Thursday, November 26, 2015


I heard an absolutely fascinating interview the other day (Nov. 24) on Terri Gross' Fresh Air.  She was talking to a New York Times reporter, C. J. Chivers, about his recent article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled The Doomsday Scam.

The subject of this article, and about the first half of the interview, is a substance I'd never heard of:  red mercury.  What?  I'm not kidding when I say that my first mental response to the discussion of red mercury was, "What's its atomic weight?"  Red mercury has been discussed, publicly and privately, since the Cold War - the Soviets were reputed to have it.  Mr. Chivers was unable to find anyone who had ever seen it.  I recommend you to take the time and read The Doomsday Scam - it's absolutely fascinating and Mr. Chivers writes very well.

The theory of red mercury is that it can be used to build very small nuclear weapons.  The following description (excerpted from the article) was written, I'm sorry to say, by an American nuclear physicist who should have known better:
In one edition of his autobiography, he claimed red mercury was manufactured by ‘‘mixing special nuclear materials in very small amounts into the ordinary compound and then inserting the mixture into a nuclear reactor or bombarding it with a particle-accelerator beam.’’ The result, he said, ‘‘is a remarkable nonexploding high explosive’’ that, when detonated, becomes ‘‘extremely hot, which allows pressures and temperatures to be built up that are capable of igniting the heavy hydrogen and producing a pure-fusion mini neutron bomb.’’ Here was a proliferation threat of an order never before seen.
The author of this bilgewater is named in the article, so that's your incentive to read it.

But my second response was:  I've heard this legend before.  Not red mercury itself, but the legend of the rare and difficult to find substance that can confer unheard-of powers on the owner.  It was called the Philosopher's Stone, and it was the goal of every alchemist the ancient world, and the Middle Ages, ever produced.  Here is the invaluable Wikipedia on alchemy:
Alchemy is a philosophical and protoscientific tradition practiced throughout Egypt and Eurasia which aimed to purify, mature, and perfect certain objects.[1] [2][n 1] Common aims were chrysopoeia, the transmutation of "base metals" (e.g., lead) into "noble" ones (particularly gold); the creation of an elixir of immortality; the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease; and the development of an alkahest, a universal solvent.[3]
 Red mercury sounds like a form of Philosopher's Stone to me, although sadly one which is only used to destroy.  We tend to look down our noses at our ancestors, as ignorant and uneducated.  At least their rare and powerful Philosopher's Stone was used to cure and create.  Red mercury is apparently only intended to destroy.  How fortunate we all are that it doesn't exist.

But what is it in the human race that makes us believe in the Philosopher's Stone, or red mercury, or snake oil, or any other substance, just because someone we don't know tells us it exists and we only have to find it.


  1. People need to believe in things that are apparently unverifiable.

    Religious people, especially, are prone to this kind of thinking. As if what we can't know or haven't figured out is somehow more compelling than what we DO know, and CAN figure out. Sort of like living for phantoms--which is how I view a lot of religionists.

    Einstein thought there must be a single formula that would describe everything in the universe. He spent the last decades of his life thinking about it, but got nowhere. It seems that he may have wasted his time. Was this quest for the unknown formula a desire to find a kind of philosopher's stone? Perhaps.

    I suspect that there are many more miraculous things we'll discover about the universe, if mankind lives long enough to search for them. Will we figure out an anti-gravity machine? A clean, reliable, endless source of energy? Will we be able to engineer human reproduction? Will robots one day "obsolete" us? Will cats and dogs one day sit at our tables and eat and converse with us?

  2. All good questions. You're so right that certain people like to believe - or perhaps like to accept authority over themselves, and believe what the authority tells them.

    Einstein certainly didn't accept authority on what to believe, but he was an example of the wish for the simple answer. Actually, I seem to recall a recent article on dark matter which suggests that he may have been right about the cosmological constant, but I can't recall the citation! But we are way too prone to think there is "a" solution, and the classic on that is the attempt to "cure cancer" - I read The Emperor of All Maladies last year and it was fascinating. For the first half of the 20th century, everyone assumed that "cancer" was a thing - only in recent decades have we begun to realize that it's multiple things, and that a cure for one cancer may not touch another.

    I too wonder what we'll discover, if we can live long enough. As for clean, reliable and endless sources of energy, did you see the article in the Chron the other day about All Power Labs in Berkeley, who've built a gasification engine that can replace a diesel generator? It burns biomass using gasification, which doesn't use all the carbon, and puts out carbon-containing chips that can be used as mulch to store the carbon back in the ground. I can't find the article on SFGate, it must be behind the paywall.