[The following is an excerpt taken from a journal found beneath the floorboards of a house in Philadelphia, believed to have been written in the early 90's]
I was reading in the library today and my master came to me.
"It is time that you witnessed what is foolishly considered by most to be the pinnacle of our art," he said. "It is time that you witnessed transmutation."
He then took me into his workspace [earlier described by the author as resembling a cross between a modern chemistry lab and an apothecary] , and began to speak as he pulled a metal bowl down from a shelf. The bowl had a silvery glint and the outside was carved all over with alchemical and astrological symbols.
"The vessel is of no real importance," he said. "All that is required of it is that it not be dissolved by the process. This is titanium, given to me by my own teacher, but glass works just as well."
I nodded, though he did not see. My master had gone into full demonstration mode. He would not pause for questions, or to ensure that I was paying attention; the responsibility to profit from his teaching was entirely on me.
"The first major obstacle to the success of the Great Work was finding a medium that could hold gold in suspension; an acid capable of dissolving gold," he went on as he pulled down two glass bottles of clear fluid, and an empty flask. "That obstacle was overcome in the eighth century by an Arab, Jabir ibn Hayyan. He gave us the formula for Aqua Regis."
Here he uncorked and held up the two bottles. One bottle fumed slightly.
"Nitric acid, and hydrochloric acid," he announced. "Usually mixed in a ration of 1:3, but prefer a slightly different mixture of approximately 1.5:2.5"
"The Golden Ratio," I observed quietly. My master then surprised me by turning to face me for a moment.
"Indeed," he comment. "Good lad."
He now poured carefully measured amounts of the two acids into the flask. The combined fluid turning a deep gold, and gave off similarly colored fumes. He then took a pinch of dull yellow powder from a box on the shelf and sprinkled it into the Aqua Regis. "A minor obstacle that many stumble upon," he said to me as though confiding a great secret, "is that they try to transmute the gold entire. This is folly. You've heard the phrase 'it takes money to make money'? This is no different. A seed, if you will, is needed for the sprout to grow."
He then stirred the gold dust in with a glass rod.
My master then drew a lump of metal from another box and held it up to me. "Do you know what the difference between lead and gold is?"
Certainly, I knew. I had read well the philosophy of our art. Lead is base, useless, dross, a near personification of impurity. Gold is its opposite; pure, sacred, the embodiment of all value and truth. I opened my mouth to say these things when my master interrupted."Three protons. That's it. Three protons per atom. Remember that lead and gold are not compounds; they are base elements, some of the fundamental building blocks of physical matter. A molecule of lead or of gold has nothing in it but lead or gold. And three protons is all the separates gold from lead. Lead has too many. So, the question- the real question, whether we knew it or not- that we have been asking all these centuries is: 'How to we strip three protons from an atom of lead to make it an atom of gold?'
That really is all there is to it."
Here he put the lump of lead into the bowl.
"Note that I said 'strip'. Physicists figured out how to split atoms, to smash them apart, but that's no good. The results are often difficult to control, and the byproduct is a massive release of energy; useful for powering your TV, or obliterating Japanese cities, but little else."
Here he added the Aqua Regis. The acid began to bubble around the lead, and the bowl gave off a brownish vapor.
"Well, what do we have here? Simple chemistry. We have some lead dissolving into some acid that has some gold in it. Don't inhale the fumes, by the way, they're toxic.
The second major obstacle to the Great Work was discovering a catalyst that would facilitate transmutation within the medium of suspension."
My master then drew a small black pouch from the inside pocket of his suit jacket, and took from it a red crystal that fit in the palm of his hand.
"Behold the catalyst," he said, "the lapis noster, the philosopher's stone," and he carefully dropped the crystal into the acid.
The acid quickly clouded over, turning a deep russet-brown, so that I couldn't see what was happening within.
"Actually," my master went on, "this is only one variation of the stone. Each transmutation requires its own catalyst, but this is the famous one, and the important one.
I told you that this transmutation is foolishly considered the pinnacle of our craft. The creation of the stone is the true pinnacle. That stone is more valuable, more precious, than anything that can be made with it."
He stood in silence a few moments, then he moved the bowl under a fume hood, and lit a burner beneath it.
"The acid must be boiled off- at least, if you ever wish to reap the fruits of your harvest," he said.
After some time, he opened the hood and withdrew the bowl. Within it were but three things: the philosopher's stone, unchanged; a far greater quantity of gold dust than had been added; and lumps of silvery metal.
"Lithium," he said, guessing my question about the metal. Those protons had to go somewhere, yes?"