The Discredited Dream of Cold Fusion

Most view alchemy as a proto-science and precursor to modern chemistry. Alchemists established a practical set of rules for carrying out reliable experimentation and documenting result. They accurately described the properties of many elements and a great many chemical compounds. But alchemists had no knowledge of quantum physics, or any kind of physics for that matter. They knew nothing about force or mechanics. It would have been beyond them to describe the chemical behavior of materials with any degree of veracity. This has been the traditional view of western science toward its quaint, backward ancestor. Be that as it may, there are fields of contemporary science in which alchemy is still practiced, it’s just that it isn’t called that. High velocity particle colliders, for example, force atoms or parts of atoms to coalesce under intense pressure, thus resulting in a new material. For a while during the 20th century, materials engineers experimented with converting platinum to gold, and to some extent succeeded. At a fundamental level, the exploration of nuclear fusion is an alchemical enterprise wherein the isotope of one element—typically hydrogen—is combined with another to create a new substance—helium.

The history of nuclear fusion is no less mysterious and beguiling than medieval alchemy. Scientists have long been able to trigger atomic fusion with tremendous amounts of energy, usually caused by a nuclear chain reaction initiated by splitting an atom. In 1989, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann reported that they had managed to effect a fusion event in low energy conditions, a process termed cold fusion. In a modest tabletop experiment, which the two electrochemists built and paid for themselves, they energized a pool of heavy water on the surface of a palladium electrode. They claimed a reaction occurred which produced a small but significant amount of excess heat that lasted for several days after the initial reaction. Pons and Fleishmann had essentially created energy from almost nothing. The commercial implications were staggering. Announcement of their result ignited a frenzy of interest both in the scientific community and in popular media. Laboratories around the world scrambled to reproduce the experiment. The first groups to report back validated the results and confirmed that they too were able to produce excess heat and neutron production. In April of 1989 it appeared that all of human life was about to change. Energy would be free and easy to produce. The most basic and inexorable stricture placed on our common existence was about to be lifted. The potential was boundless. But after these first positive corroborations from Texas A&M and Georgia Institute of Technology, there followed an avalanche of European labs that failed to reproduce Pons and Fleischmann’s results. Georgia Tech retracted their findings just a week after publishing. By the end of the year, dozens of labs had performed the Pons-Fleishmann experiment and not one was able to produce excess heat. The experiment was deemed invalid by the scientific establishment and most scientists lost interest. However, for commercial and governmental entities cold fusion was too tantalizing to abandon. Toyota hired Pons and Fleishmann to lead their IMRA lab and continue their investigations into cold fusion. The state of Utah invested $4.5 million to create the National Cold Fusion Institute. Within a couple of years both initiatives were discontinued without having produced any tangible results.

In the 20 years since Pons and Fleishmann’s paper, governments and institutions have continued investing modest sums into cold fusion research. Japan and India have opened and closed and opened again several laboratories devoted to atomic fusion. Film producer Sidney Kimmel recently donated $5.5 million to the University of Missouri for the establishment of the Sidney Kimmel Institute for Nuclear Renaissance to support continued experimentation based on Pons and Fleishmann’s methods. Now and then, amateur scientists avow that they have successfully produced a cold fusion event and struggle to get their work published in peer-reviewed journals. In 2011 an Italian inventor named Andrea Rossi invented a machine which he claims produces heat with cold fusion. Rossi calls his machine the Energy Catalyzer, or E-Cat for short. The Italian government issued him a patent for the device on April 6 of 2011. The scientific community has been encouraging of Rossi’s innovation, but scientists who have seen the specification that Rossi has provided say that the reactions the device causes are not physically possible. The United States Patent Office receives patent requests routinely for cold fusion machines. As a policy they reject these requests on the grounds that they do not work.

Restorers of Alchemical Manuscripts

Allow me to introduce you to the digital library of the Restorers of Alchemical Manuscripts Society (RAMS). Based out of suburban Dallas, RAMS offers pdf downloads of a number of rare and apparently powerful alchemical texts for the low, low price of 54 American dollars. These manuscripts appear to be lesser works by un-famous magicians of the Renaissance. When it comes to books of alchemy and conjuring, most of the good stuff is owned by libraries and museums, but the texts that RAMS has collected and made available are probably quite useful to present-day practicing alchemists looking for experiments to try out in their garages/laboratories. By far the best text in RAMS’s collection is the Golden Chain of Homer, which is a comprehensive guide to all of the earth’s primary substances, with explanation of their make-up, their alteration and their destruction.

Most RAMS texts appear to have been translated into English from Latin or another continental European languages. One couldn’t really say this alternative expression in another language constitutes a corruption of the work since most of the ideas found in books of alchemy were lifted from other works which themselves were translated into a modern tongues from Arabic or Greek. And it was probably the case that the Arabian alchemists were deriving their methods from Sanskrit texts from India and the Greek from the Egyptians and the Babylonians. For example, two of the most important books of alchemy, the Turba Philosophorum and the Picatrix, were translated from Arabic into Latin around the 12th or 13th century. The Turba Philosophorum is one of the first alchemical texts available to Europeans. It is supposed to contain the wisdom of Pythagoras. In effect, it introduced many of the key themes of alchemy such as transmutation and neoplatonistic doctrine to a European audience. The Picatrix is said to be a guide to symbolistic magic and a comprehensive summation of Arabian sorcery. Both texts are manuscripts sit today in the British Library.

Of course, the most mysterious Achemist texts are written in secret languages such as Gematria, Temura, and Notariqon. These were encrypted works that alchemists would draft only for each other to see. We have found instructions for decoding many of these shadow languages, some remain indecipherable. The most famous of these is the Voynich Manuscript. Written in a specialized script and containing confusing illustrations of non-existent flora and fauna, it is the best-known unread book in the world.

Hats off to the Yale’s Beinecke Rare Books Library for having the generosity and wherewithal to digitize this extremely rare book and making it freely available on the web. Perhaps some renegade scholar somewhere will use their lovely manuscript site to crack the Voynich’s code.

Forgotten Technology: Damascus Steel

The protoscience that we know as alchemy—the admixture of various substances with the purpose of producing a new substance with different properties—made its way to Europe by way of the Arab world. The Arabs acquired their knowledge of alchemy in their conquest of Persia. And the Persian learned it from their neighbors to the south in India. It was never a secret to the nations of the classical world that the very best metals came from India. When Alexander the Great conquered the Indus River valley, the vanquished King Porus chose to present to him as tribute not gold or silver, but 30 pounds of Indian steel.

It is said that by 300 BC, the Indian civilizations had already perfected the craft of forging steel. They produced an alloy that was very high in carbon called wootz steel. It was very light, very durable and, according to legend, could be honed sharp enough to split a hair the fell across its blade. Throughout the middle ages India shipped ingots of wootz steel to the Middle East where it was forged into formidable weaponry which the European crusaders ruefully termed Damascus steel.

Swords forged from Damascus steel have a distinctive branding pattern resulting from the dissolution of carbides into the ore while under intense heat. A great many Damascus blades still exist today as artifacts, but a new blade has not been forged in over 300 years. The technology for alloying wootz steel and fashioning Damascus blades has been forgotten. It is today a lost secret of the pre-modern world. Metallurgists have attempted to reproduce the technique by analyzing the chemical make-up of surviving samples of Damascus steel and working backwards from there. They have yet to craft an accurate replica. Yet another riddle whose answer the Indian alchemists keep with them in the past.

The Invincible Iron Pillar of Delhi

After his defeat of Nasir Al-Din Mahmud Tughluq, Sultan of Delhi, Tamerlane sacked the city and set his men loose to plunder at will. Tamerlane himself reports that the Delhi was burned to the ground and most of its inhabitants taken as slaves. In the distance, to the southwest, Timur would have been able to see the 300-foot tall minaret of he Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque. Of course the mosque, along with all other Islamic temples and households were spared. Tamerlane’s emirs directed their soldiers’ violence toward the majority Hindu population. However, housed in this vast temple was an ancient Hindu relic erected by a long lost civilization. The Sultans of Delhi built their magnificent mosque around the icon, paying it no mind. It had survived countless invasions from foreign armies no less destructive than Tamurlane’s. It had witnessed the city of Delhi be destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again. It had stood for a thousand exposed to the elements, its temple having long ago crumbled around it, and it would stand for a thousand more untarnished. This was the invincible Iron Pillar of Delhi, the principal dial to the solar calendar of the ancient Gupta civilization. This metal column was first erected in the 4th century AD, positioned perfectly at the Tropic of Cancer. At noon on the day of the summer solstice the pillar cast no shadow. Over the centuries, the Hindu began to identify the pillar as having divine significance and moved it to a special temple outside of Delhi where it stands today and has always stood as the city’s single most enduring symbol.

Examples of Roman iron working originating from the same era as the Pillar are today either crumbling artifacts or have rusted away completely. The Gupta alchemists forged the Iron Pillar so that it would resist corrosion almost perfectly. The iron alloy of which it is composed has a high phosphorus content which has caused a crystalline layer to form over the pillar’s exterior which protects the iron from oxidization. Modern-day metallurgists are not certain how the alloy would have been made. The belief throughout most of history was simply that the pillar was magical.

Paintings of Tamerlane’s Battles are Gorgeous

Fifteenth century Islamic paintings depicting the victories of Timur are far more amazing than the battles probably were. They have this confusion of forms and vivid color. Also, the subject matter is completely deranged. The image below shows Tamerlane ordering his army to hunt down the remnants of a Georgian force he has just scattered and sent into retreat. In the painting, they appear to be hiding in the crags and caves of a canyon and Tamerlane’s soldiers can be seen lowering archers over the cliffs on suspended platforms so as to be able to shoot arrows into the their enemies’ hiding spots.

The neglect of depth and the jumble of figures make the picture look like a collision of activity with only the king clearly discernable, sitting peacefully on his horse and directing the event. According to the University of Minnesota who owns the piece, the artist was Tamerlanes’s own great grandson.

The work pictured below was done more than a century after Tamerlane’s death, but it is savage and chaotic like a medieval painting. It depicts Tamerlane’s defeat of the Sultan of Delhi in 1398. You can see the Sultan’s elephants running away from the Tater force while Indian soldiers throw rocks from the cliffs overhead. The elephants’ trunks have been cut off. Bodies litter the ground.

According to legend, the Sultan outfitted 170 elephants in chainmail and poisoned the tips of their tusks. The charging column of war elephants would have surely broken the Tatar line, but Timur turned them by loading all of his camels with straw, setting them ablaze and then just letting them frantically run around the battlefield. The fire and the bellowing camels put the Sultan’s elephants into a panic, causing them to turn and trample the Indian infantry marching in the rear.

This last painting looks like some kind of war carnival. The colors are all pastel and the lines seem to undulate. It would look jubilant were it not for the two or three people getting lanced in the eye socket and the dozen so corpses strewn around.

The Sadism of Genghis Khan

After sacking Yanjing in 1215, Genghis Khan enslaved hundreds of Chinese scribes from the Jin court enslaved and brought them back with him to Karakorum. The Mongols were an illiterate people. They had no written law, no recordkeeping. They had little interest in governing the people whom they conquered, but to sustain the horde, it became necessary to collect regular taxes and grain from the agricultural peoples in northern China. The Jin scribes were given ministerial positions throughout the empire. They created a rudimentary government which the Mongol Khans would use to control nearly all the nations of Asia. These scribes also left us detailed chronicles of the Mongolian conquests. Several biographies were written about Genghis Khan himself, perhaps at the Khan’s own bidding though he would not have been capable of reading them on his own. It is surprising how little these accounts glorify the figure of Genghis Khan. If anything, they portray him as being monstrous and without moral restraint. Undoubtedly this was purposeful. In an Empire that is acquired and thus retained by terror and violence, intimidation acts as a kind of currency.

My favorite anecdote:

Genghis Kahn lies beneath the silver tree of Karakorum, staring into the cloudless sky. He asks his favorite general, Subutai, what, in all the world, is the highest pleasure available to a man.

Subutai answers,“I feel the greatest pleasure to be found is hunting on the open steppe, on a clear, warm day, with a swift horse beneath me and my falcon on my arm.”

“You are wrong,” responds the Khan. “Man’s greatest happiness is to crush his enemies and to see them fall at his feet, to take their horses and their herds, to take the women of those you have vanquished and wear their weeping bodies as your bedclothes, kissing their lips and soft, pink nipples.”

The statement is so perfectly sadistic and pervy. It is not only terrifying, it’s weird. He lingers on the sex part and appears to be visualizing it in his mind as he’s saying the words. That it is contrasted alongside Subutai’s much more commonplace admission adds to the force of the derangement. Most of what the scribes wrote about Genghis Kahn, the man, was obvious myth. It’s unlikely that any of them ever met Genghis Kahn, much less heard him speak. But there’s a peculiarity about this quotation that would be difficult to make up. It is a bit off in the same way that all authentic things are: the oddity of the actual.

Ineluctable Might of the Way

Most of the stories passed down to us about Genghis Khan were recorded—or more likely invented—by the Chinese scribes who resided in the Khan’s court. Accounts of his meeting with Qui Chuji and discovery of the Tao come from the priest’s disciples. Qui Chuji left his home in Shandong with 18 of his students. They wandered the wastes of Central Asia with him and chronicled the entire journey with descriptions and drawings of the landscapes and the peoples they encountered.

The tale Qui Chuji’s students tell of their teacher’s audience with the most powerful man in the world is one of mutual respect. We learn that the Emperor delighted in Qui Chuji’s simple teachings, but, since the story is written and told by the Taoists, we know nothing about how Genghis Khan might have privately felt about the Tao. The narrative’s true protagonist is Qui Chuji. It is his thoughts and impressions of the Mongolian court that are documented, his reactions and emotional state that we are told about at the moment of meeting the eminent Khan. According to The Travels of Ch’ang Ch’un to the West, Qui Chuji revered Genghis Khan and considered him a being of immense celestial power. The event must have seemed over-whelming to the humble monk: here he was, after over a year and a half of arduous travel, standing in the presence of a man whom many considered invincible. In the Taoists’ narrative, Genghis Khan is described in the same terms as the numerous mountain ranges and rivers which the master crosses en route to their meeting. The Emperor and the power he represents are conceived as a force of nature. He is himself a concrete expression of the Tao: both a compelling and inhibiting force that drives and shapes the universal mechanism of nature. Obedience to the sovereign authority of the Mongols was as easy for Qui Chuji to accept as the inexorability of the tides.

The White Cloud Temple

To lionize Qui Chuji and his sect, Genghis Khan granted him a quadrant of the old imperial palace grounds in Beijing to found a new temple. It still stands today: the Monastery of the White Clouds, named “The First Temple under Heaven” by the School of Taoism.

The Taoist and the General

Since the substance of mortality is trial and vitality appears to burn itself out in effort, some have speculated that immortality may be defined by the inverse principle, namely peace. This is the rationale of the Tao: submission to the current of nature and complete retraction of will. More than any other system of religious philosophy, I view Taoism as the most inimical to earthly existence. Struggle is so central to being that it would be impossible to conceive a life in which it would be even momentarily absent. Taoism is a refutation of everything that we would typically associate with living and offers instead a means of transcending common existence.

Taoism is vanishing in modernity, but for much of the last millennium it was one of the most widely practiced religions in the world. Taoist priests were believed to possess mystical knowledge of mortality and the natural world. Learning in 1219 AD that Taoists had mastered the secret of immortality, Genghis Khan summoned to his court in Mongolia Qiu Chuji, a disciple of Wang Chongyang and one of the most important holy men in Northern China. The invitation must have seemed astonishing to Qiu Chuji. The Mongols had their own religion, based on the worship of the sky and the earth, and Taoism would have been just one of a multitude of foreign creeds practiced by a conquered people whom the Mongols considered their vassals. The allure of immortality was too great for the Mongol emperor who knew that no matter how many battles he won and territories he ruled, death would one day prevail and wrest his kingdom away from him.

Qiu Chuji arrived in Mongolia on February of 1221 only to find that Genghis Kahn had embarked on a campaign to conquer central Asia the summer before. Rather than returning home he followed the Mongol hordes over the Altai mountains and through the Tein Shan. He visited the famous city of Samarkand and crossed the most treacherous and inhospitable deserts and mountain ranges in the world. Qiu Chuji finally reach the army’s bivouac in the Hindu Kush several years and over three thousand miles later.

In audience with Genghis Kahn Qiu Chuji explained Taoism and shared several secrets for prolonging one’s life. Though he did not offer the treasure of eternal youth, Genghis Khan was impressed with the priest. He gave him the title “Spirit Immortal” and put him in charge of overseeing all of the religions in the empire. Taoism was given special status in China and the safety of all Taoist temples was guaranteed by the emperor himself.

It is fascinating that a man willful and assertive enough to nearly conquer the entire world should find so much to favor about Taoist passivity and surrender. Perhaps he saw in supreme capitulation the same sort of abandon to which one is given over in the act of excessive and overwhelming aggression. Perhaps Genghis Khan found in the serene and acquiescent Qiu Chuji the first person he had met since he was a teenager who did not outwardly fear him. Then again, maybe he shrewdly recognized that promoting Taoism among his new Chinese subjects would make them docile and disinclined to revolt.

The Buried City of Argia

Sand Casting

For a thing simply to be present, to be, it must exert itself against all other being that is external to it. Our physical selves cut a space out of existence in the shape of our physical selves. And constantly we collide with the world around us. Again, Martin Heidegger: “The being-there of historical man means: to be posited as the breach into which the preponderant power of being bursts in its appearing, in order that this breach itself should shatter against being.” I think this means that external being pours into the observing subject as phenomenon, and in doing so it crashes against the essence of the subject. The identity of the subject impedes the course of being, yet being washes around it like a stream around a rock; it inundates it and slowly erodes it.

When I read the passage above and considered its meaning, I was reminded of a literary image I had come across at some point of a society encased within the earth. Its citizens inhabited an environment that was solid rather than spatial, and they moved about by pushing themselves incrementally through a thick medium of stone and soil, like earthworms. I had a very difficult time finding the image in my books. After spending a few hours looking through all of Borges’s work, I began to think I had dreamed the idea up myself, even though that would have taken strength of imagination which I probably do not possess. I ended up finding it late last night in Italo Calvino’s Imaginary Cities. The place is called Argia:

“What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has earth instead of air. The streets are completely filled with dirt, clay packs the rooms to the ceiling, on every stair another stairway is set in negative, over the roofs of the houses hang layers of rocky terrain like skies with clouds.”

We forget that existence presses against us and jostles us around wherever we go. The buried city of Argia is an exaggeration of this.

The Violent One

I do not mean to denigrate farmers and fishermen with what I have written the past few nights. I do find the drunk, desperate Canadian fisherman who were filmed slaughtering seals to be cowards and numb skulls. But I am not aligning myself with the environmentalist organizations I have recently described. I admire their resistance to custom and aggressive reaction. I am indifferent to their cause. We cannot fault humanity for being a destructive presence in the world. It is what we are. Our inclination to force and power is what makes us unique among the animals. Violence against all things is our defining trait. It is why the other animals fear us and run away. It is why our domesticated animals warily follow us without protest. Heidegger calls this trait deinon, an ancient Greek adjective meaning fierce and stunning. As I remember, the Attic poets commonly used it as an epithet for the goddess Athena. It describes the human propensity to know the world and to shape it, an impulse which, Heidegger observes, is at its root violent and domineering:

“The violent one, the creative man, who sets forth into the un-said, who breaks into the un-thought, compels the unhappened to happen and makes the unseen appear—this violent one stands at all times in venture.” An Introduction to Metaphysics (161)

Yes man is assertive and forceful, but so is nature, and in the perpetual conflict between the two, nature prevails just as often. I cannot censure those who impose themselves into the world’s supposedly delicate ecology and alter the land around them, because this is the way of the hominid species. We are perpetuators of the artificial. We synthesize objects and concepts from material hewn from the wild, uncooked world. Everyday every one of us destroys great swaths of existence and manufactures new being from the ruins. We extract it from the earth or wherever and mutilate it into a shape that suits out inane purposes. Sometimes we call the output goods and commodity. Sometimes pollution. Sometimes art.