Printed Icon Lives On
Apr20

Printed Icon Lives On

Back in the April 2 issue of C&EN, we at Newscripts lamented the news that Encyclopaedia Britannica was no longer going to be issued in print format. Although the venerable encyclopedia will still be available online, we considered that the loss of the printed icon would be detrimental to tactile learning gained by leafing through the meaty volumes. In particular we noted that in the 1967 edition, the section on chemistry spans more than 50 pages. “Yes, that is a loss,” comments Newscripts reader Robert B. “Brad” Spencer of Madison, Wisc., who is proud owner of five sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica, including a reprint of the first edition from 1771. Spencer sent along this scan (below) of the beginning of the article on “Chemistry” from the first edition. The article has no chemical element symbols—they hadn’t yet been established. It is also absent any formulas or equal signs, and the “long s” was still in use in English.  “Chemistry was a recognized field of interest at the time,” Spencer observes. “But it was still largely an outgrowth of alchemy.” This first article states that the four principles (or elements) are earth, water, air, and fire, Spencer notes.  “Not that long ago the belief in these was still dominant,” he says. “But also notice what follows: a statement that our senses cannot possibly determine the principles of which they are composed, so we should, in essence, give up.  As we know, there were already at that time individuals who were not so pessimistic about the ability to dig deeper, and they began a marvelous understanding of chemical reality.” Thanks for sharing...

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Gilbert Stork on How Not to Dispose of a Steak
Mar06

Gilbert Stork on How Not to Dispose of a Steak

When writing about science, it’s easy to focus on the facts of discovery and leave out the actual scientists who do the work. This is a shame, since science is ultimately a human endeavor, spurred on by folks with colorful personalities that often compliment (and sometimes overshadow) their remarkable intellect. Now chemistry historian Jeffrey I. Seeman, of the University of Richmond, has put together a collection of witticisms by and about renowned synthetic organic chemist Gilbert Stork. It just went up online in Angewandte Chemie. I know not everyone has access to Angewandte Chemie, and the article is on the long side, so I thought I’d poach some of my favorite tidbits for you, dear reader of this blog. Here’s the gem that gives this post its name: “There was this one really idiotic time. I remember I was really scared that I was going to blow up the entire Chemistry Department at the University of Wisconsin. I had a steak on the window ledge of my office. It was the winter, and I used the window ledge as a refrigerator. You obviously were not supposed to be cooking steaks in the lab, but I had a small lab where I was usually alone in there, and so I had a steak. But I also was not aware that biodegradable material is biodegradable, and this steak was clearly degraded on the window ledge. And the question was, what to do with it? And I decided to toss the steak in a hot acid bath which we used to clean up glassware. So, it’s fuming nitric and sulfuric acid. It’s really aqua regia in that bath, in that heavy lead dish, and the steak. “And then, as I just had thrown it in there, and it fumed furiously and red fumes of who knows what, nitrous oxide of various kinds were being produced there. I became frantically concerned because fat is glycerides. So, I’m hydrolyzing the fat to glycerin. You make nitroglycerine by taking glycerin and nitric acid and sulfuric acid, and obviously, I’m going to produce a pile of nitroglycerine and blow up the entire building with my steak. “Now, what is an interesting point there, why didn’t it? And of course, the reason is kinetics. That is, the kinetics of oxidation of the glycerol at that temperature is much, much, much, I mean, infinitely faster than the cold temperature nitration of glycerin. And so the place was safe.” Here’s Stork on his occasionally questionable choice of laboratory attire: “I used to make diethylaluminum cyanide myself, and I usually liked to do it on December 31st because it’s my...

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Your Chance to Host a PBS Program About Chemistry
Feb28

Your Chance to Host a PBS Program About Chemistry

Think you’ve got what it takes to be chemistry’s Carl Sagan? Well, now’s your chance. Over the transom, we’ve received word that the folks at Moreno/Lyons Productions are searching for a host for their upcoming PBS special/multimedia project The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements. “In a nutshell,” notes the production’s webpage, “the project is about the human story behind the Periodic Table of the Elements.“ The centerpiece of the project is a two-hour documentary that will feature dramatic reenactments with key chemistry characters, such as Marie Curie, Joseph Priestley, and Glenn Seaborg. These scenes will be knit together by an on-screen host…who could be you. “Our hope is to find someone from the chemistry community,” Project Director Stephen Lyons tells Newscripts. “The host needn’t be famous, a Nobel Prize winner, or even a leading researcher. She or he might be a great teacher, for example, at the college or even community college or high school level. We’d like to find someone young enough to go on and serve as the host of later chapters in the continuing Mystery of Matter series, so preference will be given to candidates under 60. Minority candidates are strongly encouraged to apply. Since many of the host scenes will involve performing chemical demonstrations, candidates who already have that skill will have a leg up. But the most important qualification is that she or he be a gifted chemical communicator — comfortable on camera, at ease with chemistry, and able to present with authority, enthusiasm, and feeling for the very human story we’re telling,” Lyons elaborates on the Mystery of Matter webpage. In case you’re wondering about Lyons’ cinematic chemistry chops, his  previous work includes “Forgotten Genius,” the documentary about African-American chemist Percy Julian. To let Lyons know that you (or someone you know) would make a great host, send a link to a YouTube video that features the candidate’s skills as a communicator of chemistry to: Chemistry.Host@gmail.com. Be sure to include a way for Lyons’ team to get in touch with the...

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A Lavoisier Painting’s Path
Dec15

A Lavoisier Painting’s Path

It’s a painting that most chemists would recognize instantly. Antoine Lavoisier, French nobleman and giant in early modern chemistry, sits, quill in hand, at a velvet-cloaked table topped with scattered instruments. Behind him, in a position perhaps symbolic of her role in Lavoisier’s legacy (if the play Oxygen is to be believed), is Madame Lavoisier. I’ve visited the painting before– it hangs in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But before that, as I learned on my travels on Tuesday, its home was Rockefeller University. The painting arrived in New York via descendants of Lavoisier himself. John D. Rockefeller purchased the painting from them through a dealer and gifted it to the university. In 1977, the university sold the painting to the Met for about $4 million, which funded professorships and graduate fellowships. So how’d I get a picture of the painting this week while I was at Rockefeller rather than the Met? As Jeanne Garbarino, a postdoc in Jan Breslow’s lab, explained to me, when Sir Paul Nurse stepped down from Rockefeller’s presidency to head up the Royal Society, he had a high-quality reproduction made for the university as a...

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Amusing News Aliquots
Oct06

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf. Aqua regia: Good for cleaning up around the lab, etching stuff … and dissolving Nobel Prize medals before the Nazis arrive. [NPR] Forget the dreamhouse. “Barbie pagoda” fungus discovered inNew Caledonia. [The Observer] When good compounds go bad.ClemsonUniversitychemistry professor John Huffman’s synthetic cannabinoids have taken on a life of their own. [LA Times] Chemistry grad students, leave your cell phones at home. They’ll be blowin’ up because now they can alert you AND the authorities to the presence of hazardous chemicals. [Infozine] Scientists developing pill to counteract effects of alcohol on brain cells, testing on drunk mice. Now why didn’t the Newscripts gang get invited to this party in the lab? [Telegraph] Enjoying some fruit this morning? Here’s some news you didn’t want to hear. [NY...

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Reconstructing Alchemical Experiments
Aug29

Reconstructing Alchemical Experiments

In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote a profile of Larry Principe, a professor of organic chemistry and the history of science at Johns Hopkins University. Principe studies alchemy with the goal of understanding the evolution of modern-day chemistry. But he doesn’t just study alchemy. He also carries out his own alchemical experiments to get a handle on the thought processes of those experimentalists who tried to make gold from cheaper materials. One school of alchemists that Principe got particularly interested in is a group who focused on making gold by starting with mercury. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, Principe says, “there was a lot of disagreement about what material to start with—what you actually go to your apothecary and get 20 lb of to start trying to” transmute base metals and chemicals into gold. Some alchemists thought copper sulfate or potassium nitrate would work. Others—those that Principe calls the mercurialists—focused on mercury, hoping to use the liquid metal to make the philosopher’s stone. For those who have lived under a rock for the past decade and haven’t read any of the “Harry Potter” books, or even heard of them really, the philosopher’s stone is a substance thought to be able to convert base metals into gold. And, as mentioned in the first book of the “Harry Potter” series, the philosopher’s stone was also thought to be a universal medicine capable of prolonging life. To make the philosopher’s stone, Principe says, the mercurialists believed that “you needed to awaken a seed that’s within gold to cause it to grow—just like when a farmer takes seeds and puts them in the ground and waters them, he gets more seeds back in the harvest.” This group of alchemists therefore used a lot of agricultural metaphors and imagery in their writings and drawings. One of these alchemists, a Harvard-educated man named George Starkey, wrote a number of public works on the subject under the pen name Eirenaeus Philalethes as well as some private letters—most famously to “father of modern chemistry” Robert Boyle. Putting together some of these public and private writings, Principe came up with a reasonable idea of what Starkey was doing in the lab. “The idea was that you take common mercury, and you turn it into ‘philosophical mercury’ by distilling it from various mixtures of metals,” Principe says. “Somehow this makes it a fit liquid for nurturing the seed of gold.” Principe undertook the laborious process of grinding mercury with various substances, heating it, boiling it, and distilling it seven times. After a month of work, he says, he got something that should have...

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