The Facebook of Chemical Elements
Nov13

The Facebook of Chemical Elements

Admit it. You’ve found yourself on more than one occasion scrolling through your list of Facebook friends, wondering, hey, what ever happened to so-and-so? Then, before you know it, you’re looking at your acquaintance’s profile, learning all about what’s been going on in their life over the past several years. Wow, they had a kid! Neat, they studied in Paris. Eww, Ishtar is one of their favorite movies?? It’s like you’re meeting them again for the first time. And that’s the experience chemists will have when they open up “Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified,” a humorous guide to the chemical elements in which Japanese artist Bunpei Yorifuji reimagines everything from hydrogen to ununoctium as humanlike caricatures. Although it’s an effort targeted at chemistry neophytes (“I’ve created a periodic table that should be a bit more accessible to newcomers,” Yorifuji proudly proclaims at the book's onset), the playful reimagining of the chemical elements will still delight chemists who know the periodic table like the back of their hand. Just like the periodic table, Yorifuji’s book catalogs drawings of the chemical elements according to atomic number, placing the artwork alongside quick facts specific to each element. At first glance, Yorifuji’s whimsical depictions of the chemical elements may appear shallow and juvenile. Look, hydrogen has a long bushy beard and is wearing an undershirt! readers might laugh as they look at the first element’s entry. But there’s more to Yorifuji’s drawings than initially meets the eye. In hydrogen’s case, the unkempt facial hair serves as a symbol of hydrogen’s discovery many centuries ago, and the undershirt speaks to the element’s myriad uses (“margarine is hardened using hydrogen,” a nearby caption elaborates). Had hydrogen been discovered in the 18th century, it would have sported a well-groomed beard according to Yorifuji’s criteria. Elements discovered in the 19th century are clean shaven while ones begotten in the 20th century, in a nod to their youth, suck a pacifier. It’s a lot of information to take in. So much so, in fact, reading Yorifuji’s tome cover to cover would be nearly impossible. Rather, the book, with its impressive marriage of visuals and facts, works best when thought of in terms of that predecessor to Facebook, a yearbook. Readers can pick up the book, thumb through it for a few minutes, bask in the imagery and text, and then put it down feeling as though they’ve just taken a fun trip down memory lane. After all, the humorously drawn elements in Yorifuji’s book are the very same characters chemists met many years ago in their first chemistry class. And perusing “Wonderful Life with...

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Amusing News Aliquots
Jun07

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week's science news. Got a thing for librarians? Now you can smell like a book. [Steidl] How do you weigh a dinosaur? Why, with a laser beam, of course. [Not Exactly Rocket Science] The law tries to keep up with garage chemists making analogs of THC in “a giant game of chemical Whack-a-Mole.” [Gizmodo] Mosquitoes + raindrops + high speed video = awesome. [Huffington Post] Here’s a job you don’t want: Developing stink bombs for the Department of Defense. [New Scientist] In honor of Ray Bradbury, here are the most beautiful covers of “Fahrenheit 451.” [Slate]  ...

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Addicted To Growth
Jun30

Addicted To Growth

The subprime mortgage debacle. The Great Recession. Derivatives and hedge funds. The effective bankruptcy of Greece and the subsequent collapse of the euro. China’s imminent bubble. The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Weeds resistant to glyphosate. Bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Global climate change. The common factor? Humans want too much. Too many humans are greedy to the point of madness, and neither the global economy nor the global environment can withstand the onslaught of our greed. Our greed, however, isn’t the root cause of the problems we face. Our greed is a symptom of a far more fundamental flaw in the way humans organize their societies and their economies: We are addicted to growth. That addiction to growth stokes the greed that drives the endless and often pointless consumption that we have defined as economic success. The problem with being addicted to growth is that we live on a finite planet. No matter what growth’s apologists claim about finding more resources or harnessing new technology, an addiction to growth, by definition, must at some point collide with reality. Proponents of endless growth insist that humans have always in the past overcome perceived resource limitations. This is a silly argument. We have been burning fossil fuels, the resources that underpin modern civilization, for a mere two centuries, a period of time that hardly qualifies as “always.” In the new book “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet,” Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, argues that anthropogenic climate change/global warming is already well advanced. It is not a problem for future generations. It is a problem for us. McKibben makes a persuasive argument that humans must begin, right now, to adapt to a radically changed planet. Earth, the planet that humans evolved on and which gave birth to human civilization, no longer exists. In its place is a radically changed place, “with melting poles and dying forests and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat. An inhospitable place.” Most important, though, McKibben writes, is that it is a planet that will no longer tolerate growth. “Of all the things I’ve told you about our new planet … the most terrifying and strangest change would be the end of growth. Growth is what we do. Who ever dreamed it might come to an end?” he writes. The first half of “Eaarth” is devoted to making the case that humans have already irrevocably changed the planet and that life in the future will have to be different because of those changes. The second half of the book focuses...

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Gimme That Old Time Poisonin'
Feb23

Gimme That Old Time Poisonin'

It's not often that an article about chemistry reaches the "most popular" articles list on Slate. Perhaps the last one was a much-talked-about Slate article about the UCLA/Sheri Sangji case. Unlike the Sangji article, this story from Friday was about something I'd never heard of before- during Prohibition, the U.S. government ordered the adulteration of industrial alcohol in order to thwart bootleggers and stop people from drinking. As author Deborah Blum explains, that didn't go so well. Poisoned holiday revelers died by the dozens in the nation's hospitals. And outraged public health officials and anti-Prohibition legislators had harsh words for the government's ethically dubious chemistry dabblings. Since most liquor syndicates were simply taking denatured industrial alcohol, which has additives put in to make it undrinkable, and distilling it to remove said additives, the feds decided to make that distillation a bit more complicated. From Blum's article: By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons—kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added—up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly. A couple of chemistry thoughts went through my head as I read Blum's piece: How easy is it to separate methanol and ethanol? I pulled out my CRC Handbook, checking to see whether there was an azeotrope- there was none to be found. I also dug up this brochure. Anybody out there know how this works? The strychnine mention recalled a lecture on poisons I attended several years ago. The professor who gave the lecture told the crowd that the lecture was a favorite of undergrads. I could see why. He started off dramatic, pacing the front of the room with a white coffee mug filled with water and a small, non-lethal (he assured us) dose of strychnine. Then he had us dip a finger in the mug and taste it. I am not making this up. Whatever was in that mug was bitter almost to the point of gagging. The professor explained that at a lethal dose of strychnine, the bitterness would be overwhelming, so it wasn't a perfect poison, as poisons go. The stuff probably was strychnine- The Merck Index writes that a solution containing as little as 1 part strychnine to 700,000 parts of water will still taste bitter. Brucine, the alkaloid mentioned above, is a little less bitter than strychnine (the threshold for tasting bitterness in the tetrahydrate is 1:220,000, again per the Merck Index). But I'm guessing that...

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