The modern alchemist – Water: The fountain of youth (2012)

Peter Wothers

Watch Peter Wother's 2012 CHRISTMAS LECTURE, all about the power of water.

Peter Wother talking to a crowd of seated children during his CHRISTMAS LECTURE
Credit: Royal Institution

Lecture 2 – Water: the fountain of youth

Water is essential to life since every reaction in our bodies takes place in it. But why is water so special? And can we tap into the energy released when a lit splint is added to a mix of hydrogen and water, to create an environmentally friendly solution to our energy problems?

Plants have the ability to reverse this reaction by using the energy from sunlight to release oxygen from water. We are starting to learn how to do the same

We also look at the salts contained in water. Once again we will see the startling difference between a compound and its constituent elements.

Take sodium chloride – aka table salt. Sodium is a soft silvery metal that explodes with water; chlorine a deadly poisonous, choking green gas. Both elements are lethal to us, but after they have met, a dramatic change takes place. The sodium and chloride ions that form are essential components in our bodies. They help generate the electrical impulses that make our brains and nerves work.


When medieval alchemists staged spectacular stunts in front of royalty they never revealed the secrets of their mystical potions and fire-breathing creations. Today's chemists can perform equally impressive feats, but they do so to explain and explore the extreme frontiers of our material world. 

Watch Peter Wothers, the modern alchemist, as he unpicks the chemistry of the world around us - looking at air, water and earth - three of the original ancient Greek 'elements' that tantalised alchemists for centuries.