I haven’t seen a headline this misleading since the last time I read the Huffington Post. This article isn’t about the popularly envisioned application of alchemy — turning lead into gold — and it really has nothing to do with anything scientists did, per se. It just describes the natural process of radioactive decay.
Every once in a while we read of a business man, or even a great scientist, who has been deceived by some one who claimed he could make gold or silver. Occasionally an item in the paper tells of the death of some one killed by fumes or by the explosion of a retort while experimenting in search for chemically made gold.
The odd thing is that after solemn men of weight in the world of learning have been for generations showing us what fools or knaves the alchemists were, modern science takes a sharp turn and shows that they were in their fundamental contention probably quite right. But — and this is a large but — they were wrong in thinking that the process by which one metal may turn into another can be hastened any more than it can be retarded. Science does not say that it would not be possible to do either of these things, but it does say most emphatically that the secret is still a long way off, and that the process that would turn lead to gold, or vice versa, would incidentally enable us to do so many other things that civilization would be changed upside down, and the mere gold that might be produced would sink into laughable insignifigance.
A generation or two ago the world was just beginning to make scientific discoveries, and naturally had come to the conclusion that it knew pretty nearly all there was to be known. But to-day the transmutation of one element into another is an accomplished scientific fact. It is proved that certain elements are perpetually changing into certain other elements, and it is more than suspected that what is known to be true of a few elements is true of all. These discoveries came about, of course, through radium. Every idea that is topsy-turvy has come about through the discovery of radium. We might have gone on for another century quite content with the old idea of the nature of matter if that baffling and contradictory thing had not been found one fateful day by the Curies.
As for the accuracy of the headline, the wikipedia entry on nuclear transmutation contains this nice anecdote:
[The phrase “nuclear transmutation”] was first consciously applied to modern physics by Frederick Soddy when he, along with Ernest Rutherford, discovered that radioactive thorium was converting itself into radium in 1901. At the moment of realization, Soddy later recalled, he shouted out: “Rutherford, this is transmutation!” Rutherford snapped back, “For Christ’s sake, Soddy, don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our heads off as alchemists.”
ALCHEMY, LONG SCOFFED AT, TURNS OUT TO BE TRUE: Transmutation of Metals, the Principle of the Philosopher’s Stone, Accomplished in the Twentieth Century. (PDF)
From February 19, 1911