Sunday, September 6, 2009

How To Form Gold Out Of Baser Metals

You want to know how to make gold out of other metals? It’s simple and we already know how to do it.

Blow up a star.

The first stars started out as clouds of hydrogen. Hydrogen is a very simple atom, just a proton orbited by an electron. It is the most basic physical expression of yin and yang, of Binah and Chokmah. Clouds of this stuff were floating around in the dim afterburn of the Big Bang. When enough of these atoms collected, gravity took over and the atoms began to fall. At first, there were many directions to fall in, but eventually the forces of complexity sorted things out and a single center was found.

The hydrogen atoms fell faster and faster toward that center until they were going so fast they started to smash into other. Now realize, every atom has a defensive shield called the Weak Nuclear Force that normally operates to keep out protons and electrons from other atoms. But when atoms go fast enough, they overpower this force, crash through the defensive shield and achieve fusion. This fusion of hydrogen atoms is the most basic recipe for light.

This first recipe in the life of a star calls for four Hydrogen atoms. There are several steps involved. First you have to make Deuterium. Smash two Hydrogen atoms together to get a Deuterium atom, a neutrino, and two gamma ray photons. Let the neutrino and the photons escape. When you have two Deuteriums, smash those together to get a Helium atom and a bunch of energy. That energy is light and heat. It shoots out from the star and may eventually land in your eye when you look up at the sky. When this starts happening, we say a star is born.

Now, in order to make something out of Helium, you have to achieve much greater speeds than you did with Hydrogen. So at first, the Helium just falls to the center in darkness. But eventually, it too starts going fast enough to overcome its defensive shields and when Helium smashes into itself at the heart of a star it makes Carbon and Oxygen and Nitrogen, Sulphur and Magnesium, Calcium and Titanium. The recipes for these elements are more complex, but this is how the air you breathe was made as was the calcium in your milk.

These transformations produce a lot of energy that keeps the star from collapsing entirely. The star depends on this energy not just so it can shine in your sky, but also for its structure. The energy released by element creation escapes toward the surface of the star keeping it expanded through convection like a pot of boiling water. Stars are constantly boiling over into themselves.

Over the course of a star’s lifetime, it will repeat this basic motif, creating new, more complex elements out of simpler ones and using the released energy to fuel itself until it gets to Iron. Iron stops the chain. For whatever reason, if you want to make new elements by smashing iron atoms together, you have to add energy. So there is our star, going along happily producing new building blocks of existence and wham, suddenly, it cannot go any further.

When Iron starts to collect at the center, the star begins to lose its source of energy. The flame under the pot is turned off and the star begins to settle in on itself. What happens next depends on how big the star is. A small star will just collapse becoming a very dense Brown Dwarf. But a bigger star will do something else, and here’s where it gets personal. When a big enough star gets to the Iron stage, it too begins to collapse, but being so massive, the collapse reaches epic speeds and ignites a supernova.


These conflagrations of stars release so much energy that they can be seen on Earth. The Crab Nebula was formed this way and even though it’s 6500 light years away, Chinese astronomers saw the explosion in 1054AD. These explosions - and frankly I don’t know if you can still call them “explosions” when they are this big - are so massive that they smash atoms together with abandon, and in the process produce all the heavier elements on the periodic table, including all of the other metals of the Alchemists: lead, tin, copper, mercury, silver and - you guessed it - gold.*

And because we have all these heavy elements here on Earth, we know that our solar system is at least second generation. Earth was formed out of the remains of a supernova. Otherwise we wouldn’t have all the heavier elements only a supernova can make. Otherwise, life wouldn’t be here.

We are made of stars. And not just any stars, we are made of stars that transformed themselves, at least a small part of themselves, into gold. We have that history encoded in the physical fabric of our being. Not just in our cells or our DNA, but in the atoms that make those cells and that DNA. When Alchemists talk about transforming metals into gold, they are remembering the past lives of their own bodies.

*For those of you keeping track, the only planetary metal not made in a supernova is iron. Turns out, Iron is a gateway metal.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A. Loll (ASU); Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin (Skyfactory).