English | ISBN: 9783741869334 | 910 pages | 2016 | EPUB | 8 MB
While preparing to carve an unusual sculpture from a stump in his front yard, a professor of physics is interrupted by two first-year students at the university where he teaches. When the students ask him about his project, the professor describes the future sculpture as a three-dimensional representation of the way a sample of each chemical element reacts when high pressure is applied to it. That is not at all what the students were expecting to hear. They somewhat reluctantly agree to sign up for a consultation hour with the professor so that he can explain the concept in greater detail.
When the professor describes his research in the area of high-pressure solid-state-physics as “modern alchemy”, the students are hooked! One of them has been contemplating a career in science or technology, the other is planning to concentrate on liberal arts and philosophy. This appears to be a unique opportunity that offers something for each of them and a chance to expand their common knowledge and friendship.
During the consultation period, the professor and the students review the history of medieval alchemy as the basis for modern science. They compare the challenges faced by the ancient philosophers and scientific theorists to the obstacles modern scientists must overcome to gain wide-spread acceptance of new knowledge. The students eagerly sign up for more of the professor’s office hours.
During one of the subsequent sessions, the professor introduces the students to his version of a modern alchemist’s “philosopher’s stone”, a device with which he is able to change the properties of the elements and make them take on the character of other, often quite dissimilar elements. The students agree to meet with the professor on regular basis to learn more about modern material science, a subject that neither of them had expected to encounter as part of their undergraduate education.
Over a period of several months, the professor leads the two undergraduate students, plus one of his new graduate students, on a series of exploratory “journeys” down each principle column of the Periodic Table of the Elements. He also takes them on “side Trips” along the horizontal rows of the Table that contain the transition elements, the lanthanoides and the actinoides. They compare the behavior of different groups of elements to discover relationships that contrast, in some cases, to the traditional assignment of elements in the Periodic Table. The three students converse among themselves to clarify for each other some of the more “mystical” modern ideas that the professor introduces along the way; e.g., quantum chemistry and quantum theory of solids.
At no time, however, does the professor resort to formal, mathematical theory to predict the outcome of their circumnavigation of the “world of high pressure”. Like that of the ancient alchemists, the students’ learning is based primarily upon observation. But, by the end of their “journey”, even the younger two are able to explain the essential features of the professor’s now completed sculpture to their less “well-travelled” friends.
In the end, the students are left with a genuine sense of achievement at havi8ng observed the natural world in a way that few others have. They feel “enlightened” in the true alchemical sense of the word and ready to begin their own individual journey into the modern world of science and philosophy.