In our family, Great Uncle Roger was what used to be termed the “black sheep.” He was eccentric, asocial, and a bit of a recluse. But when I met him at weddings, funerals, and the like, he always seemed to me to be quite cool. I know that he had once been a professor at the University, but had lost his position when he decided to focus on an un-fundable project that everyone else thought was a bad case of “magical thinking” and a total joke. He wound up eking out a living as an instructor at the Community College.
The summer before my senior year of high school was a time of bad recession, with jobs hard to find for kids hoping to make a few bucks. The prospect of three months of vacation did not sit easily with me—I was more than ready to start on the road to adulthood. Then one day my dad told me that Uncle Roger could use my help with some tasks around his house.
When I went over, Roger immediately led me down to the cellar. There, he had a rather remarkable machine chugging away. The main component resembled an antique deep-sea diver’s helmet, with a circular window that must have been two inches thick. Uncle Roger explained that the helmet was actually a “reaction vessel” for maintaining a sample long term in helium under a pressure of 100 atmospheres and a temperature of -100oF. “And what’s the sample?” I asked him.
“A piece of metallic lead, lead of the ultimate purity.”
“And what are you hoping to accomplish?”
“Something wonderful. Something never before seen on the planet; perhaps something that’s never, ever existed in the whole universe.” He must have seen my eyes light up with enthusiasm, because then and there he offered me a job as his lab assistant.
“Think about diamond, Peter. What’s it made of? Atoms of carbon, the same stuff as the soot from a candle flame. But diamond is carbon formed into an exquisite crystal structure by the pressures and temperatures deep inside the earth, yielding a substance of extraordinary beauty and ultimate hardness.
“Think about silicon, an element abundant in the earth’s crust. It does not exist in pure form, but is trapped in a myriad of rocks and minerals. But we’ve found ways to manipulate nature to create pure silicon, and it has become the foundation for all the electronics and information technology of our age. The crystal form of silicon?—the diamond cubic structure!
“Now what about lead, the lowly pariah of the periodic table? Lead metal ordinarily has a common crystal structure, called face-centered cubic. Could there be a way to transform lead to the radically different diamond crystal structure? Maybe that’s what the alchemists were really seeking when they worked to transmute lead into gold. I’ve become convinced that diamond lead can form at very low temperature and very high pressure, yielding a material with remarkable properties. It would be denser than osmium, have a higher melting point than tungsten, far exceed the hardness of diamond, and be totally resistant to oxidation and corrosion. Who knows what other amazing properties it might have? Once we have our initial specimen, we can use little bits of it as seed crystals to grow more of the stuff quite easily.
“I believe that I have established the conditions to nucleate diamond lead. All it takes is time. I think it should take no more than ten or twenty years. The fools at the University would not support me; the foundations would not fund me. I decided to liberate my equipment and install it in my basement. The University threatened to sue me, but I think they have finally given up.”
And so I embarked on my career as the alchemist’s apprentice. I worked with Roger the whole summer, and then after school over my senior year. I learned how to keep the cryogenic unit running smoothly, and how to make up for pressure drops due to leakage of the reaction vessel. Most importantly, I participated in the daily ritual of specimen inspection. There was never any change, but this did nothing to diminish my dedication to the project.
Uncle Roger paid my tuition at college, and I got a BS in materials science. After graduation, I found an unchallenging job close to home, and was at his place almost every evening—not much time for dating or hanging out with friends. Together we performed the ritual of specimen inspection. For nearly seven years, nothing changed.
Then one evening I arrived to find Uncle Roger in a highly agitated state. I thought he might be having a stroke. It turned out that the cooling unit had failed, and the viewing port was strangely blurred. We franticly vented the helium through a valve at the bottom of the chamber, and then began loosening the bolts holding the glass in place. Our excitement grew as we proceeded, which was accentuated by the fact that we both sounded like cartoon characters because of all the helium in the air. We searched the entire chamber and found absolutely nothing! We were both dumbfounded. I think we also must have been light-headed due to the reduced oxygen concentration of the helium-laden air. Roger collapsed in a chair. I quickly opened the cellar windows and raced upstairs to fetch a bottle of his best scotch and two glasses.
By the time I returned, Roger had developed a theory for what happened. The sudden transformation had obviously liberated a huge amount of energy. The cooling system had tried to do its job, keeping the chamber from melting. Finally, the heat exchanger had been overwhelmed. Intense heat had melted the inner surface of the glass viewing port. As the specimen transformed, there must have been a dramatic decrease in volume, which caused it to fracture into fine particles. When we rapidly vented the helium from the chamber, we also vented the powder! If diamond crystal lead had indeed formed, it now must have been dispersed all over the cellar.
Between sips of our scotch, we carefully collected all the material accumulated on every surface near the apparatus, including our filthy floor downwind of the chamber vent. All we found were grimy dust and the desiccated corpses of spiders and the house centipedes we call “thousand-leggers”. We tried separating out the densest part of the crud using the same panning technique employed by old-time gold prospectors, and I paid a friend at the University to perform an X-ray analysis of the resultant grit. The diffraction pattern had so many lines that it was impossible to analyze. Something had certainly happened, but our experiment was a bust.
We were humbled by the experience, but committed to embark on phase two of the experiment. Fortunately, Uncle Roger had a back-up sample of ultra-pure lead stashed in his desk. The next time we vented the helium, we would do it very slowly, and do it through an elaborate filtration system to retain any dust. We also decided to use a much smaller specimen, so that the heat generated would be less likely to damage the equipment. It took two years to get the system running again. Then we resumed our ritual of monitoring and inspection.
When Uncle Roger’s vision was compromised by macular degeneration, I moved into his house to help him maintain his quality of life. It saddened him not to be able to inspect our specimen, but he knew he could rely on me. Every day after supper, we’d go down to the cellar to sip our scotches, and I would give him a status update. His last words to me before his fatal stroke were, “It won’t be long now, Peter, I’m sure it won’t be long now.” I inherited the house and continue to maintain the system on my own. The duration of phase two of the experiment is now well past the time it took for the transformation to occur on our first attempt. Have I done something wrong? It MUST happen soon; it MUST.
Uncle Roger sometimes compared his work to that of the ancient alchemists, and so I’ve been researching the subject. There is a lot of mumbo-jumbo involved, but I also sense that at its core there is a deeper truth. Isaac Newton devoted much of his later life to the study of esoteric alchemy, trying to establish the “grand unifying theory” that would include both science and religion. The principles of alchemy held that the alchemist’s ability to attain the “philosopher’s stone” depended on his purity of heart and singularity of purpose. Could it be that the lack of success in my life’s work has not been a consequence of the laws of science or the deficiencies of the equipment? Could the fault in fact be in me? I have often fantasized about an eventual Nobel Prize. Am I doing this to pursue fame and fortune, or am I truly seeking a deeper understanding of the workings of the Cosmos?
Although plagued by growing self-doubt, Peter kept the faith and continued the experiment. However, his own health soon began to deteriorate. (Peter had a nagging suspicion that it might have had something to do with the inhalation of airborne diamond lead.) At any rate, he now felt a need to enlist his late brother’s son Donny as his own alchemist’s apprentice. Donny was a good-natured but somewhat unfocused kid, a senior majoring in partying at a less-than-prestigious local college. Peter could afford to pay only a meager salary, but he promised to make Donny the sole heir to his estate.
Unfortunately, Peter had a tragic accident a few months later, tripping down the cellar stairs and breaking his neck. The system continued to run itself for a few weeks, as Donny neglected it and martialed his abilities to rapidly settle Peter’s estate and claim his inheritance. Finally, the heat exchanger failed again, and the viewing port was once more strangely blurred.
The house and half-acre lot fetched a good price, being so close to the new Google headquarters. The house was soon torn down to make way for a complex of high-end condos and doctors’ offices. Peter’s nephew moved to Key West, where he pursues a lifestyle that is a mix of Jimmy Buffett and Snoop Dog.
Most of the scientific paraphernalia in the basement wound up in a dumpster courtesy of the Junk-Is-Us guys. The reaction vessel (which was never opened) sold at the estate sale, and is now employed as a garden ornament. You can see it if you lean your head over the stone wall of the house on Sheridan Avenue near the Park. Everyone assumes it is the helmet of an old-time deep-sea diver. Rumors of two ghosts hovering in the garden on misty moon-lit nights have never been verified by photographic evidence, but a video crew from the “Spook Squad” TV show has scheduled a visit for next year.
Actually, lead’s sister metal, tin does undergo a transformation to the diamond crystal form at low temperature. The phenomenon, termed “tin plague,” is responsible for the dark spots sometimes observed on the shiny surfaces of old mirrors. Recent research has revealed useful properties of diamond crystal tin in the field of electronics.
The tale is told that when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, the winter was so cold that the tin buttons of his soldiers’ uniforms transformed and disintegrated, adding to their misery and despair. However, there is no clear evidence that this indeed occurred, and it may be only a metallurgical myth.
Richski is retired from a career as research scientist and educator. He currently resides in the twilight zone between scientific rationalism and poetic lunacy. His writing often has a spiritual or supernatural theme. Recent stories have appeared in Uppagus, Esoterica, and RavensPerch.