Sep 12 2019

What Is Red Mercury?

I’m not a fan of the Star Trek movies reboot. While I do like the cast, and as a Trek fan I have some level of enjoyment of anything in the franchise, the movies were disappointing. As is usually the case with big budget movie failures, the problem was in the writing. Case in point – red matter. This is a mysterious substance invented by Vulcans in the future, a single drop of which could produce a singularity. It appears as a blob of red liquid. In the end it was a silly physics-breaking plot device that took you out of the movie.

I was reminded of this with recent reports of another mysterious red matter – so-called red mercury. As far as I know there is no connection between the two, and the similarity is pure coincidence. Perhaps the only connection is a psychological one. Mercury is already a fascinating substance, a metal that is liquid at room temperature. It would be fun to play with, if it weren’t so toxic. Red mercury would be an even more exotic form of this amazing element, and that is perhaps the same wonder-factor that the movie writers were going for.

In any case – as with red matter, red mercury does not actually exist. I write about a lot of things here that don’t actually exist, in order to deconstruct persistent belief in something nonexistent. People, apparently, are good at believing in things that aren’t real, a manifestation of the many flaws and limitations in our belief-generating machinery.

Beliefs can be generated and supported by a number of mechanisms – first hand experience, a phenomenon having a real effect in the world, misperception, biased memories, deliberate cons, wish fulfillment, cultural inertia, and a host of cognitive biases.  There are sufficient mechanisms of belief at work to create and sustain belief in something without any basis in objective reality. Every culture, in fact, is overwhelmed with such beliefs.

The notion of red mercury started as a cultural belief in the mid-east. There is a lot of mystery-mongering surrounding the Egyptian pyramids and the mummies – they are ancient and elaborate, which provokes the imagination. According to the BBC, the first incarnation of red mercury was the claim that it was a powerful elixir with healing properties that could be found in the mouths of Egyptian mummies. Of course anything with claimed healing properties will be in high demand.

The legend apparently simmered within this culture for some time, mostly contacting Western culture through archaeologists encountering those seeking the substance. But beliefs have a life and an energy of their own, and once this idea spread our of the mid-east it evolved. There seems to have been one major bifurcation in the legend, with red mercury coming to be associated with a secret Soviet nuclear material. This red mercury has destructive powers, and could be used in nuclear bombs or as a weapon itself, a form of dirty bomb.

In fact, at least for a time terrorists were seeking to get their hands on red mercury. Whether this was just a con, or an intelligence agency sting operation, is unclear. Unfortunately pseudoscience is sometimes exploited for disinformation campaigns or sting operations, feeding into the underlying legend. The inherent secrecy also feeds conspiracy theories, which is like jet fuel when combined with any other belief.

And then finally we get to the age of social media, where red mercury becomes just another way to drive clicks. There are various YouTube videos showing people squeezing mercury and lemon juice through cheesecloth, for example. Not sure what this is supposed to demonstrate – but the mercury does look red (even before the lemon juice) which could be a video effect or simply a red light above the camera reflecting off of regular mercury. Or the liquid could be something else entirely. Other videos use obvious video effects to claim, for example, that red mercury has no reflection in a mirror.

The latter claim derives from another aspect of the legend, that red mercury can be sourced in bat caves. And of course whenever you mention bats something thinks of vampire bats, and therefore vampires, and therefore no reflection. It’s nothing more than group stream of consciousness.

It is fascinating how myths spread and mutate through human social networks, morphing and optimizing for psychological appeal, and being exploited for attention and money.


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