Eugène Canseliet once wrote that Pierre Curie was chasing the Philosophers Stone in all his research from magnetism to piezoelectricity and radioactivity.
Canseliet witnessed the friendship between Fulcanelli and Pierre Curie. And that is not surprising: both attended the same esoteric milieux, which Curie never denied, but wrote to his fiancée Maria Skłodowska, in 1894: “I must admit that those spiritual phenomena intensely interest me. I think in them are questions that deal with physics”. By the way, Canseliet told us that J.J. Champagne, too, used to attend Curie’s home.
In l’Alchimie Expliquée sur ses Textes Classiques Canseliet wrote: “Like the unlucky discoverer of radium (Pierre Curie), Fulcanelli knew very well that the fire under his oven, or burners, could not produce any transmutation. The sublimity of the arcane awoke his caution in revealing, so when covering the Secret Fire topic, he never went beyond the ancient alchemists. This is also the reason we have treated once again on the chemical and physical realization of this great unknown. Fulcanelli first met Pierre Curie, then Madame Curie, born Maria Skłodowska, who, according to him, neither was a true Perrenelle, nor the devoted companion of the Mutus Liber plates. But this is not our subject: we usually ignore that Curie, into the rare earths, was looking for the Philosophers Stone.”
In his research, Pierre Curie showed that the magnetic properties of a substance change at a specific temperature. This temperature is now known as the Curie point. The discovery of the Curie point, freed from the critical temperature, above which the ferromagnetic bodies change their state to paramagnetic, sufficiently shows the alchemical orientation of Pierre Curie’s work. The phenomenon also interested Fulcanelli, because he knew that there was a way known as Ars Brevis much faster than the classic dry metallurgic process, which might lie in some unknown properties of some minerals. In contrast, the Curies were probably more interested in deepening the scientific aspects.
The chapter at the end of his l’Alchimie Expliquée sur ses Textes Classiques, in which Canseliet inserted his observation about Curie’s research, was dedicated and entitled to the Last Cooking (see the Opus Magnum scheme. The following grand final to this chapter will be the appendix with the description of the Philosophic Egg, emitting the weird musical whistles, which the readers may have already read about (see my article Canseliet, the Art of Music & Weight) (1).
To confirm his general purpose, Canseliet’s pointed soon at the high heat reached in the Last Cooking, and specifically at what would happen to the chemical-physical properties of matter to define the whole process as “alchemical”, and not mere chemical, i.e., “magical,” or unexpected. Which, with Curie, he would have defined as “magnetic”. Canseliet said: “we know very well that the heat supplied in the Last Cooking cannot alone perform the miracle we hope to see. There must undoubtedly intervene something highly magical, embodied in the cat’s allegory, who can see and hear through his whiskers “like Perrault’s fairy tale, where a cat ( not ordinary, but with riding boots, so a cabalist little feline) saves his master (the Marquis of Carabas, that’s saying the low-grade gold) from poverty and misfortune. Alchemically, the cat with riding boots can buy wealth. Or rather, the cat’s whiskers. That’s saying, according to Canseliet’s theories, the electromagnetic waves, which he and Curie and Fulcanelli conceived only in their magnetic side.
Curie, with his brother Jacques, when coming to torment the matter by taking a hammer and pressing it, was primarily interested in understanding what was magnetically going strange inside the structure of a material subjected to high heat. It is known that the starting point of Curie’s theories was the study of magnetism, as he demonstrated in his famous Ph.D. thesis. Almost a century after, we are instead used to interpreting Pierre Curie’s discovery on heated and stressed material, mostly pointing at piezoelectric aspects. Or polarized. At least electric. But, of course, the ferromagnetic materials heated by Curie at a critical heating degree ceased to be ferromagnetic. And that, for Curie, was the utmost discovery. He showed that the magnetic properties of a substance change at a specific temperature. This temperature is now known as the Curie point.
Going on with their research, the brothers’ Curie thought there would be a direct correlation between the potential generated by temperature changes and the mechanical strain that gave rise to piezoelectricity. They expected a piezoelectric effect to arise in materials with specific crystal asymmetries. Armed with the crudest materials — tinfoil, glue, wire, magnets, and a simple jeweler’s saw — they tested various types of crystals, including quartz, topaz, cane sugar, Rochelle salt, and tourmaline. As a result, the Curies found that when such materials were compressed, the mechanical strain did indeed result in electric potential. They found the most substantial piezoelectric effects in quartz and Rochelle salt. The brothers brought their discovery to good use by inventing the piezoelectric quartz electrometer. “In 1880, Jacques and Pierre Curie discovered an unusual characteristic of certain crystalline piezoelectric crystals with electrodes: when subjected to a mechanical force, the crystals became electrically polarized. Tension and compression generated voltages of opposite polarity and in proportion to the applied force. Subsequently, the converse of this relationship was confirmed. If one of these voltage-generating crystals was exposed to an electric field, it lengthened or shortened according to the field’s polarity and in proportion to the strength of the field. These behaviors were labeled the piezoelectric effect and the inverse piezoelectric effect, respectively, from the Greek word piezein, meaning to press or squeeze.
However, the Curie brothers did not predict that crystals exhibiting the direct piezoelectric effect (electricity from applied stress) would also exhibit the converse piezoelectric effect (pressure in response to the applied electric field). Lippmann mathematically deduced from fundamental thermodynamic principles this property in 1881. The Curies immediately confirmed the existence of the “converse effect” and continued to obtain quantitative proof of the complete reversibility of electro-elastic-mechanical deformations in piezoelectric crystals.
There was another twist to the piezoelectric saga still to come. The following year, mathematician Gabriel Lippman demonstrated that there should be a converse piezoelectric effect, whereby applying an electric field to a crystal should cause that material to deform in response. The brothers rushed to test Lippman’s theory, and their experiments showed the mathematician was correct. Piezoelectricity could indeed work in the other direction.
After the initial flurry of excitement died down, piezoelectric research faded into the background for the next 30 years, partly because the theory was so mathematically complex. But incremental progress was still being made. In 1910, Woldemar Voigt published the definitive treatise on Lehrbuch der Kristallphysik, a massive tome describing the 20-odd classes of natural crystal with piezoelectric properties. More importantly, it rigorously defined the 18 possible macroscopic piezoelectric coefficients in crystal solids.
This set the stage for the subsequent development of practical applications for such materials, beginning with sonar in 1917 when Paul Langevin developed an ultrasonic transducer for use on submarines using thin quartz crystals. Many automobiles today have ultrasonic transducers to assist drivers in measuring the distance between the rear bumper and any obstacles in its path.
In conclusion, Curie’s brothers’ discovery was about converting Mechanical Vibration into Electricity. The present state of piezoelectric technology is today about some fine ceramics (also known as “advanced ceramics”) possessing a unique property that allows them to convert mechanical shock or vibration into electrical signals and vice versa. These materials are called piezoelectric ceramics. But at the beginning of the 20th century, and with the alchemical last cooking in mind, Pierre Curie’s discovery of the piezoelectric effect was accidental. His research was initially addressed to high temperatures, which we today consider as mechanical vibration, and the resulting magnetic variations. To give an idea of the mindset within those alchemical milieux, we know Canseliet was obsessed with television waves from antennas; he said that antennas would have made it impossible to do alchemy in future times. While, in my opinion, alchemy is now impossible primarily for socio-psychological reasons, there is no electromagnetic pollution as everything that moves is an electromagnetic wave. Canseliet forma mentis could not be too different from Curie, Champagne, and Fulcanelli: they sought the great strengths, the cataclysms. We know that Curie disdained the tiny electrical charges caused by piezoelectricity, the rearrangements of the charge of the matter, and the new polarization. They regarded the scientific panorama about mild electrical fields with contempt, to such an extent that Maria Curie overtly complained of the low esteem in which the French scientific community held her husband. While she, who completed her research on radioactivity, was glorified. The war industry owes her a lot, still today.
The electron, the insignificantly small and too-fast electron, used to be neglected at the beginning of the 20th century. Alchemists thought that only modifying the atomic nucleus could operate alchemical miracles and transmutations. Canseliet was a great alchemist, more extraordinary than his master Champagne and, allow me, more remarkable than Fulcanelli. Still, it came not from a chemical background and neglected the electronic movement studies that we know today to be at the base of every chemical and biological reaction. When we move our muscles, we need no events within the nucleus of our atoms but only minor adjustments of the electronic clouds. Can Alchemy be an exception? Another French alchemist later understood this principle Henri La Croix-Haute (2) (but he exaggerated with the sharp vision of a 1960s man). Today, when we think about electricity, we think of Tesla and his huge voltages, which cost him his career. Still, we know that the small voltages are a world apart, with separate scientific models, and not just a matter of scalar forces. The tiny electronic buoyancy variations are a world apart compared to Tesla’s electrical floods. Minor electronic variations do not require large ovens but just nature. Sometimes, absurdly, the small voltage emitted by the natural temperature daily variations. Not in the Last Cooking, though.
Canseliet’s mindset was not solely because of the beginning of the 20th-century fascination for destructive and annihilating strengths. Still, it was (is) a typical mindset among those who followed the dry metallurgical process. A rude way that not only does not allow us to admit the slightest variation in the process but does not allow us to quickly understand the alchemical workings of the Secret Fire. The metallurgic dry process is concerned chiefly with one’s artisan skills, which can become overwhelming (nothing can go wrong). It is a way of copying one’s master’s movements. The way of manual experience. But it is not the way of visionary creativity; it is not a playful path because the teachers have taught so, so one has to repeat. This is not the way to grasp the “why” before the “how.” Since the “how,” in this particular way, is far too important.
It is apparent, in my opinion, that Canseliet was the greatest among his fellows: his philosophical egg abortion description was not a declaration of impotence but, on the contrary, a declaration of knowledge and skills. No one of his contemporaries described the Egg’s musical event. It was as if Canseliet had challenged his colleagues to go that far: “Do better than me, if you can, and tell your own experience with the egg whistles”. It would have been interesting to hear Fulcanelli’s commentary on both the Musical Hell and the Concert in the Egg by H. Bosch (3), but he did not. He was obsessed with the remora, the Egg’s bottom step.
Pay attention to Canseliet’s eighth chapter, “Conjunction and separation”, always in “l’Alchimie Expliquée sur ses Textes Classiques”, in the paragraph where he said that the preliminary work, or first opera, is work with the crucible. This a section that an adept of the dry metallurgical way would not have underlined. Canseliet threw it out carelessly and said we could find similar proceedings in the 17th-century pharmaceutical treaties by Glaser, Lemery, and the two Lefebvre, Nicolas, and Nicaise. They were known as iatrochemists and pharmacists. And a pharmacist used the crucible barely in some purification, perfect separation, and dehumidification works. A pharmacist didn’t and didn’t need to cast metals.
Canseliet ended the paragraph comparing Philalethes’s description of preliminary work, the first opera, with Glaser’s process, saying that they are the same procedure but with Glaser’s greater simplicity of language. In another part of the book, Canseliet cited the antimony glass, which does not appear in the metallurgical dry way.
Towards the end of his life, Pierre Curie, who assisted his wife in the search for radioactivity, showed early signs of over-exposure to radium. His clothes were often so radioactive he had to postpone experiments by several hours because they interfered with his instruments. The unit of radioactivity is called “curie” in his and Marie’s honor. But, unlike his wife, radiation sickness spared him a gruesome death. Instead, he was killed in a freak accident, run down by a wagon on the Place Dauphine as he crossed the busy street.