Today's Wonder of the Day may sound a bit like it stepped right out of the pages of a Harry Potter book. Turning iron into gold? Does anyone believe that could really happen? Wouldn't that require magic?
Some of the world's most famous scientists did indeed believe iron could be turned into gold, and several of them tried desperately to make it happen for hundreds of years. Long before much of modern science became known, many early scientists were fascinated by a practice called alchemy.
Alchemy was a secret and mysterious practice that reflected a spiritual worldview very different from our modern view of science. The metals we know today as individual elements were believed by alchemists to be alive and growing underground. Metals like iron and lead were thought to be merely immature and undeveloped “early" versions of precious metals, like silver and gold.
Alchemists believed they could refine base metals into precious metals if they could just find the mythical substance they called philosopher's stone. The philosopher's stone they searched for wasn't an actual rock. Instead, it was supposedly a magical wax, liquid, or powder that could heal ailments and prolong life, as well as change base metals into precious metals.
Knowing what we do today about science, alchemy sounds crazy, doesn't it? After all, it's no surprise that alchemists ultimately failed in their quest, since the very idea of alchemy contradicts the basic laws of chemistry and physics. Rather than the atoms and elements we know today, alchemists believed everything in the world was made up of four elements: air, earth, fire, and water.
We now know that air, earth, fire, and water are not actual elements. Therefore, it's not possible to adjust the percentages of those elements within iron to turn it into gold. Despite the utter failure of alchemy to transform iron into gold, it wasn't a completely worthless pursuit. Scientists and historians now credit ancient alchemists for developing the groundwork for what would become modern chemistry.
In fact, you're probably already familiar with one of the more famous alchemists from ancient history. Ever heard of a guy named Sir Isaac Newton? That's right! Sir Isaac Newton, the guy who invented calculus and is considered the father of modern physics, was a devoted alchemist who believed at one time that he had discovered the mythical philosopher's stone.
Newton's dedication to alchemy has made modern scientists reconsider its importance in the history of the development of modern science. Many experts now agree that alchemy was an important natural step in laying the foundation for modern science. Instead of superstitious witchcraft, alchemy is now often seen as an ancient practice of early scientists trying to make sense of the world around them.
Other experts point out the many scientific advancements that can be traced back to alchemy. For example, alchemists created new alloys and manufactured acids and pigments for the first time. They also invented distillation apparatuses and conceived of atoms hundreds of years before modern atomic theory. Perhaps most importantly, though, they helped to forge the basis for the modern scientific method by repeating controlled experiments over and over.