Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry from Ancient Alchemy to Nuclear Fission

Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry from Ancient Alchemy to Nuclear Fission

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by Bernard Jaffe

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This book is a classic in the field of popular science. Standard reading since the 1930s, it is one of the few historeis of chemistry to concentrate on the lives of the great chemists. Through these dramatic and human stories, it gives an authoritative and entertaining account of the great discoveries and advances in this scientific field. After many printings in


This book is a classic in the field of popular science. Standard reading since the 1930s, it is one of the few historeis of chemistry to concentrate on the lives of the great chemists. Through these dramatic and human stories, it gives an authoritative and entertaining account of the great discoveries and advances in this scientific field. After many printings in three previous editions, this book has been newly revised by the author for this fourth edition.
Beginning with Trevisan and his lifelong search for the "philosopher's stone," the author narrates the lives and discoveries of such towering figures as Paracelsus and his chemical treatment of disease; Priestley looking for phlogiston and finding oxygen and carbon dioxide, Lavoisier creating a new language of chemistry; Dalton and his Atomic Theory; Avogadro and the idea of molecules, Mendeleeff arranging the table of elements under his Periodic Law; the Curies isolating radium; Thomson discovering the electron; Moseley and his Law of Atomic Numbers; Lawrence and the construction of the cyclotron; and more. Probably the most dramatic chapter in the book, the account of the development of nuclear fission, ends the story of chemistry at its most monumental achievement. A final chapter discusses some of the consequences of nuclear fission, the discovery of nuclear fusion, and the recent work with subatomic particles.
Bernard Jaffe is the author of many other science books and several science textbooks. Upon the original publication of this book, Mr. Jaffe received the Francis Bacon Award for the Humanizing of Knowledge. The American Chemical Society's History of Chemistry Division honored him in 1973 with its Dexter Award for "distinguished achievement in the history of chemistry."

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New rev. and updated 4th ed
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Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1976 Bernard Jaffe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14184-8




IN THE dark interior of an old laboratory cluttered with furnaces, crucibles, alembics, stills and bellows, bends an old man in the act of hardening two thousand hens' eggs in huge pots of boiling water. Carefully he removes the shells and gathers them into a great heap. These he heats in a gentle flame until they are white as snow, while his co-laborer separates the whites from the yolks and putrifies them all in the manure of white horses. For eight long years the strange products are distilled and redistilled for the extraction of a mysterious white liquid and a red oil.

With these potent universal solvents the two alchemists hope to fashion the "philosopher's stone." At last the day of final testing comes. Again the breathtaking suspense, again—Failure!—their stone will not turn a single one of the base metals into the elusive gold.

Secretly had the old man worked at first, for had not the Arabian master of alchemy, Geber himself, admonished his disciples: "For heaven's sake do not let the facility of making gold lead you to divulge this proceeding or to show it to any of those around you, to your wife, or your cherished child, and still less to any other person. If you do not heed this advice you will repent when repentance is too late. If you divulge this work, the world will be corrupted, for gold would then be made as easily as glass is made for the bazaars."

The quest of the Golden Grail obsessed him. As far back as he could remember, Bernard Trevisan had thought and dreamed of nothing else. Born in 1406 of a distinguished family of Padua, oldest of the northern Italian cities, he had been reared on his grandfather's stories of the great search of the alchemists. Stories of failures, all, but he would succeed where others had failed. Encouraged by his parents, Bernard began his great adventure at the age of fourteen. His family approved, for they hoped to multiply the young heir's patrimony a thousandfold. But as the years of failure passed and his fortune slowly dwindled they lost faith as others had done. They pitied him and attributed his pursuit of alchemy to nothing short of madness.

But no failures or discouragement could dampen the hopes of the alchemist. Undeterred by the fiasco of the eggshell experiment, carried on with the aid of Gotfridus Leurier, a monk of Citeaux, he continued his labors with superhuman patience. "I shall find the seed," he whispered to himself, "which will grow into great harvests of gold. For does not a metal grow like a plant?" "Lead and other metals would be gold if they had time. For 'twere absurd to think that nature in the earth bred gold perfect in the instant; something went before. There must be remoter matter. Nature doth first beget the imperfect, then proceeds she to the perfect. Besides, who doth not see in daily practice art can beget bees, hornets, beetles, wasps out of the carcasses and dung of creatures? And these are living creatures, far more perfect and excellent than metals."

For ten more long years, Bernard Trevisan followed the will-o'-the-wisp teachings of Rhazes and Geber. He dissolved and crystallized all kinds of minerals and natural salts. Once, twice, a dozen times, even hundreds of times, he dissolved, coagulated and calcined alum, copperas, and every conceivable animal and vegetable matter. Herbs, flowers, dung, flesh, excrement—all were treated with the same painstaking care. In alembics and pelicans, by decoction, reverberation, ascension, descension, fusion, ignition, elementation, rectification, evaporation, conjunction, elevation, sublimation, and endless other strange operations, he tried everything his tireless ingenuity could conjure.

"Gold is the most perfect of all metals," he murmured. "In gold God has completed His work with the stones and rocks of the earth. And since man is nature's noblest creature, out of man must come the secret of gold." Therefore he worked with the blood and the urine of man. These operations consumed twelve years and six thousand crowns. He was surrounded by a motley group of pretended seekers after the stone—by men who, knowing the Italian rich, offered him secrets which they neither understood nor possessed. His wealth dwindled slowly as he supported all manner of adepts, for he had not yet learned that where one honest adept of alchemy is found, ten thousand cheats abound.

Finally he became tired of the knaves who had reduced him almost to penury. He rid himself of these impostors and turned his attention to the obscure and mystic works of two other masters of alchemy, Johannes de Rupecissa and Sacrobosco. His faith in the philosopher's stone revived, this time he allied himself with a monk of the Order of St. Francis. This friar had told him how Pope John XXII, during the "Babylonian Captivity," maintained a famous laboratory at Avignon where he himself labored to make gold, and as he piled up a fortune of eighteen million florins, issued bulls against the competition of other alchemists.

Thrice ten times Bernard Trevisan rectified spirits of wine "till," as he said, "I could not find glasses strong enough to hold it." This liquor would not fail him, he thought. Again the test was made—the "stone" proved as unfruitful as ever. But the fire still burned hot within him. He buried himself in his dark dungeon of a laboratory, sweating and starving for fifteen more years in the search for the unattainable.

By now he had spent ten thousand crowns, and his health was very poor. But the fervor of the aging man was unabated. Almost maddened by failure, he betook himself to prayer, hoping that God in His goodness would select him as the deliverer of man from poverty. But the favor of the Lord was not visited upon him, and his friend, the Franciscan, died in the quest. Bernard Trevisan was alone once more.

He transported his laboratory to the shores of the Baltic Sea where he joined forces with a magistrate of the city of Trèves, who also belonged to that band of erring men impelled by an almost insane force to the strange search. "I am convinced," said this magistrate, "that the secret of the philosopher's stone lies in the salt of the sea. Let us rectify it day and night until it is as clear as crystal. This is the dark secret of the stone." So for more than a year they labored, but the opus majus still remained concealed.

Now Bernard, still fumbling in the dark, came upon another clue. Turning to silver and mercury he dissolved them in aqua fortis, a very strong acid. By concentrating the solutions over hot ashes obtained from foreign coals, he reduced their volumes to half. Then carefully he combined the two liquids, making sure not to lose a single drop, and poured the mixture into a clay crucible, which he placed in the open, exposed to the action of the sun's rays. "For does not the sun acting upon and within the earth form the metals?" he argued. "Is not gold merely its beams condensed to a yellow solid? Do not metals grow like vegetables? Have not diamonds been known to grow again in the same place where years before they had been mined?" He, too, had heard of mines being closed to give the metals an opportunity to grow larger. For another five years he worked with this sun-exposed mixture, filling phial after phial and waiting for the great change which never came.

Bernard Trevisan was now close to fifty years old, but the fire still burned within him with a full flame. Gathering his meager possessions, he set out in search of the true alchemists. His wanderings carried him to Germany, Spain, and France, where he sought out the famous gold searchers and conferred with them in the hope of finding the key that would put an end to his all-consuming desire.

He finally settled down in France, still working in his laboratory, when word reached him that Master Henry, Confessor to Emperor Frederick III, had finally discovered the secret formula of the stone. He started off to Vienna at once—and found a man after his own heart. Master Henry had been working all his life to solve the supreme riddle of transmutation. He was no deceiver, but a man of God, sincerely searching for the germ of gold. The two dreamers vowed eternal friendship, and that night Bernard, "the good," gave a banquet in honor of his new partner, to which he invited all the alchemists of the vicinity. At the banquet-table it was agreed that forty-two gold marks should be collected from the guests. Master Henry, contributing five marks, promised to multiply the coins fivefold in the crucible. Bernard added twenty marks, while his five last surviving comrades, who had kept him company on his travels, added their little share, borrowed from their patron.

In a glass vial of strange design Henry mixed yellow sulfur with a few drops of mercury. Holding the vial high over a fire, slowly he added a few grains of silver and some pure oil of olives. Before finally sealing the glass container with hot ashes and clay, he placed in it the forty-two gold marks and a minute quantity of molten lead. This strange mixture was placed in a crucible and buried in a red-hot fire. And while the alchemists ate and drank heartily, and chattered volubly of the great search of the centuries, the concoction in the vial boiled and bubbled unguarded in the kitchen furnace.

Patiently they waited until the vial was broken. The "experiment" was a failure. Master Henry could not understand. "Perhaps," he ventured, "some ingredient had been wanting." Others suggested that the phase of the moon and the position of the planets and stars were not propitious for such a momentous experiment. Yet was it not strange that when the crucible was emptied in the presence of the queer company that surrounded Bernard, only sixteen of the forty-two gold marks were salvaged? The other twenty-six had disappeared, perhaps to appease Hermes Trismegistus, the father of alchemy. This farce infuriated Trevisan, and he vowed to abandon the quest of the philosopher's stone.

For two weary months which seemed to go on and on forever, Bernard kept his pledge, but again that burning in his heart overcame cold reason, and his mind was set once more on retrieving his vanishing fortune through the stone. And now his thoughts turned to the cradle of alchemy—to Egypt, Palestine, Persia, Greece, Turkey, the Isle of Cyprus. For was not the father of alchemy identified with the grandson of Noah, who was intimately familiar with the philosopher's stone? Had not Sarah, the wife of Abraham, hidden an emerald tablet engraved with the cryptic directions for making gold? Had not Alexander the Great discovered it in a cave near Hebron? "Whatever is below is like that which is above, and that which is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracle of one thing." This he had read, and stranger things, too. "The father thereof is the sun, and the mother thereof is the moon, the wind carries it in its belly, and the nurse thereof is the earth. This thing has more fortitude than fortitude itself, because it will overcome every subtle thing and penetrate every solid thing. By it this world was formed." Here was the meaningful secret of the universal solvent which Hermes, the son of Osiris, King of Egypt, had discovered. Had not Jason and the Argonauts gone in search of the Golden Fleece, which was nothing else than a book of alchemy made of sheep-skin? And had not Gaius Diocletian, Roman Emperor in 290 A.D., ordered all books which treated of the admirable art of making gold committed to the flames, "apprehensive lest the opulence of the Egyptians should inspire them with confidence against the Empire"? Perhaps, thought Bernard, some of these books had escaped destruction. There, in the Greek colony of Alexandria, he would rummage through the scrolls of the ancients.

For four more years he made his pilgrimage. "In this affair," he wrote, "I spent upwards of eleven thousand crowns, and in fact, I was reduced to such poverty that I had but little money left, and yet I was more than sixty-two years of age." Soon he met another monk, who showed him a recipe for whitening pearls. The pearls were etched in the urine of an uncorrupted youth, coated with alum, and left to dry on what remained of the corrosive. Then they were heated in a mixture of mercury and fresh bitch's milk. Bernard watched the process, and behold—the whitest pearls he had ever seen! He was now ready to listen to this skilled adept. Upon security of the last remnant of his once-great estate, he persuaded a merchant to lend him eight thousand florins.

For three years he worked with this friar, treating a rare iron ore with vinegar in the hope of extracting the mystic fluid. He lived day and night in his dirty laboratory, losing his fortune to multiply it. So obsessed was he by this search that he had no time even to wash his hands or his beard. Finally, unable to eat or drink, he became so haggard and thin that he thought he had been poisoned by some of the deadly fumes in which he had been working. Failure again sapped his health, and the last of his estate was gone.

So alone, friendless, penniless, weary in mind and physically broken, Bernard Trevisan started for his home in Padua, only to find that his family would have nothing to do with him. Still he would not give up the search. Retiring to the Isle of Rhodes, he continued his work with yet another monk who professed to have a clue to the secret. The philosopher's stone remained as elusive as ever! Bernard had spent threescore years grappling with nature; he had lost thousands of crowns; he no longer had the strength even to stand before the furnace. Yet he continued the search.

Once more he returned to the study of the old philosophers. Perhaps he had missed some process in the writings of the ancient alchemists! For ten long years he read and reread every manuscript he could find, until one day he fell asleep and dreamed of a king and a magic fountain. He watched the heavenly bodies robe and disrobe. He could not understand, and in his dream he asked a priest, "What is all this?" and the priest answered: "God made one and ten, one hundred and one thousand, and two hundred thousand, and then multiplied the whole by ten." "But still I do not understand!" cried Bernard. "I will tell you no more," replied the priest, "for I am tired." Then Bernard awoke suddenly. He felt faint and knew the end was near.

I did not think to die
Till I had finished what I had to do
I thought to pierce the eternal secret through
With this my mortal eye.
Grant me another year,
God of my spirit, but a day, to win
Something to satisfy this thirst within.
I would know some thing here.
Break for me but one seal that is unbroken.
Speak for me but one word that is unspoken.

But the prayer of the dying alchemist was not answered.

The fire beneath the crucible was out:
The vessels of his mystic art lay round,
Useless and cold as the ambitious hand
That fashioned them, and the small rod,
Familiar to his touch for threescore years,
Lay on the alembic's rim, as if it still
Might vex the elements at its master's will.

And thus, in 1490, died Bernard Trevisan.

As we peer down the vista of the past we find the delusion of transmutation holding the most prominent place in the minds of thinking men. Frenzied alchemy held the world in its grip for seventeen centuries and more of recorded history. This pseudoscience with its alluring goal and fascinating mysticism dominated the thoughts and actions of thousands. In the records of intellectual aberrations it holds a unique position. Even Roger Bacon of Oxford, easily the most learned man of his age, the monk who seven hundred years ago foresaw such modern scientific inventions as the steamship and the flying machine, believed in the possibility of solving this all-consuming problem.

Sir Isaac Newton, one of the clearest scientific thinkers of all time, bought and consulted books on alchemy as late as the eighteenth century. In his room in Trinity College, Cambridge, he built a little laboratory where he tried various experiments on transmutation. After leaving the university, he was still concerned with this problem, and wrote to Francis Aston, a friend who was planning a trip through Europe, to "observe the products of nature in several places, especially in mines, and if you meet with any transmutation those will be worth your noting. As for particulars these that follow are all that I can now think of. In Schemnitrium, Hungary, they change iron into copper by dissolving the iron in vitriolate water." He was intensely interested in a secret recipe with which a company in London was ready to multiply gold. Robert Boyle, President of the Royal Society, was also so impressed that he helped to procure the repeal of the Act of Parliament against multipliers of gold.


Excerpted from CRUCIBLES by BERNARD JAFFE. Copyright © 1976 Bernard Jaffe. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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