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Steve_A's avatar

What is "Red Earth"?

Asked by Steve_A (5120points) July 3rd, 2010 from iPhone

I was reading in Discover about how Isaac Newton and his attempts to make gold.

It was said no one knows what he did with the red earth but it has to do with heating and cooling mercury as a first step to create it.

What is it? What does it do/used for?

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3 Answers

gasman's avatar

Newton, for all his genius in founding modern physics, also unfortunately wasted much of his life pursuing alchemy. This was of course long before the discovery of modern chemistry which thoroughly debunks it. Alchemy makes for good Harry Potter books & other fantasies. It’s not real but you can’t have everything.

Your question piqued by curiosity so I investigated online. According to this site , which discusses a process known as depletion gilding:

We cannot assume that the ancients understood the chemical processes at work, and it may be that they actually viewed depletion gilding as a transmutation of an alloy into pure gold…The red earth, then, could have been seen as the Philosopher’s Stone, the magical material that transmutes base metals into gold…In reality, it is believed that the red earth contained ferrous sulfate that when sufficiently heated releases its sulfur. The sulfur combines with silver to form silver sulfate. The metal is cooled and the silver sulfate is polished off leaving a pure gold surface.

Cinnabar is a reddish ore of mercury, sometimes called “red lead”. Red earth gets its color normally either from the presence of iron or cinnabar in the soil or clay. [ibid] Note that most red clays are iron compounds with little or no mercury.

So cinnabar, when found in red earth, can in some circumstances falsely give the appearance of transmutation of base metals into gold. Somebody should have given Newton a dope slap.

BhacSsylan's avatar

@gasman I would hesitate to call the time “wasted”. It is a very common misconception to view alchemy as some form of magical pursuit. It was, for all intents and purposes, early chemistry. Much of it was highly rigorous and lead to huge developments in chemistry. Was it preoccupied with making gold? Probably, but that doesn’t mean that it was useless. Many people currently thought to be founders of chemistry, such as Robert Boyle, were quite avid alchemists. And the discoveries they made in their attempts at transmutation laid the basis for modern chemistry.

Take, for example, modern physics. Say we take string theorists. Lets say, 50 years from now, string theory is debunked as total flooey (to use the technical term). Does that mean that the current theorists wasted their time? Probably not. Many of them have made huge contributions to the field of physics, and simply because they may be operating under a false theory doesn’t make their time wasted.

And seriously, someone should give Newton a dope slap? For advancing almost every field of science, with huge leaps in mathematics, chemistry, physics, astrophysics, and probably a few more I’m forgetting? Give the man his due.

Also, though I do not know much about the red earth bit, i would suggest seeing if you can contact this guy. I don’t know how willing he may be to answer a random email, but he was my teacher, was a generally highly nice guy, and one of the world leaders on the study of Alchemy. If anyone would know, it would be him.

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