Tattoo Advice For Penning A Synthetic Symphony
Mar24

Tattoo Advice For Penning A Synthetic Symphony

This week I wrote about the "Atalanta Fugi­ens," a gorgeous 17th century alchemy text that includes a musical score. What's crazy is that this score is not just a background melody for the musically inclined alchemist. The score is actually a recipe for making the philosophers' stone, with individual musical parts for the chemical components, mercury, sulfur, and salt. I'm desperately hoping some modern-day chemist will be inspired to write a musical score for their next total synthesis, and that some journal agrees to publish this music in the Materials & Methods section. (Or at the very least, the Supplementary Information section.) Butt! A word of warning: Should any musically inclined chemist decide to pen a synthetic opera, however, they should certainly consider the admonishment of medieval artist Hieronymous Bosch. Namely, DO NOT tattoo that score on to your behind. Taking a closer look at the hell component of Bosch’s masterpiece "The Garden of Earthly Delights," discriminating viewers will note that the poor soul with the Gregorian chant on his nether region is being whipped by a demon tongue. Don't say I didn't warn you. Incidentally, that demon-whipped, butt-hugging music is also available for download, thanks to Amelia Hamrick, a student in Oklahoma. Have a...

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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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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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