Alchemists of yore laboured in vain to find a way of converting “inferior” metals such as iron and copper into gold. They did not know that each element is distinguished from the others by the number of protons their nuclei hold. Each element has a fixed number of protons. So, if you want to turn one element into another, you have to add or subtract protons. For example, to turn iron into gold, you’d have to inject 53 protons into every nucleus of iron — not an easy task.

So, you can imagine how wide-eyed a group of scientists at IIT-Kanpur were when, during a research on transmutation of elements using electrolysis (with a graphite anode and nickel cathode), they found that some of body of the cathode had transmuted into copper. Guess what the tip of the cathode had become? Gold!

When Shyam Sunder Lakesar presented this finding at an international conference in July, he and his professor, Raj Ganesh Pala of IIT-Kanpur, were understandably mobbed.

Apparently, the quantity was a wee bit better than what a 1980 experiment at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab in California had yielded, yet miles from being economically viable. Still, it was a foot forward for scientific research and, after all, gold is gold.