The modern alchemist and the spirit of research . . .
The modern alchemist is a man who reads treatises on nuclear physics. He is convinced that transmutations and still more extraordinary phenomena can be obtained by manipulations and with the aid of comparatively simple apparatus. It is among contemporary alchemists that the spirit of the isolated seeker is to be found, and the preservation of such a spirit is very important at the present time. For it is generally believed today that no progress in science is possible without large-scale teamwork, vast apparatus, and considerable financial backing. And yet the fundamental discoveries, such as radioactivity and wave mechanics, were made by men working in isolation. America, where everything is done on a big scale, with large teams of workers, is now sending its agents all over the world in search of original minds. The Director of American scientific research, Dr. James Killian, declared in 1958 that it was undesirable to trust entirely in collective research, and that an appeal should be made to solitary workers with original ideas of their own. Rutherford did some of his fundamental work on the structure of matter with old tins and bits of string. Jean Perrin and Mme. Curie before the war sent their assistants to the Flea Market on Sundays to look for material. Of course big, well-equipped laboratories are necessary, but it would be advisable to ensure some cooperation between these laboratories and these teams and these solitary workers. The alchemists, however, would refuse the invitation. Their rule is secrecy; their ambition of a spiritual nature. “There can be no doubt,” wrote René Alleau, “that the manipulations of the alchemists help to maintain an inner asceticism.” If alchemy contains some science, this science is only a means of gaining access to knowledge. It is consequently most important that it should not be generally known, otherwise it would become an end in itself.
What is the alchemist’s working material? The same as that used for high temperature mineral chemistry: furnaces, crucibles, scales, measuring instruments with, in addition, modern apparatus for detecting nuclear radiation--Geiger counters, scintillometers, etc.
Such a stock-in-trade may seem hopelessly inadequate. An orthodox physicist would never admit that it is possible to produce a cathode emitting neutrons with such simple and inexpensive apparatus. If our information is correct, alchemists do in fact succeed in doing this. In the days when the electron was considered to be the fourth state of matter, extremely elaborate and costly machinery was invented to produce electronic currents. Later on, in 1910, Elster and Gaitel showed that it was enough to heat lime in vacuo to a dull red heat.
We do not know all the laws of matter. If alchemy is a more advanced form of knowledge than our own science, it employs simpler methods.
We are now going to give, for what we believe to be the first time, a description of what an alchemist actually does in his laboratory. We do not claim to reveal every detail of the methods employed, but we believe we can throw some light which will not be without interest. Nor do we forget that alchemy’s ultimate aim is the transmutation, of the alchemist himself, and that his operations are only steps in his slow progress toward “spiritual liberation.” We are now going to try to give some fresh information about these operations.
The alchemist in the first place spends many years deciphering old texts that, deprived of any guiding Ariadne’s thread, are like a labyrinth where everything has been done deliberately and systematically to throw the uninitiated into a state of inextricable mental confusion. With the help of patience, humility, and faith he gradually begins to understand these texts. Having got so far, he is ready to begin actual alchemic operations. These we are going to describe, but there is one thing of which we have no knowledge. We know what happens in an alchemist’s laboratory, but we do not know what happens in the alchemist himself, in his mind and heart. It may be that spiritual energy plays a part in the physical and chemical operations of the alchemist. It may be that a certain method of acquiring, concentrating, and directing this spiritual energy is essential to the success of the alchemists’ work. This is not certain, but in this rare context it is impossible not to recall Dante’s saying: “I see that you believe these things because I tell you them; but you do not know the reason for them, and therefore, in spite of being believed, their meaning is still hidden.”
Our alchemist begins by preparing a mixture of three ingredients. The first, in a proportion of 95 percent, is some sort of ore: arsenopyrites, for example, an iron ore containing among its impurities arsenic and antimony. The second is a metal: iron, lead, silver, or mercury. The third is an acid of organic origin, such as tartaric or citric acid. He will continue to grind and mix by hand these ingredients for five or six months. He will then proceed to heat the mixture in a crucible, increasing the temperature by degrees and continuing this operation for ten days or so. He must take precautions, for toxic gases are released: mercury vapor and especially arsenohydrogen, which has killed many an alchemist at the beginning of his experiment.
Finally, he dissolves the contents of the crucible by means of an acid. Next the liquid is evaporated and the solid residue recalcined. The alchemist will repeat this operation thousands of times. Why? Perhaps he is waiting for the moment when all the most favorable conditions will be fulfilled: cosmic rays, terrestrial magnetism, etc. Perhaps it is in order to obtain a condition of “fatigue” in the structure of matter of which we still know nothing. The alchemist speaks of a “sacred patience” and of the slow condensation of the “universal spirit.” But behind this parareligious language there is surely something hidden.