Transmutation: Alchemy v. Relativity, Physics and Quantum!

Microcosm to the Macrocosm

“Alice laughed: “there’s no use trying,” she said; “one cannot believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

~ Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

This paper explores the transmutation process from the scientific point of view in order to shed further light on transmutation in its literal sense.

The term itself, as described in the dictionary, states that transmutation is a ‘change into another nature, substance, form or condition,’ as well as ‘supposed conversion of base metals into metals of greater value, esp. into gold or silver.’ It’s interesting to note that the official dictionary explanation uses the word ‘supposed’ as it attempts to discredit the alchemical transformation process and belief altogether, perhaps due to the fact that modern science sees it to be nothing more than pseudoscience. The origin of the word itself dates back to the search for the Philosopher’s Stone as well as the original concept and science of Alchemy. It was later applied to modern physics in 1901, when Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford discovered that radioactive thorium was converting itself into radium. At the very same moment Soddy shouted out: “Rutherford, this is transmutation!” Rutherford immediately responded: “For Christ’s sake, Soddy, don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our heads off as alchemists.” Today, however, modern science has proven it factual that through modern nuclear experiments it is possible to successfully transmute lead into gold. It appears that modern science is only catching up to ancient knowledge.

The very concept of words becoming flesh or the symbolic changing into physical and the like are by no means recent ideas. The earliest account of the transformation process happens in the First Book of Moses (Genesis) Chapter 1:

1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Also, in the beginning of the Gospel of John in the New Testament states:

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

1:4 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.

The very idea of spoken words having the power or capability to affect physical matter instantly as well as directly describes a miracle in nature or something that is considered to be magical. In 1922, a German scholar by the name of Franz Dornseiff had come out with his study on the alphabet in mysticism and magic. The idea of divine creation by the word or letter has its origin in the Egyptian and early Middle Eastern mystic cults. From there Gnosticism had turned it into theurgy, meaning the working of a divine or supernatural agency in human affairs or ‘invocation of divine powers for achieving concrete, material effects.’ Christianity, after having adopted numerous concepts from Gnosticism and Neo-Platonist philosophy, had introduced theurgy by means of prayer as a practical way of communication between the individual, divine and physical matter through a symbolic agent or medium.

The word itself is even more evident in the Catholic idea of transubstantiation, or rather the transformation of wine into blood and bread into the body of Christ effected through the public prayer of the priest. Even the words ‘hocus pocus’ originated from the Catholic formula ‘hoc est corpus meum,’ meaning this is my body. The Catholic is taught the wafer of bread turns into the true body of Jesus.

Apuleius, in a clever fable, recounts how a wretched experimenter named Lucius, receives a magical ointment after seducing the maidservant of a female magician. This attempt of changing himself into a bird resulted in having him being transformed into an ass. In this guise he hears and sees many unusual things, until escaping from his predicament in a rather unexpected way. Within this frame story are found multiple digressions, the longest among them being the well-known tale of Cupid and Psyche.

Another example would be lycanthropy, or the nocturnal transformation of men into wolves. Stories of such nature have existed for generations in Europe and continue to this very day. What’s interesting to note here is that these werewolves, though tracked and pursued, have never been killed on the spot and even more curiously that persons suspected of these transmutations have ‘always been found at home, after a werewolf chase, more or less broken up, sometimes dying, but invariably always in their natural form.’

There’s concrete evidence to suggest that P. Alphonsus Ligouri was visible and present beside the dying pope, but he was simultaneously seen at home in ecstasy and prayer, far from Rome! Furthermore, Francis Xavier has been seen at several places at once and there seems to be proof to demonstrate this strange occurrence has taken place. Similarly, apparitions of persons dear to us at the time of their death are also phenomena of transmutation.

It is said throughout history that these are miracles, but we know that miracles, when genuine, are simply facts for science.

‘Will is the practical realizer’ is in itself a powerful axiom, as it enables us to do everything and anything which we believe in! Furthermore, as man IS created in the image of God, he is thus endowed with certain traits as well as abilities, mainly being able to create and transform. All substance is modified by action, all action is controlled by spirit, all spirit is controlled conformably of the will, and all will is divided by some reason. The reality of things is in their reason for existing, and this reason for things IS the principle of that which is.

Moving into the Twentieth-Century and beyond, we will explore transmutation as it relates to two very different directions: relativity and quantum theory. Let us remember though, that the quantum theory deals with the realm of the very small, while relativity deals with the very large or the very fast. This concept may already bring to mind the Microcosm (Quantum Theory) and the Macrocosm (Relativity). Both theories were conceived in much the same spirit, that of critical evaluation of the process by which we actually observe the world around us. Both also deal with the phenomena that lie outside of the realm of ordinary experience, the phenomena themselves being far removed from anything we can see, touch, or feel. Both theories, where they come together, have not achieved a final unity. Alchemy may be the bridge that can tie the two together.

The postulate of Einstein’s theory of relativity is quite simple:

The velocity of light is the same for all observers, in all directions, regardless of the motion of either the observer or the light source.

Einstein taught us that one must follow logic even when it seems to contradict common sense. This theory could be better understood with the following guidelines:

  1. You may always assume you are at rest, and light travels at c (c-stands for velocity of light or speed of light) with respect to you.
  2. Observers you regard as moving are equally free to assume they are at rest and to construct their own pictures of reality.
  3. Nonetheless, all observers must accept all observations, their own or another’s, as valid. If we can imagine a situation that leads, through the application of the postulate, to an unavoidable dispute over observations, then either the postulate of relativity is false, or that situation may not occur in nature!
  4. The disagreements will concern things inferred from observations. Relativity will teach us that certain things we instinctively take to be observable features of the world are really constructs of the human mind.
  5. All disputes arise from one kind of inference: estimating when a remote event has happened, by calculating how long it took the news to reach you at the speed of light.

Two of the most direct consequences of such postulate are that the speed of light is the upper limit for all velocities, and that observers moving with respect to one another may not agree that two events happened at the same time. (For examples, please see pg.101, Physics for Poets)

In regards the first, and contrary to popular belief, however, is that the statement is not a conclusion of the relativity theory! Some theorists argue that Einstein’s ideas in no way prohibit the existence of superluminal or faster-than-light objects. The following is the recent proposal of three general classes of objects:

  1. Slow-moving objects that are considered to be everyday objects: atoms, molecules, people, planets, etc. All scientists agree that this class exists and that relativity predicts weird observational consequences (garage paradox) whenever such objects travel at the velocity of light or close to it. Also that all researchers agree that these objects cannot be accelerated beyond the light barrier.
  2. Sub-atomic particles comprise the second class of objects and they move only at the velocity of light. They are instantaneously created in atomic and nuclear reactors and they never slow down or speed up.
  3. The superluminal objects are a bit of a paradox to this day, as the mathematical answer seems to point out to the existence of an entire family of particles that travel faster than light. They are called tachyons, after the Greek word tachus, meaning swift. We do not have evidence to this of their existence, despite much effort to detect them. The relativity theory does not exclude them from existing.

Also, no matter what the circumstance, events cannot transpire toward the past as it would violate a basic principle of cause and effect: the cause of an event must precede the effect of that event. Interestingly enough, travel into the future, even at unbelievably high speeds, is not prohibited by any such cause and effect arguments.

Let us demonstrate the theory of relativity with the famous garage paradox gedanken or thought experiment. Imagine a garage that has two doors that have sensors to open when the car approaches and close when it clears the door. The car, slightly longer than the garage at rest, goes through the garage at or close to the speed of light.

From the point of view of someone in the garage, the car has now been shortened! The garage’s rear door opens to admit the car and then closes behind it before the front door opens to let it out. For a moment, the car is inside a closed garage! But from the point of view of the driver, it is the garage that gets shortened. From this observer’s point of view, the car sticks out at both ends and both doors must have been open at once!

Science is the art of describing things that exist independent of any observer. This was proven to be true in the previous thought experiment. The car, garage and the doors opening and closing are real, including everything that the driver and the others see. It is the pictures that happen to be what’s not real. The verb construct is a word that describes how one obtains such a picture, as the picture does NOT represent immediate experience. Instead, it is constructed from observations by correcting the time it takes for light to reach the observer! It’s important to note that there’s nothing new or scientific about this procedure. Artists usually portray three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional canvas by using perspective.

So, we must remember that whenever we use information gathered in one reference frame to construct a picture in another frame, we must accept three adjustments that seriously conflict with our notion of space and time:

  1. Moving clocks appear slow.
  2. Moving objects appear shortened along their line of motion.
  3. Events that are simultaneous in one reference frame may not be in another frame.

We’ve so far come to understand that objects behave as expected on the basis of common sense only if its velocity is small compared with that of light. But once the relativistic factor begins to increase as the velocity of any object approaches that of light, some weird effects can, and do occur!

Measurements of mass, like those of length, depend on the relative velocity of the reference frame from which they are being measured. So the question became, where does the increased mass come from when an object moves at high speed? The answer became rather simple: from energy!!! Einstein’s famous equation of E = MC2 came from his reasoning that since the mass of a moving body increases as its motion increases, and since motion is a form of energy (kinetic energy to be exact), the increased mass of a moving body must result from its increased energy. In simpler terms, energy must have mass and by proving it through the now famous equation we now know that matter and energy are interchangeable!!! Even more importantly we know that they are equivalent. This was demonstrated in 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico, when a small piece of uranium matter was transmuted into a vast quantity of light, heat, sound and motion – which we call energy.

If we were to consider the concept of creation of the universe by the Word in terms of physics and by applying the theory of relativity, it is simply a transfer of energy into mass!

Democritus of Abdera, a philosopher of the 5th Century B.C., has become celebrated as the father of the atom. It was because of him that we use the word atom today as it comes from the Greek word for uncuttable. The discovery of the atom brought about a new hope, a world in which on the small scale of things the world is ordered and simple, quite opposite of the complexity and variety of nature. The rise of Christianity, on the other hand, brought atomism into disfavor. The reason for its condemnation was primarily that it was seen as associated with the philosophy of Epicurus (He taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and bad, that death is the end of existence and not to be feared, that the gods do not reward or punish humans, and that events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space.) as well as Lucretius (Roman poet and philosopher. His only known work is the epic philosophical poem De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things.

The main purpose of the work was to free men’s minds of superstition and the fear of death. It achieves this through expounding the philosophical system of Epicurus, whom Lucretius apotheosizes.). What was even more damaging to atomism was the fact that some Christian theologians saw in the enduring unalterability of atoms a denial of transubstantiation, (the miracle of Eucharist), in which bread and wine literally became the body and blood of Christ.

Its success however can be attributed to its simple explanation of the three phases of matter – solid, liquid and gas and perhaps a reason as to why in never got completely repressed. As solid, the atoms are hooked firmly together. In liquid form, they’re still in contact, but able to move freely around and the reason why fluids settle into the shapes of their containers. As gas, the atoms are widely separated and are moving rapidly. This description explains the changing of forms or rather as a simple rearrangement of the same combination of atoms.

In 1800, the atomic theory was something physicists believed but couldn’t prove, while the chemists were proving it but did not believe in it!

Moving further down this timeline, Henri Becquerel in 1896 discovered radioactivity and J.J Thomson discovered the electron. Two discoveries that gave new meaning to dividing the indivisible! Becquerels’ discovery had the greater impact, as one of the marvels of the nineties was the discovery of X rays. The very idea of a form of light that could penetrate opaque objects was a very profound one, especially as it defied the concept that such light did not exist.

So, back to the chemist Frederick Soddy and the physicist Ernest Rutherford, who guessed energy came from within the atom, and established that radiation was accompanied by transformation of one kind of atom into another. Soddy, after proposing the use of the word transmutation to be used to describe such process, Rutherford’s concern was a very solemn one: “They’ll hang us for alchemists!”

It was during the Nineteenth-Century that the chemists proudly boasted that they had demonstrated the futility of the Great Quest to turn the base metals into gold. Atoms were immutable and hence the consideration of alchemy as having no scientific basis whatsoever.

Nature shows no unexpected fits and starts – all change is gradual, smooth and the inevitable consequence of definable causes. Quantum theory, on the other hand, shows that nature on the atomic scale is not only discontinuous but also fundamentally unpredictable. Physicists learned that any observation leads to an unpredictable change in the future of whatever is being observed. This came about when Max Born, through an analysis of particle collisions using Schrodinger’s waves concluded that the wave does not represent the particle itself, but the probability of finding the particle in any particular place. Other interpretations of the theory were that this indeterminacy arises from the disturbance of an object in the act of observing it. A term describing this is called uncertainty relations (coined by Werner Heisenberg), which states that there are certain pairs of physical quantities that cannot be determined simultaneously to any desired accuracy. One example of such pair of variables is energy and time, another position and momentum. Furthermore, it should be noted that the uncertainty relations allow you to get away with anything, as long as you do it fast enough (and limit our ability to predict the future)!

The major debate to this day in regards a controversy in the quantum theory is that it assigns only probabilities to possible outcomes of an experiment. The theory does not indicate that the experiment will have one and only actual outcome. Niels Bohr thought he could solve such a problem simply by concluding that by the act of measurement we push nature into giving us one answer or another. Therefore, the collapse of a wave does not come from the quantum theory itself. It must be imposed on the theory to represent the effects of the measurement, which converts the possibilities that the wave represents to the actualities of instrument readings. The next problem arises, since the theory only assigns probabilities to these readings, as to when the collapse occurs. The Copenhagen Interpretation, as it later came to be called stated that this collapse occurred when the experimenter becomes aware of the result of the measurement!

This brings us to the infamous Parable of the Schrodinger’s Cat. To refute the Copenhagen theory he came up with the following:

“A cat is placed in a sealed box. The box is equipped with a diabolical apparatus, triggered by a Geiger counter that contains a few radioactive atoms. The device will release a lethal gas that kills the cat. There is a 50% probability that the mechanism will trigger in any given hour. At the end of one hour, a physicist opens the box and finds out whether the cat is alive or dead.”

Schrodinger saw the experimenters mind as nothing more than a part of our physical reality, having no privileged status whatsoever. The Copenhagen Interpretation on the other hand shows that the human consciousness has a special character above and beyond the physical brain that contains it.

Thus we come to see in science a group of physicists who gave the human mind a special role in the universe. This would be considered a participatory role, as it states that human consciousness actually creates reality by observing it!

Another curios interpretation of the quantum theory as it relates to this paper is the many-worlds hypothesis. By applying this theory, Schrodinger’s cat both lives and dies as our minds are aware only of one part of this vast reality, which includes all the things that may have happened in the entire history of the universe! So the true reality consists of many parallel universes, in half of which the cat lives and in the other half it dies. The question remains whether or not all of our minds perceive the same universe. Another school of thought that came from this theory is called the physics and consciousness movement. It embraces the many-worlds hypothesis and sees in it the fundamentals of the phenomena, to this day considered to be occult, as extrasensory perception or ESP. Simply put, if the experimenter cultivates her mental or psychic powers, he will be able to will the fate of the cat!

The key role that observations play in quantum physics therefore must always lead to questions about the nature of mind and consciousness as well as their relationship with matter, which is the central theme behind the transmutation process. The fact that once an observation has been made on a quantum system, its state or wave function will change abruptly is a parallel to the idea of mind over matter or even more so the idea behind transmuting base metals into pure gold. Also, it’s as though the altered mental state of the experimenter when first aware of the result of the measurement somehow feeds back into the laboratory apparatus, and from there into the quantum system to alter its state as well. The physical state acts to alter the mental state, and the mental state reacts back on the physical state.

To conclude, it is evident and has been proven by science that transmutation is real and could be considered an important and perhaps vital part of the natural process. It is and has also been an important topic for debate whether or not we will accept the fact that modern science is only catching up to ancient knowledge. The dispute to this day is not between faith and science as between faith and unbelief. As Einstein stated:

“It is true that convictions can be best supported with experience and clear thinking. On this point one must agree unreservedly with the extreme rationalist. The weak point of his conception is, however, this, that those convictions which are necessary and determinant for our conduct and judgments, cannot be found solely along this solid scientific way.

For the scientific method can reach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned, but each other. The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capable, and you will certainly not suspect me of wishing to belittle the achievements and the heroic efforts of man in this sphere. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations…The knowledge of truth as such is wonderful, but it is so little capable of acting as a guide that it cannot prove even the justification and the value of the aspiration towards that very knowledge of truth.”


  1. The Ghost in the Atom, P.C.W. Davies & J.R. Brown. Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  2. Physics for Poets, Fifth Edition, Robert H. March. McGraw-Hill 2003.
  3. Relatively Speaking: Relativity, Black Holes, and the Fate of the Universe, Eric Chaisson. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1988.
  4. Transcendental Magic, Eliphas Levi. Samuel Weiser, Inc.1999.
  5. The Great Secret or Occultism Unveiled, Eliphas Levi. Samuel Weiser, Inc. 2000.

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