The Anti-Alchemy of Particle Accelerators

One of the most popular pseudosciences in history was converting lead into gold, because pseudoscience is always about making money from the dull by not understanding how things really work. As with many ancient sillinesses technology has now double-enabled us to both do it, and to realize it’s not worth the effort.

The idea that elements are all made of the same parts and can be transmuted from one to the other turned out to be true. The problem is that smashing lead down to gold consumes far too much person-time and energy, both of which are far more useful than gold. In fact the original lead is considerably useful than gold (by a factor of four thousand in terms of annual global production). Especially when you discount imaginary applications like “this shiny stuff is more valuable than other shiny stuffs”.

Which is why I love the wonderful coincidence of superscience with antiquated bullshit: the RHIC and ALICE particle accelerators use gold and lead ions. High-energy alchemical colliders, converting both the most noble and base metals into understanding of the universe.

The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider uses gold not just because they’re heavy ions, which is kind of its thing, but because gold only has one stable isotope. (An isotope is another version of the same element with more or fewer neutrons – chemically identical, but it changes all the nuclear math). Which makes it relatively easy to know that all your gold nuclei are exactly the same. Because when you’re colliding hundreds of particles at 99.995% the speed of light, you don’t want the answers to be wrong because an ion added an extra one at the start.

At the Large Hadron Collider, A Large Ion Collider Experiment uses lead ions because they’re bigger, and bigger is better even at the subatomic level. The lead ion is the biggest stable ion there is, and it’s a double-magic number: both the protons and neutrons are arranged in perfectly filled spherical shells, making it a double-magic nucleus and as spherical as possible to simplify the collision calculations.

Leading to my two favorite things about this:

  1. Science enabling the word “magic” to actually mean something real and important, something which permeates everything, but something that most people still can’t see even though it’s all around and through us.
  2. The most sophisticated machine in the universe as we know it treats things as spheres to make the math easier.

The result is the exact inverse of alchemy: instead of failing to convert material due to lack of understanding, we convert material into understanding directly.


Superscience continues with

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