Alchemy tradition and imagination (Image: Giger)Alchemy. Beginning from 500 B.C. amongst the early Greek and Egyptian learners, though the Medieval Age and Hermetic tradition, to Sir Isaac Newton, the passion for alchemy has spurred science, art, and imagination. Gold represented perfection among metals, and alchemy was the metallurgy for man to create gold.

Research scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have published their Great Work. They discovered the Magnum Opus – the process that melds an alchemical substance into gold. The process is collision and merge, and then release of gamma ray bursts. The alchemical substances – a.k.a. The Philosopher’s Stone – are super-dense neutron stars.

Artist rendition of neutron stars colliding and merging

Collisions of neutron stars produce powerful gamma-ray bursts – and heavy elements like gold (Image credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.)

Edo Berger, associate professor of astronomy at Harvard University, and his colleagues examined a gamma ray burst 3.9 billion light-years away, detected on June 3, 2013 by NASA’s Swift satellite. The gamma ray burst (GRB), called GRB 130603B, resulted from the collision of two neutron stars (the dead cores of stars that have earlier exploded as supernovae). Astronomers studied the GRB using a telescope in Chile about eight hours after the event and continued to observe through the Hubble Space Telescope nine days later. The Hubble observations of the aftermath of the GRB revealed a glow in infrared light that appears effected by heavy elements, some of which are radioactive.

“Call it the golden glow,” Berger says. “In this case, we were able to observe it for the first time and see how the merger seems to be producing (the) heavy elements.”

“The presence of this infrared glow tells us heavy elements were produced, with gold representing 10 parts per million of this material,” Berger said. “We estimate that the amount of gold produced and ejected during the merger of the two neutron stars may be as large as 10 moon masses – quite a lot of bling!”

The origin of gold and other heavy elements in the universe has been debated for decades. The leading theory proposed supernovae explosions were cosmic factories that enabled the synthesis of gold. Science News reports that in the 1970s, James Lattimer, of Stony Brook University in New York, was among those suggesting neutron star collisions produced gold and other heavy metals. Back then, observations of neutron stars were few, computers were slow, and the theoretical model somewhat crude. Even with the CfA findings of Berger’s team, more findings in the future will be needed, Lattimer says.

Earth’s gold has this origin. The age old quest for the secret of alchemy is solved. The Ancients were not so far off in their fantastic philosophy.

Neutron Star Collision and Gamma Ray Burst Discovery – From NASA Astrophysics and Goddard Space Flight Center.