Although the Philosopher's Stone was purely a mythical substance, many alchemists professed to have handled it. Thorpe, in History of Chemistry,says: "It is usually described as a red powder. Paracelsus says that it was like a ruby, transparent and brittle as glass; Berigard de Pisa, that it was of the color of a wild poppy, with a smell of heated sea salt; Von Helmont, that it was like saffron, with the lustre of glass. Helvetius describes it as of the color of sulphur." Other writers claim that it may be of any color—yellow, red, skyblue, green, or even white. The literature on the subject of the Philosopher's Stone abounds in directions for its manipulation and the amounts to be used in order to bring about the perfect transformation of a base metal into pure gold. However, these accounts, and especially the "recipes," are as mystical as the wonderful stone itself. Is it possible that any chemist, however learned, could solve the following alchemistic riddle which is claimed to have been used by the philosophers of the Fifteen Century, when alchemy attained to the dignity of a religion:
"To fix quicksilver:—Of several things take 2, 3, and 3, 1; 1 to 3 is 4; 3, 2 and 1. Between 4 and 3 there is 1; 8 from 4 is 1; then 1 and 1, 3 and 4; 1 from 3 is 2. Between 2 and 3 there is 1, between 3 and 2 there is 1. 1, 1, 1, and 1, 2, 2 and 1, 1 and 1 to 2. Then 1 is 1. I have told you all" (Thorpe).
Who could possibly understand this formula? The story is told of a learned professor of alchemy who, when one of his students failed to comprehend his directions and asked for information, said that questions could not be permitted, but that perseverance alone could bring wisdom.