In a recurring comic bit, David Letterman used to place household items — a plate of jelly doughnuts, a six-pack of beer — in an 80-ton hydraulic press, gleefully watching as the items squirted, exploded and disintegrated.

That was but a light touch compared with the pressures Russell J. Hemley and his colleagues exert on molecules at the Carnegie Institution for Science here.

When substances are pressed between two diamonds, they achieve a sort of alchemy. No, iron does not change to gold, but familiar atoms and molecules behave differently.

Oxygen turns blue, then scarlet, and finally into a shiny metal.

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