Sunday, October 05, 2003

Geology and the Oracle of Delphi; Transmutation of Elements

"Questioning the Delphic Oracle," July 15, 2003, is behind a paywall at Scientific American. Here are my brief notes:

The temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the oracle housed there, was the most important religious site of the ancient Greek world. The oracle functioned through a specific person, the Pythia, who was chosen, trained, and prepared to speak for Apollo. The seat of the oracle was located in a cavern, where the Pythia would sit on a tripod mounted over a cleft in the rock. A pneuma rising from the cleft was believed to carry the word of Apollo into the inhaling Pythia, and thus from her lips to the questioner.

Contemporary written descriptions of the oracle were left by the essayist and biographer, Plutarch, who served as a priest of Apollo in the temple at Delphi. In describing the functioning of the oracle, Plutarch emphasized the importance of the preconditioning and purification of the Pythia, which rendered her sensitive to the pneuma. An ordinary person might catch a whiff of the gas without falling into an oracular trance. Plutarch described the gas as smelling like sweet perfume.

During normal sessions, the Pythia was in a mild trance, able to sit on the tripod, speak and answer questions. On one occasion, witnessed by Plutarch, temple authorities forced the Phythia to prophesy on an inauspicious day. The poor unlucky woman "groaned and shrieked, threw herself about violently and eventually rushed a the doors, where she collapsed...She died after a few days."

Around 1900, the idea of gasses stimulating the oracle was "debunked" by a young English classicist, Adolphe Paul Oppé. He concluded that there was no chasm and no gasses, and never had been, that no gas could produced the trance state typically described, and that Plutarch's account of the Pythia's violent frenzy was not credible. For many years, Oppé's account was taken as correct.

Recent geological surveys have traced fault lines through the temple foundations, providing a route by which spring waters and subterranean gasses could have reached the chamber where the Pythia sat. Also, it was learned that certain rock formations near the temple had a high petrochemical content, which could have been the source of methane, ethane, and ethylene found in water samples from the spring in the sanctuary. Ethylene has a sweet odor and, depending on the concentration, can induce either unconsciousness or a trance state remarkably like that described for the Pythia.

"Special Report: Transmutation. How to Create and Destroy Elements in a Flash of Light" New Scientist, August 23, 2003 (also behind a paywall).

"Alchemy is back in fashion, as physicists wielding powerful laser pulses convert one element to another....'We did an experiment the other day that turned gold into mercury'."

The alchemists of old were chemists, a branch of science which could never result in actual transmutation. True alchemy requires alteration of the atom's nucleus: adding or subtracting protons changes one element into another, while changing the number of neutrons alters the atom's stability. Since Ernest Rutherford split the atom in 1919, we've known that bombarding atoms with particles (neutrons or protons) can change one element into another. In the past, this has been done with nuclear reactors or particle accelerators, but the gold to mercury experiment was accomplished by means of the most powerful laser in the world, "Vulcan", housed at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.

A timeline of the history of alchemy:

1900 BC -- Egyptian "Emerald Tablet" teaches that all form is a manifestation of one root

AD 250 -- Greek alchemist proposes that all matter is composed of the four elements (fire, water, air, and earth)

750 -- Egyptian alchemist proposes the idea of the philosopher's stone: a substance believed to be capable of performing transmutation of base metals into gold

16th century -- European alchemists split into two groups. One group focuses on the metaphysical aspects of alchemy. The other group pursued discovery of new compounds, leading to the science of chemistry

18th century -- Alchemy as a subject of study fades into obscurity

1919 -- Ernest Rutherford bombarded nitrogen with alpha particles, converting it to oxygen

1932 -- lithium atoms split into helium atom by means of bombardment with protons produced in an accelerator

1934 -- First demonstration of artificial radioactivity

1940 -- Creation of neptunium: the first element heavier than uranium

2000 -- Uranium split by means of a laser

2003 -- Gold transmuted to mercury, and oxygen to fluorine by means of a laser