Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Журналист, писатель, бард. Обладатель «Бриллиантовой совы» интеллектуальной игры «Что? Где? Когда?»
Science
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DISCLOSURES IN SCIENCE: Gold from Silver and Stock Market Games

DISCLOSURES IN SCIENCE: Gold from Silver and Stock Market Games
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Art-design: huxley.media via Photoshop based on René Magritte’s painting «Portrait of Steffi Langui», 1961

 

Stephen Emmens (1844–1903) was long regarded as a serious scientist. At one time, he even gained fame as the inventor of an explosive named after himself, «emmensite», whose main component was picric acid.

However, he tried to claim that he had created an entirely new chemical compound, which turned out to be the same picric acid discovered by Irish chemist Peter Woulfe back in 1771.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, picric acid (known as melinite in France and shimose in Japan) became a sensation among arms manufacturers due to its explosive power, which far surpassed that of gunpowder. Despite the setback of his originality claims being dismissed, Emmens, driven by his longing for fame, remained undeterred and sought another path to achieve recognition.

 

PRETENDING TO BE SCIENCE

 

About two hundred years ago, science did not so much defeat pseudoscience — because that seems impossible — but gained a particular advantage. This victory’s signs are evident in the fact that blatant pseudoscience less frequently calls itself magic or esotericism. Instead, its proponents cunningly proclaim themselves as natural scientists, inventing pseudo-scientific names ending in «logy» and «metric» for their theories and condemning their critics for being unscientific.

Of course, the most endearing miracle workers and enchanters, like the former railway conductor who appears on screen in a white terrycloth bathrobe and holding a candle, are well-remembered, but that’s more of a performance art. For a long time now, the goal of the pseudoscientist hasn’t been to shame or disprove the natural scientist but to convince the audience that he is the true scientist.

Just keep in mind: a pseudoscientist is not someone who asserts erroneous things. A scientist can also make honest mistakes. However, an error can always be clarified and shown to contradict the facts — once acknowledged, it is abandoned. Even great scientists, including Einstein, made mistakes.

But when Einstein saw that the facts supported the claims of the little-known Alexander Friedmann rather than his theories, he admitted he was wrong. He did not dismiss the criticism outright, falsify experimental results, or obfuscate the matter with a stream of empty rhetoric, as pseudoscientists do.

 

Стивен Эмменс
Steven Emmens / borderlandsciences.org

 

EVERYONE WANTS GOLD

 

Many earnest scientists conducted experiments in an attempt to unlock the mystery of producing gold. Given its rarity, high value, and significant utility, the pursuit of gold was understandably attractive. Generally, these efforts were unsuccessful, but the scientists openly acknowledged their failures and persisted in their attempts.

However, some individuals claiming to produce gold from other materials occasionally succeeded — usually, those who demonstrated the secrets of this miraculous transmutation to the powerful and influential. It often turned out that they employed highly unusual methods — such as coating a golden nail with iron and then extracting gold from it, or pouring molten gold into a hollow piece of coal to later extract gold from anything using it, or performing similar tricks, sometimes even in the presence of royalty.

Occasionally, an unwary pseudoscientist was caught red-handed and executed, sometimes hanging on a gilded gallows. Monarchs were only sometimes gullible and often required proof of authenticity. Given the high stakes, the temptation to deceive was understandably intense.

Of course, in the enlightened 19th century, such proposals to gullible and naive clients vanished. Not quite… As late as 1800, renowned chemist Christoph Girtanner seriously claimed that in the new century, every chemist would learn to make gold and even kitchen utensils would be made of gold!

In the mid-19th century, the Frenchman Théodore Tiffereau claimed to have discovered that copper and silver could turn into gold under sunlight. Experiments in Paris, however, failed to replicate his findings. Later, three alchemists — two Italians and a Spaniard — promised Emperor Franz Joseph I to reveal the secret of making gold for 40,000,000 guilders. Despite being given the money, their results dwindled once the skeptical emperor increased oversight.

 

YELLOW SILVER

 

The intriguing story I want to share begins with a genuine, though not grand, discovery by a serious American scientist named Matthew Carey Lea. He was a persistent and versatile researcher, primarily focused on the chemistry of photography, and achieved significant results.

While studying colloidal silver, the main component of light-sensitive materials at the time, he discovered an exciting form of silver that had a yellow color — seemingly silver, but it looked like gold! Lea did not place much significance on this fact, as he knew that different forms of the same substance, like diamond, graphite, and soot, can look completely different even though they are all pure carbon.

Carey Lea was quite reclusive and spent most of his life at work, possibly because he was disfigured during a laboratory explosion that left him blind in one eye. The blast was caused by picric acid, which is the only connection between the biographies of Carey Lea and Emmens.

However, Emmens promoted an entirely different version: He claimed that Carey Lea was the precursor to his great discovery and that Lea’s yellow silver was just the first step in transforming silver into another metal — also yellow and much more valuable.

 

Мэтью Кэри Ли (18 августа 1823 — 15 марта 1897) — американский химик, известный своими исследованиями химических и физических свойств галоидных солей серебра и их использования в фотографии
Matthew Carey Lea (August 18, 1823 — March 15, 1897) was an American chemist known for his research into the chemical and physical properties of haloid salts of silver and their use in photography / sciencehistory.org

 

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FAITH IN MIRACLES

 

On April 13, 1897, Emmens visited the New York Mint and offered to sell them six ingots of metal he had brought with him. Mint officials recognized the metal as genuine gold and paid him $954 in cash. Emmens loudly claimed that all noble metals differ primarily in density: platinum is denser than gold, and gold is denser than silver.

If silver is densified correctly, it becomes gold — it’s that simple! Or perhaps not precisely gold; Emmens mentioned an intermediate metal he called «argentaurum» (from the Latin for silver, «argentum», and gold, «aurum»). He even suggested that this metal deserved a place in the newly discovered Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements. This was the metal that the Mint officials purchased as gold. Emmens assured them he would bring more soon!

The scientific community was not quick to believe Emmens. They demanded that he explain how he densified silver into gold so his experiments could be repeated and verified. Emmens claimed that it was simple — silver, like everything else, densifies if beaten with particular blows that do not heat the substance at all.

People thought this was impossible, but Emmens claimed to have mastered it and promised to reveal the process once he patented his invention to prevent theft. Meanwhile, he opened the office of his «Argentaurum» syndicate at 20 Central Avenue, New York, an expensive area.

He shows everyone the mint’s receipts for the gold he sold (though nowhere on the receipts does it state that Emmens produced this gold from silver rather than obtaining it elsewhere). Each month, he sells another couple of gold bars to the mint, weighing between 200 grams and half a kilogram, and awaits the results.

 

5 авеню — центральная улица Нью-Йорка, 1900 год
Fifth Avenue — The Central Street of New York, 1900 / loc.gov

 

OPINIONS OF AUTHORITIES

 

Even Mendeleev himself intervened, publishing a polite and calm article titled «Gold from Silver». In it, he stated that he would recognize Emmens’s discovery if it were proven through scientific experiments. He suggested that if Emmens did not want to disclose his secrets, he could perform the reverse process, turning gold into silver. According to Emmens’s theories, this should be much simpler than converting silver into gold.

However, Emmens did not proceed with this suggestion. Instead, he created a scientific society that promised substantial rewards to authors of articles that supported his ideas, offering medals made of Argentaureum, practically gold. He also published a book on his theory, promising $10,000 to anyone who could find an error in it.

But how could one find an error if Emmens’ experiments remained a secret? Emmens spoke loudly and enthusiastically about Carey Lee’s experiments. He claimed that Lee had already obtained yellow silver, and if he had hammered it a bit more without heating it, it would have turned into Argentaureum.

The renowned physicist Sir William Crookes agreed to verify Emmens’ work. Following Emmens’ recommendations, Crookes ground a Mexican silver dollar into powder and placed it in a unique steel cylinder cooled with dry ice. He then pounded it with a special piston at a frequency of one strike per second for an extended period.

As a result, the gold content in the silver of this Mexican dollar increased from 0.062% to 0.075%. Does this mean Emmens was right? No, of course not: the difference was within the experimental error margin, meaning it didn’t indicate anything significant. Crookes immediately lost interest in the matter while Emmens celebrated — after all, the percentage had increased, not decreased!

 

Уильям Крукс — (17 июня 1832 — 4 апреля 1919) — английский химик и физик. Крукс вошел в историю как человек, открывший таллий и впервые получивший гелий в лабораторных условиях
William Crookes (June 17, 1832 — April 4, 1919) was an English chemist and physicist. Crookes is historically significant for his discovery of thallium and for being the first to produce helium in a laboratory setting. / wikipedia.org

 

THE CRUCIAL TEST

 

In February 1899, an article in the «New York Herald» posed the question: «This man makes gold and sells it to the treasury! Can he show a commission of citizens the process by which he makes gold?» Emmens declared that there was no problem; he would gladly convert 100,000 ounces of silver, more than 3 tons, into gold!

However, the director of the mint sharply refused to participate, and even the invited Nikola Tesla declined to get involved. But so what? If Emmens can turn 3 tons of silver into gold in front of the public, all doubts will vanish. If he fails, it will become clear that this is all a deception and pseudoscience. What will the outcome be?

It turned out to be nothing — everything was quietly brushed under the carpet. Emmens did not produce any gold, and there were even rumors that the police were interested in his scientific activities. After it became clear that he was not going to substantiate his theories with experiments, he lived for about four more years and died disgraced and discredited.

Speculations began to emerge about where Emmens was obtaining the gold he sold to the treasury and promised to sell to others at a price slightly lower than the official rate. There are suspicions that a gang of thieves was involved in his operations, melting down stolen gold items and investing the resulting gold in Emmens’ schemes.

You might wonder why they didn’t just sell the stolen gold directly. Not exactly…

 

AND WHO NEEDED THIS?

 

In those years, the United States operated under the so-called bimetallic system, where both silver and gold served as the standard of value. This approach needed to be revised because it required establishing a fixed ratio between the two metals. As conditions changed, this ratio would fluctuate, triggering the well-known Gresham’s Law: bad money drives out good money, leading to economic difficulties.

At that time, silver prices had fallen due to the discovery of new, cheaper methods of extraction. How could shares in silver mines be sold under these conditions? Rumors about Emmens’ success led to an increase in silver prices. Those who knew it was a scam and could wait ended up making large profits on the stock exchange. Was this a coincidence, or did Emmens act deliberately to benefit speculators who quickly sold inflated silver when gold prices fell? There is no direct evidence, but it seems highly likely…

So be cautious — pseudo-scientific claims often arise not because people genuinely believe in them but because they serve someone’s interests. Do you think such cases are impossible today? Not at all! Expect to see examples of pseudo-scientific jargon from pseudo-scientists, the gullibility of the masses, especially the press, and, after the exposure of the following scam, a general bewilderment with the inevitable question: «How could anyone believe this?»

Stephen Emmens also impacted the economy of a huge country, and it wasn’t immediately clear that his claims were a hoax. It’s crucial to identify the next Emmens in time — there are many, and they will continue to surprise the world.

 

LITERATURE

 

  • Klaus Hofmann. «Can Gold Be Made?» L., «Chemistry», 1987, 244 pages.
  • I. Shumeyko. «Dmitry Mendeleev and the Last Alchemist in History». Independent Newspaper, 27.04.21

 


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