of alchemy and iron man

DirectorJen I have just returned from Minneapolis, or more accurately, nearby Bloomington, host to the annual CONvergence science fiction and fantasy convention. Technically I was there for Skepchickon 2010, one of the many "tracks" featured in the CONvergence program. We got to hang with the sassy-n-saucy Skepchicks, and I downed my first Buzzed Aldrin, which we will be adding to our sidebar of physics cocktails just as soon as I can strong-arm Rebecca Watson into forking over the secret recipe. The rest of the time, Jen-Luc Piquant and I thrilled to the sight of geeks reveling in their element: outlandish costumes, original fan art on exhibit, and panels featuring earnest discussions on the nature of evil as illustrated by Voldemort, Darth Vader, or Watchmen’s Rorschach. (An audience member brought up Buffy’s Spike during the discussion on evil, only to have a panelist snipe, “Sometimes it’s not about whether you’re evil, but whether you’re a douchebag.” Ouch! Spike will totally bite you for that one, dude.)

And of course, there were the LARP-ers (Live Action Role Play), whaling away with their plastic light sabers as if their very lives depended on the outcome of the “fight.” Conventions are all about letting your inner child out to play; it’s the stuff daydreams are made of, which is why I have such a soft spot for them. Who doesn't occasionally long for simpler days, when plastic light saber duels became real through the power of imagination? We tend to lose this ability, this childlike enthusiasm, in adulthood all too easily. Anyway, my personal favorite costume was the tall guy dressed in a sharp business suit, with a crumpled piece of paper taped to his back: “I’m the TV executive who canceled Firefly.” Brave man! “Kick me” was sort of implied. I found out later that he had a counterpart: someone with a piece of paper taped to his back, reading, “I’m looking for the jerk who canceled Firefly." It's quite possible that there was a matter/antimatter annihilation when those two people finally found each other — or a heckuva fake fist fight.

By a stroke of luck, one of the CONvergence panels ties into a topic that's been gathering dust for a couple of months now in my blog fodder file: Iron Man 2, or, as the panel description put it, "You know you saw it. What did you think?" Quite a bit of commentary appeared back in May when the film was released regarding the science in this latest installment of the Tony Stark saga, much of it focusing on that pivotal scene in the home laboratory wherein Stark constructs a homemade particle accelerator and uses it to create a new stable element to power the tiny fusion reactor in his chest. The nerdgassers had a field day with that one. But I think the film did a credible job on that score, especially given the tough narrative and run-time constraints it had to contend with. 

Think building a particle accelerator sounds incredible? Bitch, please! This might have been unusual when
physicist Michio Kaku, as a teenager, first built a 2.3-million-electron-volt
accelerator (called a betatron) in his parents' garage for his high
school science fair project because he "wanted to play about with
antimatter." Nowadays every aspiring Evil Mad Genius has beams of particles colliding in his or her secret basement lab. Really, all you need is a beam tube with a large vacuum, a bunch of charged particles,
powerful magnets to bend the beam, and radio frequency oscillators, or RF
cavities, to accelerate the particles.

In one of the best analyses of the science of Iron Man 2, Tony (yes, another Tony!) Saratoga told Popular Mechanics that, based solely on what's depicted
on screen, Stark seems to be missing RF cavities (although they could
be off-screen), and his magnets don't appear to be large enough for
maximum steerage. He took issue with the fact that Stark wouldn't be stupid enough to be in the same room during particle collisions, thereby exposing himself to massive amounts of radiation. And the steerage problem is pretty critical:

"When two cars crash into each other, do all the parts fly off to one side, or do they fly off to both sides?" He asks. "If stuff crashes head on, generally all the stuff that comes out does not all go off to one side. And in that scene, he had two beams colliding head on, where was all the beam coming out? One side. Conservation of momentum was violated. That's a big one. We've been comfortable with that for, oh, 400 years. If you had extra magnets around that beam to focus it, then I could believe it. But just a wrench ain't gonna do it. Sorry."

We are eagerly awaiting the DVD release — hopefully in time for Christmas! — just to check out the deleted scenes to see if perhaps there are additional details that didn't make it into the final cut. In the meantime, lots of people pointed to the nagging question of where he's getting the juice to run his homemade accelerator: we're talking output on the order of 10 to 15 megawatts, enough to run over 10,000 homes. "For Stark to run his accelerator, he's gotta make a deal with his power company or he's gotta have some sort of serious power plant in his backyard," Saratoga opines. I beg to differ, and humbly suggest that if Stark can build a tiny fusion reactor to operate his suit, finding the energy to run an accelerator isn't his biggest problem. As I wrote in my own commentary over at Discovery News:

Stark's biggest problem is creating that fictional new element. There have been several new heavy elements created in particle accelerators around the world in the last couple of decades, most recently the discovery of element 117 by a team of American and Russian scientists. But that team managed to synthesize just six atoms of element 117 by smashing together isotopes of calcium and a radioactive element called berkelium (equally rare) — hardly enough to power Stark's mini fusion reactor.

Furthermore, these heavy elements don't hang around very long; they decay in a matter of milliseconds. What Stark creates is something far more unique than just another new heavy element: he has apparently discovered an element that lies within the so-called "island of stability" in the periodic table. In general the heavier the element created, the shorter its lifetime, because artificially synthesized elements are unstable and decay immediately. But with the most recent discoveries, those lifetimes appear to be lengthening once again, tantalizing physicists with the notion that perhaps there is an as-yet-undiscovered element that is both heavy and stable. And who knows what wondrous properties such an element might possess, and what exciting new applications we might find for it?

Here's where the willing suspension of disbelief comes in. Sure, we don't yet have the capability of producing such an amazing element, and the secret eludes our best scientists. But our best scientists aren't Tony Stark. He's a superhero, and his super power is his big, big brain, which enables him to achieve the kinds of technological advances real-world scientists (to date) can only dream about. It's good to dream. Tony Stark's new element is loosely comparable to the alchemical quest to turn base metals into gold, back when alchemy was considered a legitimate science. He is a modern-day alchemist, and he's in some very good scientific company: Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, Tycho Brahe, Thomas Browne, and the forefather of modern physics, Isaac Newton, all dabbled to various extents with alchemy.

Sure, there was a lot of mysticism surrounding the practice of alchemy: it wasn't just about turning base metals like lead into gold. Alchemists throughout the ages also yearned to discover the secret of eternal life via an elixir that cured all diseases. (On a less exalted note, they also searched for a universal solvent.)

The mythical "philosopher's stone" (more of a substance, really) supposedly aided in achieving both objectives. But for all its mystical trappings, alchemy nonetheless served as something of a forerunner to modern-day chemistry: we owe things like ore testing and refining, metalworking, leather tanning, gunpowder, inks and pigments, paints and dyes, ceramics, glass, distillation of liquors and extracts, and much, much more to those early alchemists.

In that historical context, it shouldn't be all that surprising that Isaac Newton also dabbled in alchemical pursuits. The man had an insatiable curiously about how the world works, and an astonishing broad range of scientific interests. There is speculation that Newton's nervous breakdown during this period may have been due to a type of chemical poisoning as a result of his alchemy research. But he didn't broadcast this interest: there were severe penalties invoked for alchemy, including public hanging on a gilded scaffold — but not for heresy, or witchcraft, as one might expect. Apparently the English Crown was concerned that gold would be horrendously devalued if any geek with a home lab could turn base metal into gold. (The Crown may have had a point.)

Much of Newton's papers relating to this work have been lost, but some notes survived and came to light in 1936 when the collection was auctioned off by Sotheby's, eventually purchased by famed economist John Maynard Keynes. The whole thrilling saga of this unsuspected extracurricular pursuit of one of the greatest minds of science is told in a NOVA special, "Newton's Dark Secrets", with extensive online material publicly available, so I won't recount the whole story here. Interested parties can also peruse the archives of the Chymstry of Isaac Newton Project, including cool videos of elements transmuting into another. And yes, it is possible these days to get gold from lead ores. Certain
minerals (galena, cerussite, and anglesite, for example) contain metals
like zinc, gold and silver, and all you need to do is pulverize the ore
and then use chemical techniques to separate the gold from the lead.
But to someone from Newton's day, it would be eerily similar to

What does it really take to turn one element into another beyond standard chemical means? Well, if all you change is the number of neutrons, you're just switching isotopes, not changing one element into another. To get a new element, you need to add or subtract protons, thereby changing the atomic number. This can't really be done chemically. But at the turn of the last century, scientists discovered the process of nuclear transmutation: "the conversion of one chemical element or isotope into another, which occurs through nuclear reactions." Usually this occurs naturally in radioactive elements: they emit radiation and gradually decay over time, eventually settling down as a more stable element.

Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy discovered that the radioactive thorium they'd been keeping around the lab was spontaneously turning into radium through the process of nuclear decay. Soddy excitedly proclaimed they'd achieved transmutation, to which Rutherford snapped back, "For christ's sake, Soddy, don't call it transmutation. They'll have our heads off as alchemists." He was speaking figuratively: by 1901, alchemists were no longer summarily executed for heresy, but the field had been so completely discredited that the two men might have lost their scientific reputations — their metaphorical heads.

It was a kind of transmutation, nonetheless, albeit a slow one. By 1919, Rutherford had succeeded in artificially converting nitrogen into oxygen through a process of nuclear "disintegration" (he still couldn't use the term "transmutation and be taken seriously). And 50 years later (1957, to be exact, in a paper entitled, "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars"), a group of four scientists published a seminal paper detailing how the varying amounts of elements scattered throughout the universe had their origin in stars: specifically, the nucleosynthesis (fusion process) that makes the stars shine. (The heavier elements, we now know, were born in the final throes of massive dying stars known as supernovae: basically anything heavier than iron, which has an atomic number of 26.)The scientists were William Fowler, Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, and Fred Hoyle, all of whom were immortalized in a bit of waggish verse penned by author Ken Croswell: "Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler, Hoyle/ Took the stars and made them toil: /Carbon, copper, gold and lead/ Formed in stars, is what they said."

The modern era of particle accelerators means that scientists can now achieve nuclear transmutation artificially — in fact, it's considered a promising means of reducing the amount of nuclear waste produced by nuclear power and other industries. And hey, when your old accelerator gets left in the dust by more technologically advanced machines, it's a simple enough matter to convert it into a powerful x-ray laser source, and hire it out to various high-tech industries.

Here's irony for you: it's actually possible, in these accelerators and nuclear reactors, to turn lead (atomic number: 82), for example, into gold (atomic number: 79), although it costs so much to produce the huge amounts of energy required to achieve this, that it's just not worth the effort and expense. Glenn Seaborg did this in 1980, with a slight detour through bismuth, and there have been reports that a team of Soviet physicists at a nuclear facility in Siberia succeeded in doing the same in 1972. Because lead is the more stable element of the two, gold turns into lead much more easily: just leave the stuff unattended in a nuclear reactor for a really long time, and let neutron capture and beta decay do the heavy lifting.

See? Particle physicists really are the modern-day alchemists — and they achieve these amazing transmutation feats without a hint of mysticism or "magic." Tony Stark is a worthy fictional successor.

3 thoughts on “of alchemy and iron man”

  1. Alchemists were given the job for ten years – at which point they either were able to transmute base metals into precious ones, or were killed. This crude but effective tenure scheme led at least one alchemist, when he realized that he was not going to satisfy the original terms of the contract – to explore other avenues by which he may justify his paycheck (and continued existence). In this way the technique for synthesizing porcelain was discovered in Europe, which up till then required importation from China (the nickname for this ceramic derives from its close association with its country of origin).

  2. My only issue is that you got a name wrong: the Popular Mechanics article features an interview with Todd Satogata, not Tony Saratoga. It would have been a nice coincidence though…

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top