by Albertus Magnus
It is an old observation that when you are young life is simple. As you mature life becomes complicated. Finally, as you grow old, life becomes simple again. Science is like that too.
Back when I was a young lad studying Alchemistry at the university, things were simple. The Universe, we were told, was composed of four elements, Earth, Water, Fire, and Air.
Things did not remain that simple for long. Pretty soon they started talking about adding more elements to the list. It got complicated as they kept adding elements, deleting elements, until there were ninety two of them, more or less. Finally Dalton and his gang got together on the atomic theory and shook things down.
Those were the good old days. Of course ninety two elements were quite a few and the arrangement and properties of those elements was rather messy, but the list was complete, and the whole thing was settled. That’s what we thought!
Then came the electron and the castle of indivisibility trembled. Then came the proton and the castle fell. For a brief golden moment things were reduced to the ultimate conceptual simplicity – all the universe was divided into two principles, positive and negative, yin and yang, the electron and the proton. Alas! Into this Eden a host of serpents swarmed; the neutron, the positron, the neutrino, the photon, a horde of mesons, pions, and muons, and, finally, on the shadowy wings of theory, the spectre of the quarks. A sorry state of things indeed!
Remember those four elements. Remember how simple things were. Back in the old days a few diehards tried to show that all these new-fangled elements were really just combinations of the the same old set of the four original elements. As you may have guessed they didn’t get anywhere. First of all they didn’t have an accurate decomposition of the four primary elements in terms of the ninety two atomic elements. Even if they had they would have had to solve four equations in ninety two unknowns, a truly impossible problem.
The diehards didn’t make it, but times change and methods improve. The mathematical statisticians have given us new tools. The computer has given us an increased capability to calculate.
Recently a small but dedicated band of researchers applied these tools to the elements problem. They took a large number of chemical compounds, constructed a correlation matrix between atomic elements, and did a factor analysis. (A factor analysis, for the mathematically inclined. is an eigenvalue analysis of the correlation matrix – for the not so mathematically inclined it sufficeth to say that a factor analysis is a mathematical trick to extract important factors out of garbage.)
They found that all of the elements could be expressed as combinations of four principal factors. Their earlier work indicated that there were some minor factors, but it was later found that these were due to not considering isotopes of the different atoms (which, of course, are actually combinations of the four basic elements.)
How did the old timers do with their four elements? Not too badly, considering. The E and F factors correspond very well to the older Earth and Fire. On the other hand they were off base on the other two. It is true that water and air are primarily mixtures of G1 and G2, but the G factors do not correspond at all well to water and air.
At this point the clever reader (and all my readers are clever) is going to ask – what about electrons and such? How they come into the picture? It turns out that they, too, can be represented as combinations of the four basic elements. The results are tentative, of course, because of the lack of sufficient knowledge of the pseudostructure of the nucleus.
And what of the philosopher’s stone, the fountain of youth, and all of the other great dreams of Alchemistry? For that you will have to read next month’s article, Ashes to Gold.
This page was last updated April 20, 2003.