What’s the matter, or what’s matter?

For centuries alchemists, not to be confused with chemists, sought what they called the “philosopher’s stone” to turn other metals into gold, and also to give immortality. It was not modern science, which tells us what is really possible or impossible. Image available from Wikimedia Commons

I thought of proposing to my girlfriend with a lump of coal, but she wanted a diamond ring. Coal and diamonds are both identical carbon atoms just arranged differently. In coal, a random jumble, and in a diamond, a crystalline lattice.

Here’s a homework problem for you budding scientists: Figure out how to turn coal into big beautiful diamonds and get very rich.

What about turning carbon into gold? For centuries alchemists, not to be confused with chemists, sought what they called the “philosopher’s stone” to turn other metals into gold, and also to give immortality. Harry Potter had to keep it out of Voldemort’s hands, which makes a great story. But the philosophers’ Magnum Opus, their Great Work, came to nothing. It was not modern science, which tells us what is really possible or impossible.

Deep down, all the matter you know about – gold, diamonds, yourself – is made of only three particles in different arrangements. Carbon atoms have a tiny cluster, or nucleus, of six protons and six neutrons surrounded by a cloud of six electrons. Gold has 79 protons; hydrogen has one. Scientists can break a gold nucleus into fragments, including carbon. That is called nuclear fission, but turning carbon into gold doesn’t work, except …

The universe came into being 13.7 billion years ago, with the Big Bang. In the beginning the only elements were hydrogen, helium (two protons) and lithium (three). The English astronomer Fred Hoyle figured out how the first carbon nuclei are made in stars. All metals, including gold, are also made only in stars, which explode and blast them into space. Planets like Earth form later from the debris. We are all made of stardust.

Science is a never-ending story. Physicists discovered that protons and neutrons are made of two types of smaller particles called quarks. All matter (except dark matter) is made of three different particles, called up quarks, down quarks and electrons. Two other types of quarks were discovered at Fermilab, celebrating its 50th birthday this year.

This is a version of an article that first appeared in Positively Naperville.