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The day we got the “philosopher’s stone”: when science fulfilled the old dream of the alchemists and was able to transmute other elements into gold

In the early 1970s, in a Soviet experimental reactor near Lake Baikal, a group of researchers discovered a surprising thing: part of the lead protections that made up the plant’s safety systems had been transformed into gold. In gold! For hundreds of years, thousands of alchemists had left their eyes, savings and lives to find a way to transmute one element into another; and there was the key, in the middle of southern Siberia.

However, the Soviet secrecy made the anecdote remain forever halfway between reality and myth. So less than a decade later, In 1980, the highly regarded Glenn Theodore Seaborg decided it was time to take action. Scientific letters, yes: he was going to create gold. The “philosopher’s stone” was at hand.

Alchemy, yes; but accelerated alchemy

Because Seaborg was not a mindundi. Born in 1912, this American atomic and nuclear chemist was quite an eminence. He had discovered and isolated ten chemical elements, had developed the concept of “actinide element” that, a posteriori, would fix the current arrangement of the periodic table. During the Second World War he had played an important role in the ‘Manhattan Project‘and in 1951 he won the Nobel Prize.

From his work with the first particle accelerators, we obtained iron-59, an isotope that was extremely useful in understanding how hemoglobin works in human blood. Or, more importantly, in 1937 they created iodine-131, a fundamental piece for decades and decades in the treatment of various thyroid-related diseases.

But today’s anecdote, which Sergio Palacios reminded me, it happened years later. As I was saying, in 1980, Seaborg devised an experimental technique to transmute an isotope of bismuth, bismuth-209, into gold. The idea was to use a particle accelerator to remove protons and neutrons from a handful of bismuth atoms until they were transmuted into gold. And it was successful. At least experimentally. Unfortunately, the process was too expensive (and unstable) to make gold industrially..

One of the most complex machines on Earth, CERN's CMS detector, has a new heart with a purpose: to take a step forward in the search for new physics

But, like so many other times in the history of science, that’s the least of it: it opened the way. Today, particle accelerators transmute elements without any problem and if we do not do it with things like nuclear waste, it is, fundamentally, because the process is complex and unnecessarily dangerous. The important thing is that the path that began with Henry Becquerel in 1898 with the discovery of natural radioactivity has been one of the most fascinating of the last century and, science by means of, it will be an essential element of the next years.

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