What is the philosopher’s stone?

Did the alchemists succeed

The philoso­pher’s stone, and also the stone of wis­dom, was the name that me­dieval al­chemists gave to a sub­stance that has the abil­i­ty to trans­form base met­als into the no­blest of met­als – gold. For cen­turies, sci­en­tists were pos­sessed by the idea of cre­at­ing this di­vine elixir, which could heal peo­ple from dis­ease and grant them im­mor­tal­i­ty.

How the idea of the philoso­pher’s stone came about

When the sci­ence of alche­my first arose, its fol­low­ers be­lieved that the mirac­u­lous sub­stance with the abil­i­ty to turn tin and cop­per into gold was a stone. How­ev­er, over time this be­lief changed, and me­dieval sci­en­tists be­gan to work on cre­at­ing a pow­der or a liq­uid elixir.

Philosopher's stone as pictured in Atalanta Fugiens [Wikipedia]

Al­chemists be­lieved that the mag­i­cal sub­stance could be cre­at­ed by adding and mix­ing com­pounds en­coun­tered in na­ture – pri­mar­i­ly sul­fur and mer­cury were used.

The labors of al­chemists were not in vain Thanks to the con­stant ef­forts of al­chemists to cre­ate the philoso­pher’s stone, the mod­ern sci­ence of chem­istry arose.

The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher's Stone by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771 [Wikipedia]

In their con­stant ef­forts to ob­tain the long-await­ed mirac­u­lous elixir, me­dieval sci­en­tists made many im­por­tant dis­cov­er­ies dur­ing their la­bo­ri­ous quests:

• they dis­cov­ered ni­tric, sul­fu­ric and acetic acid;

• they cre­at­ed al­co­hol;

• they ob­tained new salts;

• they com­piled the first sys­tem of chem­i­cal el­e­ments in the world;

• al­chemists dis­cov­ered new sub­stances – an­ti­mo­ny and ar­senic;

• they dis­cov­ered zinc and bis­muth, and also the non-met­als of sul­fur and car­bon.

Fa­mous al­chemists

Great minds la­bored tire­less­ly to find the philoso­pher’s stone. Here are just a few of the renowned pro­gres­sive al­chemists who made their con­tri­bu­tion to de­vel­op­ing the sci­ence:

  1. Al­ber­tus Mag­nus in­ves­ti­gat­ed min­er­als, stud­ied phi­los­o­phy and con­duct­ed ex­per­i­ments on non-or­gan­ic chem­istry, and was quite ahead of his time. He was the au­thor of the fa­mous trea­tise “On Alche­my”. He be­lieved that the philoso­pher’s stone would ma­ture if you used the right com­po­nents.
  2. Arnoldus de Vil­la Nova – a bril­liant mind of his time, who gave au­da­cious lec­tures at the uni­ver­si­ty in Paris. Con­tem­po­raries be­lieved that he had suc­ceed­ed in dis­cov­er­ing the philoso­pher’s stone.
  3. Ra­mon Llull was known as the great­est al­chemist of all time. He claimed that he had achieved the trans­mu­ta­tion of base met­als into gold.
  4. Paracel­sus was a renowned al­chemist and doc­tor who cre­at­ed new medicines while study­ing mag­ic. He spent many years look­ing for the philoso­pher’s stone, which he want­ed to use to heal peo­ple.
  5. Nico­las Flamel – an or­di­nary crafts­man who be­came fab­u­lous­ly wealthy, claim­ing that he had found the se­cret of the philoso­pher’s stone.
Nicolas Flamel [Wikipedia]

Facts about alche­my

Alche­my did a great deal for the de­vel­op­ment of sci­ence, but it grad­u­al­ly be­came a hin­drance to sci­en­tif­ic re­search and de­te­ri­o­rat­ed. There are still peo­ple to­day who de­vote their time to this old lore, and some even try to make the philoso­pher’s stone in their homes. Be­fore we try to do this our­selves, let’s look at the the­o­ry of cre­at­ing this ma­te­ri­al. The old al­chemists be­lieved that the known met­als sim­ply grew in the ground, grad­u­al­ly ma­tur­ing. They be­lieved that sul­fur took an ac­tive part in this process. Gold was con­sid­ered to be a “ma­ture” met­al, and iron an “im­ma­ture” met­al.

How to ob­tain the philoso­pher’s stone

Al­chemists be­lieved that “healthy” sul­fur of a red col­or was present in gold, and white sul­fur was present in sil­ver. When spoiled red sul­fur came into con­tact with sil­ver, cop­per was formed, while black sul­fur could “con­ceive” lead. Thus, types of sul­fur in­flu­enced the sort of met­al ob­tained as a re­sult.

To help a met­al to at­tain the re­quired con­di­tion, al­chemists car­ried out thor­ough treat­ment of the el­e­ment. As a re­sult of these ex­per­i­ments, al­chemists made new sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies. Some­times they were called witch­es and per­se­cut­ed. In those dark times sci­en­tists were even burned at the stake.

The gen­er­al pub­lic still won­ders whether it is pos­si­ble to cre­ate the philoso­pher’s stone. No met­al trans­forms into an­oth­er met­al when it re­acts with sul­fur. They can find out for them­selves if they de­vote a lot of time to sci­ence and con­duct chem­i­cal ex­per­i­ments, but the an­swer will still be no. But you can con­duct orig­i­nal ex­per­i­ments at home and feel your­self the true al­chemist.