The New Alchemists, Robert M. Hazen

Times Books, 1993, 286 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-8129-2275-1

Before reading this book, I thought I knew about pressure. A veteran of several college exam weeks, I just know that these times are some of the most pressurized situations anyone can expect to meet. Seemingly ordinary elements will begin to experience radical changes at high pressures, exhibiting strange new properties and even cracking up under the pressure. My family can testify that even middle-mannered me can develop troubling characteristics while under pressure.

Which means absolutely anything, except to introduce the subject of an impulse buy and this review: The New Alchemists, by Robert M. Hazen.

This nonfiction book is divided in two parts: Section one is titled “The Diamond Makers”, and details the various theories, experiments and failures that led to the synthesis of the first diamonds. The account begin at the beginning of chemistry, and spends quite a lot of time discussing the various failures met on the road of diamond making. As Hazen reminds us in the introduction, failures can be as enlightening as successes.

And a fascinating history it is: From the early 19th century, many scientists and charlatans have tried to make diamonds. (In an excellent first chapter, Hazen oversees the history, properties and beauty of diamonds, thus setting the stage for the desirability of its synthesis) It does take a few attempts, but scientists finally find out that diamond is the product of intense pressure and heat applied to ordinary carbon.

From then, attempts are more focused, but not necessarily more successful. A Swedish team finally obtains something in 1953, using one of the weirdest process I’ve ever read about. However, it will take until late 1955 and a General Electric team of researcher to devise a working, less cumbersome method and broadcast the results to the world. (The story or the breakthrough itself is immensely fascinating reading, offering a glimpse into scientific feuds and unresolved recriminations.)

From then on, it becomes an engineering problem to produce the most synthetic diamonds for the less money. Now, GE has a virtual diamond mine in Ohio, where they produce more than 33 tons of diamond a year.

But the story isn’t over; the diamonds made by high-pressure physics are now helping high-pressure physics itself: Using “diamond anvils”, researchers are pushing back the barriers of pressure, attaining higher and higher levels each year… The second part of this book is titled “The Diamond Breakers”, and tells of some of these researches. Perhaps less focused (and hence, less gripping) than the first part, it nevertheless makes engrossing reading.

Robert Hazen knows how to write, and this book shows it. This isn’t some dry exposé of unfathomable researchers: The community of high-pressure scientists has a gallery of colorful personalities and events, and The New Alchemists takes delight in telling them. Tales of frauds, explosions, smuggling and “bags of diamonds” abound. This is better reading than most of the novels I’ve read this year.

I highly recommend The New Alchemists: For everyone who wishes to have an insight into what scientists do, to the fans of fascinating stories. This is one book not to be missed: I place it near the top of my shelf for scientific literature.

(Post note: While talking to a ex-physics teacher of mine (Serges Desgrenier, University of Ottawa), I discovered that he has his name in The New Alchemists… something I hadn’t caught when I read the book. My amazement at this fact was only compounded by my annoyance at this failure of my pattern-recognition software.)

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