The Science of Reverse Alchemy

I’ve been doing some volunteer science consulting for amateur writers over on Wattpad for a bit of fun and practice. It’s a neat gig because I get questions I could never imagine having to answer from authors with wildly varied ages and backgrounds. I thought the MAL audience would enjoy some of the discussion, so I am going to start sharing some of the chapters here.

Question from KylanMCrawford: In my book, Golden Tree, there is a tree made out of gold that has a stone in it that brings it to life, what I want to know, is that scientifically possible? If you can’t answer it, then I can make something up.

This is a wonderful question because it brings out some of the limits of chemistry, and the possibilities of nuclear physics.

The short answer, is no. I don’t think there is a way for something that looks like a stone, to turn a tree made out of literal gold into a living tree. However, the reasons might be interesting for you.

First, trees are very complicated. They have millions or billions of living cells, complex structures that make up their wood and bark, leaves, buds, sap, and roots. Within each cell there are hundreds of chemicals. Some of those chemicals are very complicated, themselves. Tree DNA, for example, has trillions of atoms which all have to be assembled perfectly in every living cell of the tree.

Being complicated isn’t what makes this impossible, though. We can imagine a rock that contains all of the information needed to describe every tiny part of a tree and how to put it together. Our first really big hurdle is the speed of chemistry.

Chemical reactions happen at a pretty set rate. There isn’t really a good way to speed them up. You can add a bit of energy, and that will speed it up a little, but put too much in and the chemical reactions will change.

It’s like the turning up the heat on your stove. Turn it up a little and your food will cook faster, turn it up a lot and it will catch fire. So even if we have all the right materials and can get them in the right place, it’s gonna take a while to actually be able to assemble everything perfectly, and it might be hard to keep them in good condition while everything else gets put together. Life is pretty delicate.

The really big problem, though, is getting those materials.

The tree you asked about is made of gold, actual gold. As in the same stuff wedding rings and jewelry are made of.

Trees are not typically made of gold. They are mostly made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, with a bunch of other ingredients.

The challenge you face is trying to turn gold into carbon. This is the reverse problem to what alchemists used to try to solve. They wanted to turn lead, and other boring substances, into gold.

What they discovered after a lot of failure, is that it’s impossible. Gold is an element, just like oxygen, helium, carbon, lead, iron, and one-hundred and twelve others. Elements are what everything is made of. Water, for example, has two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen (H2O) and table salt is half sodium and half chlorine (NaCl).

The thing about elements is that they can’t really be modified. Elements are formed inside stars. It takes the huge mass and energy of a star to turn hydrogen (the simplest element) into heavier ones. Anything heavier than iron needs a supernova to get made.

That is to say, a star needed to explode for the gold in your tree to get formed.

Now it is technically possible to turn your gold back into other elements. You can use a process called fission. This is what nuclear bombs and power plants use, splitting uranium or plutonium atoms.

There are some challenges with trying the this with gold.

First, gold is very stable. It would take an incredible amount of very focused energy to split the gold atoms. The other issue is that if you succeeded, the process would release a lot of heat and radiation, which would kill any of the cells you were trying to build out of the material you were making, and probably everything for quite some distance around it.

When I’m talking a lot of energy, I mean like a nuclear bomb, or a power-plant meltdown kind of energy. Turning all of the rock and sand around it into glass and melting a hole a mile into the earth kind of energy.

All is not entirely lost, though.

Remember how I said trees were mostly made of carbon?

So are diamonds.

Diamonds are pure carbon, arranged in a very specific crystal structure. That is something you can change with chemistry, and not have to resort to nuclear physics to solve. I don’t know that there’s an actual scientific method for turning a diamond tree into a living one, but it’s a lot easier and less radioactive than doing it with gold.



Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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