My “Metal of the Week is Mercury”
I am known as Hg and my atomic number is 80.
My atomic mass is 121
I have 6 levels of energy
I have seven stable isotopes
I am heavy, silvery and a liquid at room temperature.
I am the only liquid metal
I am poisonous and dangerous
I am used for external alchemy
I’ve been curious about Mercury’s ancient alchemical uses which I’ve heard about in Taoism but never understood. I am curious about whether Mercury was more of a symbol for transformation or if it was used…. I also thought it was interesting that it’s the only metal that’s a “liquid.”
Wikipedia tells some history: Mercury was known to the ancient Chinese and was thought to prolong life, heal fractures, and maintain generally good health. One of China’s emperors, Qín Shǐ Huáng Dì was killed by drinking a mercury and powdered Jade mixture (causing liver failure, poisoning, and brain death) intended to give him eternal life. My thought in reading this was who knows where his death led him.
Alchemists seem to have been very interested in the actual transformation/transmutation of mercury into gold. Wikipedia accounts that “Alchemists often thought of mercury as the First Matter from which all metals were formed. They believed that different metals could be produced by varying the quality and quantity of sulfur contained within the mercury.”
I did some research on if anyone had converted mercury into gold and there have been a few successful experiments as well as unsuccessful experiments. In July of 1924, Drs. Miethe and Stammreich announced that they had changed mercury into gold in a high-tension mercury vapor lamp. The experiment produced $1 of gold at a cost of $60,000, equivalent to over $2 million (gold then sold for $330/lb). I’m wondering if Taoist alchemists were really into this literal practice or if it was symbolic of internal alchemy.
But further research showed that many scientific studies have been done without any evidence that the conversion into Gold is actually possible. But in an alchemy website that researched this, it was admitted “that a transmutation of mercury atoms into gold atoms is a theoretical possibility. The internal structures of the two atoms are similar. The removal of one unit of positive electric charge from the nucleus of a mercury atom, or the insertion of one additional electron into this atomic nucleus would result, it is believed, in the conversion of the mercury atom into an atom indistinguishable from the ordinary atoms of gold. … it remains entirely possible that one of these changes of atomic structure can be accomplished by some physical or chemical method yet to be discovered…”
The Taoists seemed to be pursuing this alchemy for spiritual reasons. Another Wikipedia article that discusses Taoist alchemy, explains that “by refining bases into gold, the alchemist believed that immortal life would be delivered if the “fake” or synthetic gold was ingested. The idea that fake gold was superior to real gold arose because the alchemists believed the combination of a variety of substances (and the transformation of these substances through roasting or burning) gave the final substance a spiritual value.”
2 thoughts on “Week 3: Metal of the Week”
Very interesting. Thank you for taking the element and discussing it’s background in the Taoist world. The process of Alchemy seems to be very secret in many ways. While doing Qigong one can put the tongue on the roof of the mouth and after time you build up saliva and it is said that it is an elixir. Throughout the years I have found myself demystifying these concepts and bringing it into my everyday life. It seems that our body is always undergoing an alchemical change. A simple example of the food we eat turning into energy. Well it is possible to go further with it and discuss getting energy from the air and sun and not consuming food. Yet no matter how far we take it it is happening. I understand the interest Taoism took to this process of alchemy and yet I wonder if we have forgotten what is already in front of us?
I second Amanda. Fascinating glimpse into the art of alchemy. Frankly, I wish we touched on more of this stuff in class! I wonder what sort of chemical process could cause mercury to lose a proton or gain an electron, and if this new atom would be stable enough?