The Science of Future Past: Part 5

In today’s installment of Science of Future Past, we finish up with part four of Asimov’s Foundation: The Traders.

As we discussed a couple of weeks back, The Traders, tells the story of a space-faring trader by the name of Linmar Ponyets who is ordered by the Foundation to go and rescue a fellow trader who has been imprisoned by a hostile government. Today we’ll take a look at the science behind the technology he employs to pull this off: transmutation.

From the Text:

“With this machine,” began Ponyets, as his hand dropped softly onto the central chamber and caressed its hard, round flanks, “I can turn the iron you discard into gold of the finest quality. It is the only device known to man that will take iron—the ugly iron, your Veneration, that props up the chair you sit in and the walls of this building—and change it to shining, heavy, yellow gold.”

Ponyets felt himself botching it. His usual sales talk was smooth, facile and plausible; but this limped like a shot-up space wagon. But it was the content, not the form, that interested the Grand Master.

“So? Transmutation? Men have been fools who have claimed the ability. They have paid for their prying sacrilege.”

“Had they succeeded?”

“No.” The Grand Master seemed coldly amused. “Success at producing gold would have been a crime that carried its own antidote.”

The Way of the Alchemist

Turning lead into gold was the dream of nearly every alchemist. Alchemy tends to get a bad rap in my opinion. It’s easy to laugh at the aims of early alchemists while forgetting that alchemical studies produced some of the greatest minds in science and resulted in an understanding of natural laws and techniques that scientists still use today.

Robert Boyle is perhaps one of the most well known cases of an alchemist whose studies contributed to modern science. Not only did he confirm the relationship between pressure, volume, and temperature of gasses which we now call “Boyle’s Law,” he is also considered to be the father of both modern chemistry and the scientific method. Other notable alchemists that we commonly associate with “real science” include Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton.

Another famous alchemist was a woman by the name of Cleopatra. (This isn’t the same Cleopatra who was the last pharaoh of Egypt, though some researchers believe that the more famous Cleopatra was also an alchemist; something that does confuse things a bit.)

Cleopatra created many of the symbols used by later alchemists and invented one of the first devices used for distilling. The phrase used by alchemists to describe making gold from base metals, “Chrysopoeia”, comes from a text entitled “Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra.” (Though some people believe this text was written some time after Cleopatra’s death) In fact, Cleopatra the alchemist is mentioned in other alchemy texts as being one of only four women in antiquity to have possessed the secrets of the philosopher’s stone, a substance necessary for transmuting lead into gold.

Modern Transmutation

While our modern sensibilities may lead us to scoff at alchemical pursuits, transmutation happens all the time, both in nature and in the lab.

One form of transmutation occurs within stars, a process usually referred to as nucleosynthesis. While there aren’t any reports of gold being formed inside of stars, elements up to iron on the periodic table have been recorded.

Scientists can also transmute elements in the lab, even without the philosopher’s stone. Way back in 1941 scientists took some mercury (which has 80 protons), bombarded it with some high-speed neutrons, and successfully made not only gold (79 protons), but platinum as well (78 protons). Unfortunately not only were the precious metals radioactive, but the cost of producing them far exceeded their market value, a limitation shared by the transmuter used in Foundation:

“…Where did you get one, anyway?”

“I didn’t,” Ponyets answer was patient. “I juiced it up out of a food irradiation chamber. It isn’t any good, really. The power consumption is prohibitive on any large scale or the Foundation would use transmutation instead of chasing all over the Galaxy for heavy metals. It’s one of the standard tricks every trader uses, except that I never saw an iron-to-gold one before. But it’s impressive, and it works—very temporarily.”


Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the technology behind Ponyets rescue isn’t the transmutation of iron into gold, but the fact that his transmuter was a DIY job made using spare parts from his ship. You might be thinking, “Sure, if I had a spaceship I could build a transmuter too.”

Well it turns out building your own particle accelerator doesn’t require a spaceship at all. You can build a fancy one like Patrick Stevenson-Keating did, or a more simplistic model using an old bottle.

Dr. Lee Falin is a Bioinformatician at the European Bioinformatics Institute, the host of the Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips podcast and the author of the “Science Fictioned” series, in which he takes scientific research articles and turns them into science fiction and fantasy short stories for middle grade and young adult readers.


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