times, the solution took Principe on a hunt for the same raw materials alchemists used. Consider the Bologna stone.

“It was discovered around 1602, and everybody wanted to make it,” Principe said. Expose the stone to light, and it glows in the dark for several minutes. But only the alchemists living near the Italian city of Bologna could get it to work. So there Principe went.

Principe climbed through steep clay gullies looking for the raw Bologna rock, called barite. He soaked the stones in distilled wine and roasted them over oak charcoal, per the instructions of 17th-century chymist Wilhelm Homberg. The stones glowed. (They also began to stink of sulfur, a side effect of the chemical transformation.)

A natural copper impurity in the Italian barite was the key to making the object’s luminescence last. Copper ions, once bathed in light, slowly released the stored energy.

When researchers recreate alchemy experiments, you gain a “very sensual, experiential feeling of what it’s like to do this kind of chemistry,” Rampling said. “You get a flavor of the emotional impact.”

The results can be stunning. Heat a substance called the Black Dragon, a powdery form of lead, and a gliding fire ignites. “The lead turns yellow,” Rampling said, “and the yellow floats above the surface of the lead like a tide. It’s very beautiful and very strange.”

Alchemy’s earliest critics thought transmuted gold would destabilize the economy. “It may look like gold. It may act like gold,” Principe said. “But it’s got some property, because it’s artificial, that we don’t know about.”

He said he saw echoes of these long-ago worries about things that are unnatural in current fears of science. “People still think that the vitamin C of a tablet is somehow different from what’s in an orange. We’re worried about genetically modified foods because,” Principe said, lowering his voice to sound conspiratorial, “what is about them that we don’t know?”

But alchemists “were using the best theories they could come up with to try to understand a very complex and very confusing world,” Principe said. “And that’s exactly what we’re doing now.” Not only are we following in the alchemists’ footsteps, he said, we are also in their line of succession.

By Ben Guarino


Science & Technology

Japan has developed an inflatable scooter that weighs practically nothing

The University of Tokyo engineers have developed the Poimo inflatable electric scooter, which is created individually for each owner. It is enough to send your photo to the manufacturers – and a personal optimized model will be assembled for you.

The scooter is designed with a special program for the body size of a particular user and his specific fit. Moreover, each owner is free to make any changes to this model. If he makes any changes to the drawing, the program will automatically redesign the electric bike to maintain its strength, stability and controllability. When the model is finished and approved, it is handed over to the manufacturer.

Scooter Poimo

The scooter consists of seven separate inflatable sections that are constructed from durable fabric and sewn with straight stitch. It remains to add electronic components – in particular, a brushless motor and a lithium-ion battery. 

The finished electric scooter weighs about 9 kg and can travel at speeds up to 6 km / h (that is, slightly faster than a pedestrian). It can work for an hour on one charge.

This is how the current version of Poimo looks like in action:

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Science & Technology

Excerpts from Elon Musk’s speech at the Martian Society convention

Elon Musk’s comments with questions relayed from the Mars Society Membership by Dr. Robert Zubrin, James L. Burk, and Carie Fay. Following Elon’s 30 min time, Dr. Zubrin took additional questions. This special event was part of the 2020 Mars Society Virtual Convention from October 14-18, 2020.

About Starship Test Schedule:

– entering orbit – with a probability of 80% -90% will take place in 2021

– the probability of the return of the ship and the 1st stage in this flight is 50%

– test of refueling in orbit – 2022

– Starship lunar version – 2022 or 2023

– Starship flight to Mars – around 2024

The goal of the Starship is to build a self-sufficient settlement on Mars as quickly as possible. Musk does not rule out the possibility that this will not be achieved during his lifetime. According to his rough estimates, to create a self-sufficient city, it will be necessary to deliver 1 million tons of cargo, which corresponds to 4-5 million tons in a low Earth orbit. Modern single-use launch vehicles are capable of removing less than 1% of this value.

“Disposable launch vehicles are completely stupid. They are a waste of time. I think people need to stop wasting time on this. If you try to sell a disposable plane, you will be thrown out of the office. If you try to sell a disposable car, you will also be thrown out of the office. “

A series of questions and answers followed:

What is the best landing site on Mars?

– I’m not sure about that. But I can name the criteria. The first of these is latitude: most likely it will be in the northern hemisphere, far enough to the north to have water ice, but to still have enough sunlight.It also needs to be low to get the most benefit from atmospheric braking.

How do you prioritize mission priorities: research, infrastructure construction, and science?

– The first will be the construction of a fuel plant.

A question from a teenager who wants to become an engineer and robot maker with a dream to work at SpaceX: what is the most important education in order to become an engineer?

– There are many varieties of this profession: you can be an aerospace engineer, in the field of electronics, software, or a chemical engineer involved in creating safe production of fuels. I think physics is a good foundation for critical thinking.

Boring Company was originally conceived as a tunnel manufacturing firm on Mars?

– No. It was originally something of a joke. I thought tunnels were a good solution to reduce the traffic problem in cities and improve the quality of life by turning parking lots into green parks. To do this, you need to go to 3d [get away from the “flat” infrastructure – approx. per.]. I think tunnels are good for Mars too. But there you need a lot lighter equipment: you don’t care about mass on Earth, but you will have to take care of it a lot when going to Mars.

At Boring Company, have you learned a lot of technology that might come in handy on Mars?

– I think, yes.

Do you have any tips for young people who love Mars but don’t know how to participate in its settlement?

– I think any strong advocate of the need to conquer Mars matters. People often don’t even think about it. I often talk to people who don’t even know about it. Therefore, I consider it important for humanity and consciousness in general to bring a discussion about this to society. Talking about it with friends and acquaintances – I think this is what we should do. In my estimate, we will spend less than 1% of our efforts on Mars exploration, exactly less than healthcare, perhaps even less than cosmetics – this will be enough to make life multi-planetary. But this requires people to start talking about it 100 times more often. I think this is what really matters. [the entire cosmonautics of the world is $ 424 billion a year, while cosmetics is $ 532 billion, and tobacco production is $ 849 billion – approx. per.]

What’s the coolest part about Starship development?

– I think the coolest detail is the ability to work with a great group of engineers and come up with interesting solutions. I think the best thing is the opportunity to work with smart and creative people who come up with solutions that were not available before. This is a great reward.

What do you focus on when hiring, especially with regard to engineers?

“We’re looking for signs of exceptional ability. Or at the very least, striving to do exceptional things at SpaceX.

Are you planning to make a Mars-Earth communication system like Starlink?

– Yes, I think we will use a laser, probably launched into orbit, to avoid atmospheric diffraction. Thus, it will be a laser beam going from the orbit of the Earth to the orbit of Mars. And also relay satellites in solar orbit, since the laser beam cannot be sent through the Sun [when it is between Mars and Earth – approx. per.].

Can Starship be used for other destinations like Venus and other planets?

– Starship will be able to travel to any target in the solar system that has a solid surface when fuel depots appear. It is not the kind of transport that will take us to other stars, but when we become a multi-planetary species, we will create a demand for innovation in space travel that will ultimately lead us to interstellar travel.

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Cern Scientists Plan an Impressive Experiment – They Will Come Into A Parallel Universe

Cern scientists are once again preparing to impress the entire planet and become the focus of discussions with the new experiment they are planning.

An experiment that, if it brings the fascinating result that scientists have in mind,  will change the way we think about the world , will take place in the next few days at the Large Hadron Collider, the European nuclear center, Geneva CERN Research.

The astonishingly LHC complex, the largest, most energetic elemental accelerator in the world,  will be “fired” for the first time to its highest energy levels, in an effort to detect – or even create – tiny black holes. 

If it succeeds, then, a completely new universe will be revealed – rewriting not only the books of physics, but also the books of philosophy! 

It is possible, however,  that gravity from our universe will “leak” into this parallel universe, as LHC scientists say. 

From the Higgs boson to dark matter and the parallel universe

According to the British Express, the experiment is sure to “trigger” the critics, who are worried about the LHC, many of whom warn that the elementary particle accelerator will mark the end of our universe, creating a of the black hole.

Nevertheless,  Geneva has remained … intact since 2008, when the LHC began its spectacular “work”.

The first scientists at the Large Hadron Collider proved the existence of the Higgs boson – a key building block of the universe – and the LHC appears to be on track to locate “dark matter” – a previously undetectable force now considered that it constitutes the majority of matter in the universe, being, in fact, the reason why the latter is constantly expanding and moving away. 

So next week’s experiment is considered to change the game. 

The truth is out there

Mir Faizal, one of three heads of the three natural groups behind the experiment, said: 

“Like many parallel sheets, which are two-dimensional objects (width and length) can exist in a third dimension (height) , so parallel universes can also exist in higher dimensions. We anticipate that gravity can leak into extra dimensions, and if that happens, then tiny black holes can be produced in the LHC. 

Normally, when people think of the multiverse, they think of the interpretation of quantum mechanics by many worlds, where every possibility is realized. This cannot be tested and so it is a philosophy and not a science. We do not mean this with parallel universes. What we mean is real universes, in extra dimensions. The truth is out there.”

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