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Category → Chemical History

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.

Aqua regia: a good place to hide stuff. Credit: flickr user willandbeyond

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 Times]

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.

Alchemists sometimes depicted their experiments with coded images like this one. Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation

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.

The tree that Principe made out of philosophical mercury and a seed of gold. Credit: Larry Principe

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 been, according to Starkey, philosophical mercury. He then mixed it with a small bit of gold, put it in a small sealed flask with a long neck, and heated it.

But here was the tricky part: Starkey didn’t have thermometers back in the day, so it was difficult for Principe to gauge what temperature the alchemist had used. The Johns Hopkins professor fiddled with temperature settings for three weeks until he came into the lab one morning and realized he must have found the correct, albeit narrow, range.

There in the flask was a beautiful treelike structure of mercury and gold. “It surprised the heck out of me,” Principe says. “I didn’t expect anything quite like that.” But once he saw the result, Principe says, it is easy to understand why Starkey thought he was on the right path toward the philosopher’s stone: He had succeeded in making the seed of gold sprout. And it’s also easy to understand why he, and then Boyle, continued to practice alchemy after successfully producing the small, crystalline structure.

“When you’re working for months and months on a process, and you just can’t get anything close to the results that are described” by the alchemists, Principe says, “and then you finally make the right change and it works beautifully,” it is so satisfying. “And you realize that at that moment, you are looking at the same phenomenon that your author writing in 1600 saw himself. For me, that is such a powerful thing—it explains so much more.”

The story of the tree was originally published here:

Lawrence M. Principe, “Apparatus and Reproducibility in Alchemy,” pp. 55-74 in Instruments and Experimentation in the History of Chemistry, eds. Frederic L. Holmes and Trevor Levere, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

What’s In A Name? For Chemists, Their Field’s Soul

This post was originally published at Scientific American’s Guest Blog. Don’t forget to check out all the contributions to the Scientific American Blog Network’s Chemistry Day!

By 1992, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved, and the entire world’s political, economic, and military alliances were in the throes of transformation. But you could forgive officials at the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) if they didn’t notice much of a difference.

At the time, they were still embroiled in a very Cold War-era standoff. At issue was one of the biggest prizes in the field of chemistry– naming rights for new elements in the periodic table. In the 1960s, American and Russian laboratories both laid claim to the discoveries of elements 104 and 105. And IUPAC had to play the role of arbiter. It took until 1997 to sort out the squabble, and along the way, several other new elements got dragged into the controversy, which some nuclear chemists dubbed the Transfermium Wars.

In the end, the Americans got their way on element 104, which was officially named Rutherfordium, in honor of British chemist and physicist Ernest Rutherford. Element 105, Dubnium, is named for the Russian town of Dubna. Belying the decades-long conflict, IUPAC explained its decision in rather understated terms:

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Alan Alda Takes On Marie Curie

Alan Alda/Credit: alanalda.com

Marie Curie/Credit: nobelprize.org

Alan Alda, the actor and author, has added another credential to his CV: science playwright. Tonight his first play, “Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie,” is being read as part of the opening night festivities of the World Science Festival at Alice Tully Hall in New York City. The play focuses on the eight years of Curie’s life between winning her Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and her Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911. Actors Maggie Gyllenhaal, Liev Schreiber, David Morse, Bill Camp, Allison Janney, and Mireille Enos are among those lending their talents to this evening’s reading.

“I’ve worked hard to make the science in Radiance as accurate as possible, and I’m always grateful when a scientist can help me make it even clearer,” says Alda in a Q&A over at DOE’s Energy Blog. “But I try not to have a single line of science (or anything else) in the play that isn’t dramatic, moving the story forward by having a character actively trying to achieve his or her objective.”

If any Newscripts readers are planning to check out tonight’s event, we’d love to hear what you think. The tickets, which start at $250, were out of the Newscripts gang’s budget.

Celebrating Chemistry in the Year of the Rabbit

Happy Chinese New Year! Or Gong Xi Fa Chai (if, like me, you speak Mandarin), or Gong Hey Fat Choy (if you speak Cantonese).

Credit: Shutterstock

People who are born in the Year of the Rabbit are said to be mild and generous, gracious and dignified. They are noted for their compassion and strong sense of sympathy. They are also alert and persevering, making for good work and life companions.

According to the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Rabbit arrives every 12 years: 1831, 1843, 1855, 1867, 1879, 1891, 1903, 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 199, and, of course, 2011.

Chemistry Nobel Laureates who were born in the Year of the Rabbit include:

Ada E. Yonath (b. 1939)
Yonath shared the 2009 Chemistry Nobel with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz for their studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.

Alan G. MacDiarmid (1927–2007)
MacDiarmid shared the 2000 prize with Alan Heeger for their discovery and development of conductive polymers.

Sir Harold W. Kroto (b. 1939)
Kroto shared the 1996 prize with Robert F. Curl Jr. and Richard E. Smalley for their discovery of fullerenes. Continue reading →

Heckuva Lecture

Richard Heck/ Photo by Pavel Kocovsky

Get thee to this website and check out 2010 Chemistry Nobel Laureate Dr. Richard Heck, regaling Stockholm’s finest with tales of organopalladium chemistry. (I’ve been a fan for a while, but especially so since I wrote about Heck earlier this year.) This year’s chemistry Nobel lectures took place on Wednesday December 8th, and they have already been posted on the Nobel website. Drs. Negishi and Suzuki’s talks are up, too, but I haven’t watched them yet. And I haven’t been able to find an embeddable link to the lecture videos, sorry!

Watching Heck’s lecture, I felt transported to an earlier time- the tone of the talk, the setup of the slides, all made me think about how different things must’ve been pre-Powerpoint, pre-ChemDraw.

High points:
10:40- On seeing a picture of a young Heck on a slide: “I don’t know where this picture came from..”

11:05- On Hercules Chemical Company, in the acknowledgements: “It’s no longer in existence, but I had nothing to do with that.”

Lunch And Talk Of Cannibalism

“As it happens, there are an estimated 100,000 murderers in this country who got away with it in the past 30 years,” said Michael Capuzzo when quoting world-renowned forensic psychologist Richard Walter. “And they’re walking around free.”

Capuzzo, author of the new book “The Murder Room,” was speaking at ACS’s Division of Chemical Information (CINF) luncheon on Tuesday at the national meeting. The book, released on Aug. 10, follows the Vidocq Society, an exclusive crime-solving organization that meets on the third Thursday of each month in Philadelphia.

Walter and the other modern-day sleuths who belong to Vidocq are “like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” Capuzzo said. “Most of them come from the U.S.” but also Interpol, Scotland Yard, and other agencies, he added. They are forensic chemists, polygraph experts, and ex-FBI agents. And they solve cold-case homicides over lunch.

“They have four courses and a headless corpse for dessert,” Capuzzo joked. Police officers or detectives present cases to them, and the detectives offer suggestions. Sometimes, they will even form a small investigative group of their own to pursue the case further. And it’s not unheard of for them to discuss cannibalism and other disagreeable subjects during their sessions.

“They’re just so authentic,” Capuzzo said. “They’re great detectives. They care deeply.” And they use words and phrases such as “chap,” “gobsmacked,” and “my dear boy.” “They’re not these tough guys on CSI going around with the latest technology,” Capuzzo said.

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This Month in Chemical History

Before July bids us adieu, I thought it might be fun to list some of the notable events this month in chemical history (after the jump). This list is by no means comprehensive. For more historical tidbits, visit Dr. Leopold May’s Chemistry Calendar and ACS’s This Week in Chemical History (there are lots of other sites, too, that I’ll mention in a posting next month.)

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Sticky Rice: Shades of Shimmer

Sticky Rice Mango

Sticky Rice Mango


Remember Shimmer? The combination floor wax/dessert topping dreamed up by Saturday Night Live and made real by NYU chemistry professor  Kent Kirshenbaum and pastry chef Will Goldfarb? Well, it turns out that the ancient Chinese may have had their own wacky combination of home maintenance item/dessert staple–sticky rice.

A new paper in Accounts of Chemical Research reports that glutinous or sticky rice is a key component of the mortar in Nanjing’s 600-year-old city wall. Researchers led by Bingjian Zhang of China’s Zhejiang University detected the presence of amylopectin–a carbohydrate found in the rice–in chemical and instrumental analyses of the wall’s mortar. They believe that Chinese masons working as far back as 1,500 years ago combined slaked lime with sticky rice soup to make the mortar and the argue that the same brew is best for repairing ancient structures. They even test different lime-sticky rice soup recipes to see which is best.

Sadly, there’s no mention of sweet mango in the mix.

This Day In Chemical History: Johan Gadolin

Johan Gadolin was born on this date in 1760. And why care about Johan Gadolin, you ask? In 1794,the Finnish chemist discovered yttrium, the first known rare earth element.

(Hat tip to Dr. Leopold May at The Catholic University of America)