Science in the Green
For an effective account of the subject handled in this report, a short consideration of the historical background of this subject is necessary.
The development of present day chemistry depends on the recognition of a number of quantitative rules, of which the first and most fundamental is the law of the indestructibility of matter [otherwise known as the law of the conservation of matter]. Its first formulation is attributed to Lavoisier (1789), who considered it to be an axiom. One may probably assume that the idea already lived in a less finished form with a number of earlier thinkers.
A second, already earlier generally considered fundamental truth, concerned the existence of a limited number of raw materials, the chemical elements (Boyle, 1661). The idea of the indestructibility of matter, in general, was directly linked by Lavoisier to the idea of elements. In his original formulation of the first law two statements are combined:
1. In a closed system wherein chemical processes take place, the total weight of matter (thus of all substances together) is invariable ("nothing is created"):
2. The total weight of each of the elements, from which the substances are composed, is equally unchangeable ("nothing takes place other than changes and modifications in the combinations of the elements").
By means of this last expression transmutations, that is the changing of elements into each other, are in fact prevented.
It is worth noting that the experimental proof for Lavoisier's law only refers to the first part of his formulation: he established from a number of inorganic and organic processes that the total weight remained constant. This limited number of experiments became the only evidence for the entire law during the whole of the nineteenth century. By the end of this period Landolt (1897) with the utmost accurate weighing confirmed the invariability of chemical reactions, once again only for the total weight: he excluded errors to more than 1 part in 10^6. Later Manly (1913) improved the accuracy to 1 in 10^8.
Meanwhile conceptions about the structure of matter were conceived whereby the aforementioned researches could almost be viewed as superfluous. Originating from Dalton, the representation of atoms as the building blocks of matter took the subject by storm. Whilst scientists had no clear image of what happened with the formation of a chemical bond, the now familiar proposition was developed of a number of unchangeable particles, of a different nature for each element, which arrange themselves in space in a specified manner. The atoms became thought of as extremely small and, for each atom, identical to each other. It was possible with the aid of this extremely simple proposition to give a reasonable explanation of the quantitative chemical laws.
In relation to the following it is important to point out that, however important the atomic proposal is for the quantitative handling of the chemical processes, the qualities of the elements and their bondings are pushed strongly into the background, so much so that our attention has become removed from the empirically observable, remarkable infinite multitude of chemical compounds.
In the beginning of the 20th century facts became known such that the conception of the absolute unchangeability of matter, and thus also the immutability of the atom, was thrown to the ground. The discovery found it's origin in the borderland between physics and chemistry: it was determined that with some, mostly heavy elements, radiation was emitted which was linked to a change in the chemical character of the studied element. For these so called radioactive elements the term transmutation first became established. In the course of time it was found that these elements go through a disintegration process which, via a number of intermediaries (elements whose identity could be demonstrated), ends with a stable element, normally lead. These processes occur with a loss of mass, partly in the form of so called radioactive particles (alpha and beta-particles) and also as pure electromagnetic radiation.
From this discovery it is to be concluded that the law of the conservation of mass in Lavoisier's original formulation only applies to non radioactive elements. Because mass is now viewed as a form of energy [Einstein's famous E=mc^2], the fundamental law remains as the conservation of (total) energy for all material changes, including those of a radioactive nature.
The character of the radioactive phenomena - their independence of temperature and other outer circumstances and the fact that they remain uninfluenced by the chemical transitions that the respective elements undergo - leads one, for their further understanding, towards a deeper layer of matter from that in which chemistry normally plays. The atomic conception arises once again from the pressures of explanation; there were (besides radioactivity) many other facts that lead to the acceptance of a structure for the atom with a nucleus as the seat of the radioactive disintegration and an orbital shell which plays the main role in it's normal chemical behaviour.
In a following phase of research it appeared that radioactivity is not limited in nature to elements that are apparent exceptions but that they are also capable of being induced in the most stable elements by artificial means, by bombarding them with radioactive particles.
Thus a new chemistry has been developed, atomic chemistry, whereby enormous quantities of energy are given into human hands; the atomic era has been created.
The previous rough overview of the development of the materialistic viewpoint, developed since about 1800, led to the conclusion that the present-day conception of the atom has reached a point where no more principle changes can be made.
This conception appears particularly to have persisted in the didactic of chemistry. Presently the atomic view is simply taken as the primary given and it thereby completely ignores the means, through the chemical laws, by which this conception was reached. An open consideration of the attained endpoint, that still permits another way of thinking, appears impossible because the thought up image is already fixed in the mind of the student after even a basic introduction to chemistry.
Nevertheless there is evidence of a vague and basic realisation that our current knowledge is derived from older conceptions of matter; that there were once individuals who worked with sources of knowledge that have since been lost. Thus, shortly after the discovery of radioactivity the associated transmutations were mostly greeted as the "realisation of the dreams of the alchemists".
This refers to older ideas that are no longer taken seriously because they are not the results of experiments in the present-day meaning of the word. If one ignores the period of rampant charlatanism in alchemy [involving material gain through the attempt to convert base metals into gold] there follows, from the little that is known about alchemistic transmutations, the greatest of contrasts between the alchemy of then and now. Nowadays it is - at least in principle - a clear process with the input of extremely great energy and an apparatus of overwhelming dimensions, whilst the human involvement with the process is as insignificant as possible - at that time it was a method of working only accessible for particular, prepared people and which required exceptional intensive human input, with a minimum of external means of help [see section 10 and appendix].