John Phin.

The seven follies of science; a popular account of the most famous scientific impossibilities and the attempts which have been made to solve them. To which is added a small budget of interesting paradoxes, illusions, and marvels online

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Online LibraryJohn PhinThe seven follies of science; a popular account of the most famous scientific impossibilities and the attempts which have been made to solve them. To which is added a small budget of interesting paradoxes, illusions, and marvels → online text (page 7 of 12)
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melted in the fire and the mercury heated. It was then
poured into the melted tin, and at the same time a red
powder enclosed in wax was projected into the amalgam.
An agitation took place and a great deal of smoke was


exhaled from the crucible ; but this speedily subsided, and
the whole being poured out, formed six heavy ingots,
having the color of gold. The goldsmith was called in by
the Italian and requested to make a rigid examination of
the smallest of these ingots. The goldsmith not content
with the touch-stone and the application of aquafortis,
exposed the metal on the cupel with lead and fused it with
antimony, but it sustained no loss. He found it possessed
of the ductility and specific gravity of gold; and full of
admiration, he exclaimed that he had never worked before
upon gold so perfectly pure. The Italian made him a
present of the smallest ingot as a recompense and then,
accompanied by M. Gros, he repaired to the mint, where
he received from M. Bacuet, the mint-master, a quantity
of Spanish gold coin, equal in weight to the ingots which
he had brought. To M. Gros he made a present of twenty
pieces on account of the attention that he had paid to him
and after paying his bill at the inn, he added fifteen pieces
more, to serve to entertain M. Gros and M. Bureau for
soms days, and in the meantime he ordered a supper, that
he might, on his return, have the pleasure of supping with
these two gentlemen. He went out, but never returned,
leaving behind him the greatest regret and admiration.
It is needless to add that M. Gros and M. Bureau continued
to enjoy themselves at the inn till the fifteen pieces which
the stranger had left, were exhausted."

Narratives such as these led even Bergman, a very able
chemist of the period, to take the ground that " although
most of these relations are deceptive and many uncertain,
some bear such character and testimony that, unless we re-
ject all historical evidence, we must allow them entitled to

A much more probable explanation is that the relators
were either dreaming or deceived by clever legerdemain.

Of the possibility or impossibility of converting the more
common metals into gold or silver, it would be rash to
give a positive opinion. To say that gold, silver, lead,


copper, etc., are elements and cannot be changed, is merely
to say that we have not been able to decompose them.
Water, potash, soda, and other substances, were at one
time considered elements, and resisted all the efforts of
the older chemists to resolve them into their components,
but with the advent of more powerful means of analysis
they were shown to be compounds, and it is not impossible
that the so-called elements into which they were resolved
may themselves be found to be compounds. This has
happened in regard to some substances which were at one
time announced as elements, and it is not impossible that
it may happen in regard to others. The ablest chemists
of the present day recognize this fully and are prepared
for radical changes in our knowledge of the nature and
constitution of matter. Amongst the new views is the
hypothesis of Rutherford and Soddy, which, as given by
Sir William Ramsay, in a recent article contributed by him
to " Harper's Magazine," is that,

" atoms of elements of high atomic weight, such as radium,
uranium, thorium, and the suspected elements polonium
and actinium, are unstable ; that they undergo spontaneous
change into other forms of matter, themselves radioactive
and themselves unstable; and that finally elements are
produced, which, on account of their non-radioactivity, are
as a rule, impossible to recognize, for their minute amount
precludes the application of any ordinary test with success.
Tie recognition of helium however, which is compara-
tively easy of detection, lends great support to this hypo-

At the same time we must not lose sight of the fact
that the substances which we now recognize as elements
have not only resisted the most powerful analytical agencies
and dissociating forces, but have maintained their ele-


mental character in spectrum analysis, and shown their
presence as distinct elements in the sun and other heavenly
bodies where they must have been subjected to the action
of the most energetic decomposing forces. So that in the
present state of our knowledge the near prospect of suc-
cessful transmutation does not seem to be very bright,
although we cannot regard it as impossible. In the article
from which we have already quoted, Sir William Ramsay,
after discussing the bearing of certain experiments in re-
gard to the parting with and absorbing of energy by cer-
tain elements, says: "If these hypotheses are just, then
the transmutation of the elements no longer appears an
idle dream. The philosopher's stone will have been dis-
covered, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that
it may lead to that other goal of the philosophers of the
dark ages the elixir vitce. ' For the action of living cells
is also dependent on the nature and direction of the energy
which they contain ; and who can say that it will be im-
possible to control their action, when the means of impart-
ing and controlling energy shall have been investigated ! "

In the event of the discovery of a cheap method of pro-
ducing gold, the change which would certainly occur in our
financial or currency system would be important, if not
revolutionary. It has become the fashion at present with
certain writers to scout the so-called "quantitative theory"
of money as if it were an exposed fallacy. Now the quan-
titative theory of money rests on one of the most well-
grounded and firmly established principles in political econ-
omy : the trouble is that the writers in question do not
understand it or even know what it is. At present, the
production of gold barely keeps pace with the increasing
demand for the metal as currency and in the arts, but if


that production were increased ten-fold, the value of gold
would decline and prices would go up astonishingly.

One of the objects which the better class of alchemists
had in view was the making of gold to such an extent that
it might become quite common and cease to be sought after
by mankind. One alchemical writer says : " Would to
God that all men might become adepts in our art, for then
gold, the common idol of mankind, would lose its value and
we should prize it only for its scientific teaching."



HIS is really one of the processes supposed to
be involved in the transmutation of the metals
and might, therefore, perhaps, with propriety, be
included under that head. But as it has received
special attention in the apocryphal works of Hermes Tris-
megistus, who is generally regarded as the Father of Al-
chemy, it is frequently mentioned as one of the old scientific
problems. Readers of Scott's novel, " Kenilworth," may
remember that Wayland Smith, in his account of his former
master, Demetrius Doboobius, describes him as a profound
chemist who had " made several efforts to fix mercury, and
judged himself to have made a fair hit at the philosopher's
stone." Hermes, or, rather, those who wrote over his
name, speaks in the jargon of the adepts, about " catching
the flying bird," by which is meant mercury, and "drown-
ing it so that it may fly no more." The usual means for
effecting this was amalgamation with gold, or some other
metal or solution in some acid.

To the ancient chemists mercury must have been one of
the most interesting of objects. Its great heaviness, its
metallic brilliancy, and its wonderful mobility, must all have
combined to render it a subject for deep thought and an
attractive object for experiment and investigation.

Living in a warm climate, as they did, there was no
means at their command by which its fluidity could be im-
paired. This subtle substance seemed to defy the usual



attempts to grasp it ; it rolled about like a solid sphere, but
offered no resistance to the touch, and when pressed it split
up into innumerable smaller globules so that the problem
of " fixing " it must have had a strange fascination for the
thoughtful alchemist, especially when he found that, on
subjection to a comparatively moderate degree of heat, this
heavy metal disappeared in vapor and left not a trace behind.

I have often wondered what the old alchemists would
have said if they had seen fluid mercury immersed in a
clear liquid and brought out in the form of a lump of solid,
bright metal. For, although this is not in any sense a so-
lution of the problem, yet it is a most curious sight and one
which was rarely seen before the discovery of the liquefac-
tion of the gases. To Geber, Basil Valentine, Van Helmont,
Helvetius, and men of their day, living in their climate, this
startling phenomenon would have seemed nothing short of
a miracle.

In modern times the solidification of mercury had been
frequently witnessed by these who dwelt in northern cli-
mates and by the skilful use of certain freezing mixtures
made up of ordinary salts, it is not difficult to exhibit this
metal in the solid state at any time. But it was not until the
discovery of the liquefaction of carbonic acid, nitrous oxide,
and other gases by Faraday, about 1823, that the freezing
of mercury became a common lecture-room experiment.

In the year 1 862 the writer delivered a course of lectures
on chemistry, in the city of Rochester, N. Y., and during
the progress of these lectures he reduced carbonic acid first
to the liquid, and then to the solid state, in the form of a
white snow. The temperature of this snow was about
80 Cent. ( 1 76 Fahr.) and when it was mixed with
ether and laid on a quantity of mercury, the latter was


quickly frozen. In this way it was easy to make a ham-
mer-head of frozen mercury and drive a nail with it.

Another very interesting experiment was the freezing of
a slender triangular bar of mercury which might be twisted,
bent, and tied in a knot. This was done by folding a long
strip of very stiff paper so as to make an angular trough
into which the mercury was poured. This trough was then
carefully leveled and a mixture of solid carbonic acid and
ether was placed over the metal in the usual way. In a few
seconds the mercury was frozen quite solid so that it could
be lifted out by means of two pairs of wooden forceps and
bent and knotted at will. But the most striking part of the
experiment was the melting of this bar of mercury by
means of a piece of ice. The moment the ice touched the
mercury, the latter melted and fell down in drops in the
same way that a bar of lead or solder melts when it is
touched with a red-hot iron.

The melted mercury was allowed to fall into a tall ale-glass
of water, the temperature of which had been reduced as
nearly as possible to the freezing point. When the mercury
came in contact with the cold water, the latter began to freeze
and by careful manipulation it was possible to freeze a tube
of ice through the center of the column of water. The
effect of this under proper illumination was very striking.

Owing to the fact that the specific heat or thermal ca-
pacity of mercury is only about one-thirtieth of that of
water, it requires a considerable amount of melted mercury
to produce the desired result.

But these processes do not enable us to fix mercury in
the alchemical sense; the accomplishment of that still
remains an unsolved problem, and it is more than likely
that it will remain so,



OVE of life is a characteristic of all animals, man
included, and notwithstanding the fact that an
occasional individual becomes so dissatisfied with
his environment that he commits suicide, and
also in the face of the poet's assertion that

"protracted life is but protracted woe"

most men and women are of the same way of thinking as
Charmian, the attendant on Cleopatra, and "love long life
better than figs." And the force of this general feeling is
appealed to in the only one of the Mosaic commandments
to which a promise is attached, the inducement for honor-
ing father and mother being " that thy days may be long
in the land that the Lord thy God giveth thee."

No wonder then that the old alchemists dreamed of a
universal medicine that would not only prevent or cure
sickness but that would renew the youth of the aged and
the feeble, for in this, as in most other attempts at discov-
ery, the wish was father to the thought. That the renewal
of youth in the aged was supposed to be within the ability
of the magicians and gods of old, we gather from the stories
of Medea and Aeson and the ivory shoulder of Pelops, as
referred to in Shakespeare, and explained in the " Shake-
speare Cyclopaedia."

Of the form of this supposed elixir we know very little



for the language of the alchemists was so vague and mys-
tical that it is often very difficult to ascertain their meaning
with any approach to certainty. The following, which is a
fair sample of their metaphorical modes of expressing them-
selves, is found in the works of Geber. In one of his writ-
ings, he exclaims : " Bring me the six lepers that I may
cleanse them." Modern commentators explain this as being
his mode of telling his readers that he would convert into
gold the six inferior or, as they were called by the alchem-
ists, the six imperfect metals. No wonder that Dr. John-
son adopted the idea that the word gibberish (anciently
written geberisli) owed its origin to an epithet applied to
the language of Geber and his tribe.

Some have claimed that the elixir and the philosopher's
stone were one and the same thing, and some of the writ-
ings of the old alchemists would seem to confirm this view.
Thus, at the close of a formula for preparing the philoso-
pher's stone, Carolus Musitanus gives the following ad-
monition :

"Thus friend, you have a description of the universal
medicine, not only for curing diseases and prolonging life,
but also for transmuting all metals into gold. Give there-
fore thanks to Almighty God, who, taking pity on human
calamities, has at last revealed this inestimable treasure,
and made it known for the benefit of all."

And Brande tells us that "nearly all the alchemists
attributed the power of prolonging life either to the philoso-
pher's stone or to certain preparations of gold, imagining
possibly that the permanence of that metal might be trans-
ferred to the human system. The celebrated Descartes is
said to have supported such opinions ; he told Sir Kenelm
Digby that although he would not venture to promise im-
mortality, he was certain that life might be lengthened to


the period of that of the Patriarchs. His plan, however,
seems to have been the very rational one of limiting all
excess of diet and enjoining punctual and frugal meals."

It is an old saying that history repeats itself. About
forty years ago certain medical practitioners strongly urged
the use of salts of gold in the treatment of disease, and
great hopes were entertained in regard to their efficacy.
And the Keeley gold cure for drunkards is strongly in
evidence, even at the present day.

On the other hand, some have held that the elixir was
quite distinct from the stone by which metals might be
transmuted into gold. In the second part of "King Henry
IV," Falstaff (Act III, Scene 2, line 355), says of Shallow:
"it shall go hard but I will make him a philosopher's two
stones to me," and this saying of his has given considerable
trouble to the commentators.

Warburton's explanation of this expression is, that "there
was two stones, one of which was a universal medicine and
the other a transmuter of base metals into gold." And in
Churchyard's " Discourse and Commendation of those that
can make Gold," we read of Remundus, who

Wrate sundry vvorkes, as well doth yet appeare
Of stone for gold, and shewed plaine and cleare
A stone for health.

Johnson and some others have objected to this explana-
tion, but it seems to be evident that Falstaff meant that he
would get health and wealth from Shallow. He got the
wealth to the extent of a thousand pounds.

The intense desire which exists in the human bosom
for an elixir that will cure all diseases, and prolong life has
made itself evident, even in recent times, and has called


forth serious efforts on the part of men occupying promi-
nent positions in the scientific world. Both in Europe and
in this country suggestions have been made of fluids which,
when injected into the veins of the old and the feeble,
would renew youth and impart fresh strength. But alas !
the results thus far attained have been anything but grati-
fying, and the probabilities against success in this direction
are very strong.

The latest gleam of light comes from discoveries in con-
nection with the radioactive elements, as the reader will find,
on referring to Sir William Ramsay's utterance, which is
given at the close of the article on the " Transmutation of
the Metals," on a preceding page.


IN addition to the seven " Follies," of which an account
has been given in the preceding pages, there are a few
which deserve to be classed with them, although they do
not find a place in the usual lists. These are known as






ART of the sepulchral rites of the ancients con-
sisted in placing lighted lamps in the tombs or
vaults in which the dead were laid, and, in many
cases, these lamps were carefully tended and kept
continually burning. Some authors have claimed, how-
ever, that these men of old were able to construct lamps
which burned perpetually and required no attention. In
number 379 of the " Spectator " there is an anecdote of
some one having opened the sepulcher of the famous
Rosicrucius. There he discovered a lamp burning which
a statue of clock-work struck into pieces. Hence, says the
writer, the disciples of this visionary claimed that he had
made use of this method to show that he had re-invented
the ever-burning lamps of the ancients. And Fortunio
Liceti wrote a book in which he collected a large number
of stories about lamps, said to have been found burning in
tombs or vaults. Ozanam fills eight closely printed pages
with a discussion of the subject.

Attempts have been made to explain many of the facts
upon which is based the claim that the ancients were able
to construct perpetual lamps by the suggestion that the
light sometimes seen on the opening of ancient tombs
may have been due to the phosphorescence which is well
known to arise during the decomposition of animal and
vegetable matter. Decaying wood and dead fish are familiar
objects which give out a light that is sufficient to render
dimly visible the outlines of surrounding objects, and such



a light, seen in the vicinity of an old lamp, might give rise
to the impression that the lamp had been actually burning
and that it had been blown out by sudden exposure to a
draft of air.

Another supposition was that the flame, which was sup-
posed to have been seen, may have been caused by the
ignition of gases arising from the decomposition of dead
bodies, and set on fire by the flambeaux or candles of the
investigators, and it is quite possible that the occurrence
of each of these phenomena may have given a certain
degree of confirmation to preconceived ideas.

After the discovery of phosphorus in 1669, by Brandt
and Kunckel, it was employed in the construction of lumin-
ous phials which could be carried in the pocket, and which
gave out sufficient light to enable the 'user to see the
hands of a watch on a dark night. Directions for making
these luminous phials are very simple, and may be found
in most of the books of experiments published prior to the
introduction of the modern lucifer match. They were
also used for obtaining a light by means of the old matches,
which were tipped merely with a little sulphur, and which
could not be ignited by friction. Such a match, after being
dipped into one of these phosphorus bottles, would readily
take fire by slight friction, and some persons preferred this
contrivance to the old flint and steel, partly, no ^doubt,
because it was a novelty. But these bottles were not in
any sense perpetual, the light being due to the slow oxida-
tion of the phosphorus so that, in a comparatively short
time, the luminosity of the materials ceased. Nevertheless,
it has been suggested that some form of these old luminous
phials may have been the original perpetual lamp.

After the discovery of the phosphorescent qualities of


barium sulphate or Bolognian phosphorus, as it was called,
it was thought that this might be a re-discovery of the
long-lost art of making perpetual lamps. But it is well
known that this substance loses its phosphorescent power
after being kept in the dark for some time, and that occa-
sional exposure to bright sun-light is one of the conditions
absolutely essential to its giving out any light at all. This
condition does not exist in a dark tomb.

A few years ago phosphorescent salts of barium and
calcium were employed in the manufacture of what was
known as luminous paint. These materials shine in the
dark with brilliancy sufficient to enable the observer to
read words and numbers traced with them, but regular
exposure to the rays of the sun or some other bright light
is absolutely necessary to enable them to maintain their

More recently it has been suggested that the ancients
may have been acquainted with some form of radio-active
matter like radium, and that this was the secret of the
lamps in question. It is far more likely, however, that the
reports of their perpetual lamps were based upon mere
errors of observation.

The perpetual lamp is, in chemistry, the counterpart of
perpetual motion in mechanics both violate the funda-
mental principle of the conservation of energy. And just
as suggestions of impossible movements have been numer-
ous in the case of perpetual motion, so impossible devices
and constructions have been suggested in regard to perpet-
ual lamps. Prior to the development, or even the sugges-
tion of the law of the conservation of energy, it was believed
that it might be possible to find a liquid which would burn
without being consumed, and a wick which would feed the


liquid to the flame without being itself destroyed. Dr.
Plott suggested naphtha for the fluid and asbestos for the
wick, but since kerosene oil, naphtha, gasolene, and other
liquids of the kind have become common, every housewife
knows that as her lamp burns, the oil, of whatever kind it
may be, disappears.

Under present conditions the construction of a perpetual
lamp is not a severely felt want ; for constancy and bril-
liancy our present means of illumination are sufficient for
almost all our requirements. Whether or not it would be
possible to gather up those natural currents of electricity,
which are suspected to flow through and over the earth, and
utilize them for purposes of illumination, however feeble,
it might be difficult to decide. But such means of perpet-
ual electric lighting would be similar to a perpetual motion
derived from a mountain stream. Such natural means of
illumination already exist, and have existed for ages in the
fire-giving wells of naphtha which are found on the shores
of the Caspian sea, and in other parts of the east, and
which have long been objects of adoration to the fire-

As for the outcome of present researches into the prop-
erties of radium, polonium, and similar substances, and
their possible applications, it is too early to form even a


HE production of a universal solvent or alkahest
was one of the special problems of the alchemists
in their general search for the philosopher's
stone and the means of transmuting the so-called
inferior metals into gold and silver. Their idea of the
way in which it would aid them to attain these ends does
not seem to be very clearly stated in any work that I have
consulted ; probably they thought that a universal solvent

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Online LibraryJohn PhinThe seven follies of science; a popular account of the most famous scientific impossibilities and the attempts which have been made to solve them. To which is added a small budget of interesting paradoxes, illusions, and marvels → online text (page 7 of 12)