Once upon a time, about four hundred years ago, there lived a cobbler in Bologna by the name of Vincenzo Cascariolo. But this cobbler was interested in more than just making shoes last longer, he was determined to make people last longer! How? By finding the secret of the “Philosopher's Stone!” Vincenzo had to find a way to make the legendary magical rock that would not only turn base metals to gold but would also yield the "Elixir of Life." To do this, the Italian cobbler had to dabble in alchemy.
This fascinating quest already had a rich history. Gold, because it did not corrode, and seemed to last forever, had long been revered as the most special of metals. If only they could discover how gold was created, the alchemists philosophized, they would become wealthy beyond their dreams. And furthermore, they would have a very long time to spend that wealth. Whatever process was used to make gold immortal, could likely be applied to humans as well.
Today, the very idea of “making gold” seems outrageous to a scientist. After all, we know that gold is an element and therefore cannot be broken down into simpler substances and neither can it be formed from simpler substances. But a clear understanding of the existence of elements and their ability to combine and form everything that exists in the world dates back only a couple of hundred years. The efforts of the alchemists to make gold may seem like futile bumblings in the light of current knowledge, but they were quite reasonable in the context of the times.
Iron was seen to change into rust, copper oozed out of certain minerals when heated, silver tarnished and caterpillars changed into butterflies. Why then couldn’t some substance be “transmuted” into gold? Mercury, for example, looked metallic but wasn’t the right colour or consistency. Sulphur, on the other hand, was solid and was yellow. It certainly seemed conceivable that mixing mercury with sulphur under the right conditions would yield gold. Alas, it did not. The alchemists carefully documented their efforts, often using elaborate codes to ensure that whatever secret they chanced upon could not be stolen. One of the first to experiment with mercury and sulphur was an Arabian alchemist of the 8th century by the name of Jabir ibn Hayyan. He recorded his experiments in a code so confusing that it still hasn’t been figured out. His notes look like “gibberish,” a term we often use today without realizing that it derives from the name of Jabir.
Since the alchemists repeatedly failed to make gold, they became convinced that something essential was missing from their recipes. Then on April 25, 1382, that critical ingredient was discovered. It was the “Philosopher’s Stone,” the key to transmutation. The discoverer was none other than the fabled Nicolas Flamel! Or so it was claimed in the books that now lay open in front of Vincenzo Cascariolo as he sought to make the stone that had apparently eluded all others for three hundred years. Unfortunately, Flamel’s writings were very difficult to decipher. But Cascariolo seemed to be on the right track when he heated a mixture of barite (a commonly found mineral), powdered coal and iron. To his amazement, he produced a substance that glowed in the dark! And once the glow faded, the amazing material could be reenergized just by exposing it to the sun. The Italian alchemist had discovered a way to capture the sun’s rays! Surely, he thought, he had taken the critical step towards making the Philosopher’s Stone. In reality, his concoction would never yield gold, but Cascariolo had stumbled onto the first “glow-in-the-dark” substance. He had converted barium sulphate (barite) to barium sulphide, a “phosphorescent” material.
Why was he not able to reproduce Flamel’s stone? That’s easy. Because Nicolas Flamel never made it in the first place. Oh, he was a real person all right. But he wasn’t an alchemist. Flamel was a notary who lived in the fourteenth century and made a lot of money speculating on real estate. He and his wife Pernelle were kind people and used their wealth to establish hospitals and homes for the poor. Their seemingly bottomless pocket probably gave rise to the legend of the “Philosopher’s Stone”. And a legend it was because the books that were supposedly written by Flamel did not appear until the sixteenth century! Of course, some would argue that if Flamel had really discovered the stone, he would have been able to make himself immortal. If so, he could have written books hundreds of years after his supposed death.
The facts would seem to argue against this possibility. Nicolas Flamel’s gravestone is in plain view in the Musee de Cluny in Paris! But then again, maybe Nicolas faked his death, and that of his wife in order to hide his success at having created the marvellous stone. Indeed, in the 18th century, some Parisians swore that they had seen Nicolas and Pernelle attend a performance at the famed Opera House. I don’t know about that, but I do know that today in Paris you can find the rue Nicolas Flamel which intersects with the rue Pernelle. Nearby is one of Paris’ most famous restaurants, The Auberge Nicolas Flamel. It is said to be housed in the oldest building in Paris, one that was originally built by the legendary Flamel to house the poor.
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