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This Scientist Dedicated His Life to Unlocking the Secrets of Alchemy

This Scientist Dedicated His Life to Unlocking the Secrets of Alchemy 88

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 ChymistThis Scientist Dedicated His Life to Unlocking the Secrets of Alchemy 89, 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

The goal of human civilization is to create AI and disappear?

The goal of human civilization is to create AI and disappear? 96

Various sources often talk about civilizations that lived long before us. They all developed, prospered for a while, and then disappeared in an incomprehensible way. 

What is the reason for their decline, we probably will not know. All we can do is admire the remains of stone buildings, over which time has almost no power.

While looking for an answer, we somehow accidentally stumbled upon an interesting saying about the life of Japanese samurai: “A samurai has no goal, but a path.” In the end, the “path of the samurai” ended in what is known – death. The path of any civilization ended in the same way.

If you look at the issue through the prism of a samurai saying, then there is no point in looking for why and how civilization ended its existence. Probably, the process itself and its result are important here. But to whom is it important and what result does it expect?

Mysterious director

Apparently, behind the curtains of this “ancient theater” there is a mysterious “director” who periodically makes necessary adjustments to the history of civilization.

To figure out what’s what, you need to look at current trends in science. Where does a person strive with such an irresistible desire to “play God.” This attracts him and at the same time frightens him, but in no way turns him away from the intended path. Most likely, artificial intelligence (AI) is the purpose of our civilization’s existence.

About 50 years ago it would have seemed nonsense, but to someone, perhaps even now. However, if you trace the last 100 years of the life of our civilization, you get the feeling that most of the discoveries were given to mankind at the same time. A powerful leap has taken place in a hundred years. Why did it happen?

At the beginning of the last century, scientists recognized the existence of fields that have memory and the ability to store and transmit information. It is very likely that such or a similar field can be around the Earth and, more interesting, possess intelligence. Isn’t this the same “Director” hiding behind the screen of the “ancient theater”?

If this is so, then at a certain moment the “Director” gives the selected scientist “access” to certain knowledge (perhaps even in a dream, like Mendeleev), and another scientific breakthrough occurs in the world. Step by step, discovery after discovery, humanity is steadily moving towards the creation of AI. The trend is already well visible.

The goal of human civilization is to create AI and disappear? 97

AI is probably the next “Babylon”, which will combine all the knowledge, culture and accumulated experience of civilization. In the future, the neural network will enter into a connection with the general information field and leave humanity without knowledge, technology, and even a spoken language. This will be the next decline of civilization. And the “Director” will receive another array of new data (experience) in order to start creating a new civilization.

If someone believes that past civilizations ended in large-scale conflicts, then most likely this is already the consequences of “turning off” AI.

Co-founder of Skype talked about the threat of AI to humanity

One of the creators of the Skype internet call service, Jaan Ta

The goal of human civilization is to create AI and disappear? 98
© still from the movie “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”

llinn, said that the development of artificial intelligence (AI) threatens humanity. According to him, humans face three key threats, but it is AI that should be feared most of all, the expert said. 

Tallinn explained that at the moment, no one can predict what development AI will achieve in the next decades. In addition, the fact that scientists are creating artificial intelligence that can form a new AI without human intervention is also a cause for concern.

In addition, as the co-founder of the popular video calling service noted, the development of synthetic biology also causes concern. According to him, this direction in science allows the creation of artificial DNA sequences and biological systems that may not exist in nature.

Tallinn also drew attention to the fact that he fears we are entering an era of “unknown unknowns”, things that people are not even able to imagine right now.

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Volkswagen robot will autonomously charge cars: a working prototype presented

Volkswagen robot will autonomously charge cars: a working prototype presented 99
Copyright: © VW

The renowned German car manufacturer announced a new development. This time, engineers have created a unique robot capable of autonomously charging electric vehicles. 

For more than a year, specialists have been developing this project, but only now the concern was ready to demonstrate the first working prototype. The robot is ready to charge electric vehicles and has shown the high efficiency of this process.

It is called the Mobile Charging Robot, and experts have already compared it to the R2-D2 droid from Star Wars, including squeaks and clangs. Indeed, there is a similarity. Before implementing this idea, the engineers decided that robots should be allowed to charge cars parked in large residential complexes.

This will save their owners from leaving in order to find a gas station. Another advantage is that large parking lots and garages do not have to contain several expensive charging points for electric cars. The car company said in a press release that the robot works exclusively autonomously.

It independently controls and interacts with the vehicle being charged. It opens the cover of the charging socket and independently connects the power plug, then disconnects it. The robot looks like a trailer, which is a mobile energy storage.

It is capable of charging multiple electric vehicles at the same time. Despite the fact that the manufacturer confidently praises its concept, experts saw inefficiency in the fact that first it is necessary to charge the robot’s battery, which is then used to recharge electric cars.

Volkswagen Group Components CEO Thomas Schmall noted that creating an efficient charging infrastructure for the cars of the future is an important step in the company’s development.

Its engineers focus on finding solutions to avoid costly do-it-yourself measures. The mobile robot is only part of the concept that will continue to be developed.

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This video will forever change the way you think about time

This video will forever change the way you think about time 100

Business Insider, one of the world’s leading news portals, made a three-minute video that depicted the Earth’s timeline as a journey from Los Angeles to New York.

So, the beginning of the journey is 4.54 billion years ago, when the Earth was formed from the accumulation of gases and stardust. After some time, a significant event occurs – a giant space body crashes into the still not cooled Earth, as a result of which the breakaway part becomes its satellite – the Moon.

Further, the route runs through the mountains of Arizona, formed about 3.95 billion years ago. A few more kilometers to the east and we are at the 3.8 billion year mark. This is where the first evidence of life in the form of replicating molecules appears.

The next “stop” Kansas – 2.7 billion years ago. Cyanobacteria that produce oxygen appeared on Earth. It took the next 200 million years for the atmosphere of our planet to accumulate sufficient reserves of this most important gas.

Halfway through, we reach Pennsylvania. We are separated from it “only” by 660 million years. Life is developing rapidly: the Earth is covered with vegetation, amphibians are evolving. Unusual time travel is coming to an end – to the point “Now”. By the time the dinosaurs become extinct, we finally reach the outskirts of New York.

And where is the most important thing – people? To find out, you need to carve out three minutes and watch the entire video.

Source: Business Insider

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