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Posts Tagged ‘chemistry

“By temporarily disrupting the order of the brain, a new order forms. And that order may have incredible value at either the level of mental health and psychology or the level of creativity.”*…

But, Zoe Cormier warns, if the means of that constructive disruption are industrialized and turned into aggressively-marketed products, we could be in for trouble…

Welcome to the strange new world of “psychedelic capitalism,” where dozens of start-ups have already raised millions (and in some cases billions) of dollars to commercialize psilocybin (the psychedelic ingredient in magic mushrooms), DMT (found in the Amazonian brew ayahuasca), mescaline (peyote’s active component), and LSD—despite the fact that all of these “classic psychedelics” are still ranked as Schedule I drugs under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Manufacturing any of these drugs without a license can still land you a long prison sentence. But marketing one, even though they all remain illegal and none have passed all the clinical trials required for approval? That can make you a millionaire…

The days when mind-bending psychedelics were seen as appealing only to drug dealers, nut jobs, and hippies are over. Today, serious-minded people interested in randomized controlled trials and stock valuations are leading the charge.

The “psychedelic renaissance” we’ve awaited for half a century—the promised era when acid, shrooms, and peyote would be brought back into legitimate research and legal access—is finally here. But will it turn out to be worth the wait? Or the hype?

Because it’s not like we ever stopped enjoying them: In the West, hippies, scientists, “healers,” and others have used psychedelics continuously for seven decades. And before we got our hands on them, Indigenous cultures used psychedelics for thousands of years as ritual sacraments. Now dozens of start-ups want to standardize, commercialize, alter, patent, and market these ancient compounds—and they stand to make a fortune doing so.

Will old-school profit-centered tactics bring down decades of dogged work by activists, scientists, and reformers to have these drugs reassessed for their virtues? Will we experience another nasty, research-smothering backlash?…

The profiteers have arrived; get ready for Psychedelics Inc.: “The Brave New World of Legalized Psychedelics Is Already Here,” from @zoecormier @thenation.

* Michael Pollan, in conversation with Tim Ferriss on Ferriss’ blog


As we tune in, we might spare a thought for Ellen Swallow Richards; she died on this date in 1911. The first female student admitted to MIT, she became its first female faculty member. A chemist, she did pioneering work in sanitary engineering, but is best remembered for her experimental research in domestic science, which laid the foundation for the new science of home economics, of which she is considered founder. She was one of the first ecofeminists, believing that women’s work within the home was not just vital to the economy, but also a critical aspect of our relationship to the earth.


“A mind that is stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimensions”*…

Alex Berezow observes (in an appreciation of Peter AtkinsGalileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science) that, while scientific theories are always being tested, scrutinized for flaws, and revised, there are ten concepts so durable that it is difficult to imagine them ever being replaced with something better…

In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued that science, instead of progressing gradually in small steps as is commonly believed, actually moves forward in awkward leaps and bounds. The reason for this is that established theories are difficult to overturn, and contradictory data is often dismissed as merely anomalous. However, at some point, the evidence against the theory becomes so overwhelming that it is forcefully displaced by a better one in a process that Kuhn refers to as a “paradigm shift.” And in science, even the most widely accepted ideas could, someday, be considered yesterday’s dogma.

Yet, there are some concepts which are considered so rock solid, that it is difficult to imagine them ever being replaced with something better. What’s more, these concepts have fundamentally altered their fields, unifying and illuminating them in a way that no previous theory had done before…

The bedrock of modern biology, chemistry, and physics: “The ten greatest ideas in the history of science,” from @AlexBerezow in @bigthink.

* Oliver Wendell Holmes


As we forage for first principles, we might send carefully-calcuated birthday greetings to Georgiy Antonovich Gamov; he was born on this date in 1904. Better known by the name he adopted on immigrating to the U.S., George Gamow, he was a physicist and cosmologist whose early work was instrumental in developing the Big Bang theory of the universe; he also developed the first mathematical model of the atomic nucleus. In 1954, he expanded his interests into biochemistry and his work on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) made a basic contribution to modern genetic theory.

But mid-career Gamow began to shift his energy to teaching and to writing popular books on science… one of which, One Two Three… Infinity, inspired legions of young scientists-to-be and kindled a life-long interest in science in an even larger number of other youngsters (including your correspondent).


“The longer I live the greater is my respect for manure in all its forms”*…

Two crucial and interconnected resources—human feces and arable soil—face crises of mismanagement…

… the problem of how to deal with our “dark matter” has plagued humanity for millennia. As soon as people stopped moving around in pursuit of prey, the stuff began to pile up. Neolithic farmers may have had no idea of germ theory, but they were smart enough to know they didn’t want to live next to—or on top of—their own shit. They dug pits or ditches out in their fields to serve as open-air toilets. As the number of people living in close quarters grew, pits no longer sufficed. People turned to more sophisticated waste-disposal methods, usually involving water.

Sewage treatment plants… manage, by and large, to keep raw sewage out of waterways, and this has mostly eliminated outbreaks of cholera as well as typhoid. But the practice of washing nutrients down the drain remains as big an issue as ever.

Of all the nutrients we’re redistributing, probably the most significant is nitrogen. It’s difficult for plants—and, by extension, plant eaters—to obtain nitrogen. In the air, it exists in a form—N2—that most living things can’t utilize. For hundreds of millions of years, plants have relied on specialized bacteria that “fix” nitrogen into a compound they can make use of. When people started farming, they figured out that legume crops, which harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria in nodules on their roots, replenish soil. Manure and human waste, or “night soil,” also provide nitrogen for plants.

When synthetic fertilizer was invented, in the early twentieth century, the world was suddenly awash in nitrogen. This enabled people to grow a lot more food, which, in turn, enabled them to produce a lot more people, who produced a lot more shit. Via our wastewater treatment plants, we now introduce vast quantities of nitrogen into coastal environments, where it’s wreaking havoc. (Fertilizer runoff also contributes to the problem.)

Jo Handelsman, a plant pathologist who runs an interdisciplinary research center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is also interested in “dark matter.” Handelsman, however, uses the term to refer to soil. And the problem she’s concerned with is not that we have too much of the stuff, but too little. “The plight of the world’s soils is a silent crisis”… Agriculture requires rich soil, but most modern practices are, unfortunately, terrible for it…

From the estimable Elizabeth Kolbert (@ElizKolbert) and @nybooks: “The Waste Land.”

Elizabeth von Arnim


As we go back to basics, we might recall that it was on this date in in 1874 that Lewis H. Latimer received his first patent (U.S. Patent 147,363), for an improved water-closet for railway cars.

Latimer went on to develop an improved process for manufacturing carbon filaments for light bulbs, to write the first book on electric lighting, and to invent an evaporative air conditioner, a forerunner of today’s systems.


“In our world of big names, curiously, our true heroes tend to be anonymous”*…

A March 1940 meeting at the University of California at Berkeley concerning the planned 184-inch cyclotron (seen on the blackboard), from left to right: Ernest O. Lawrence, Arthur H. Compton, Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant, Karl T. Compton, and Alfred Lee Loomis

Now let us praise a man who should be famous…

Alfred Lee Loomis was a lawyer, a banker, a socialite, possibly one of the most influential physical scientists of the twentieth century, and can reasonably claim to have done more than any other civilian to bring a swift end to World War II. And yet, in the intervening decades, he’s faded into obscurity.

Loomis’s story is one of incredible intellect, unimaginable wealth, a breadth of ability that spanned from the abstract and theoretical across to the practical and logistical, and an unbelievable knack for knowing the right people and putting them into contact with one another. He applied these generational talents relentlessly to the hardest problems facing science throughout the first half of the twentieth century. He deserves to be far better known…


To be more specific…

Alfred Lee Loomis (November 4, 1887 – August 11, 1975) was an American attorney, investment banker, philanthropist, scientist, physicist, inventor of the LORAN Long Range Navigation System and a lifelong patron of scientific research. He established the Loomis Laboratory in Tuxedo Park, New York, and his role in the development of radar and the atomic bomb contributed to the Allied victory in World War II. He invented the Aberdeen Chronograph for measuring muzzle velocities, contributed significantly… to the development of a ground-controlled approach technology for aircraft, and participated in preliminary meetings of the Manhattan Project.

Loomis also made contributions to biological instrumentation. Working with Edmund Newton Harvey he co-invented the microscope centrifuge, and pioneered techniques for electroencephalography. In 1937, he discovered the sleep K-complex brainwave. During the Great Depression, Loomis anonymously paid the Physical Review journal’s fees for authors who could not afford them….


As Nobel Laureate Luis Alvarez noted…

… after the turn of the century, university scientists found it possible to earn a living teaching students, while doing research “on the side.” So the true amateur has almost disappeared—Alfred Loomis may well be remembered as the last of the great amateurs of science. He had distinguished careers as a lawyer, as an Army officer, and as an investment banker before he turned his full energies to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, first in the field of physics, and later as a biologist. By any measure that can be employed, he was one of the most influential physical scientists of this century. In support of that assessment, one can note: (1) his election to
this Academy when he was 53 years old, (2) his honorary degrees from prestigious universities, (3) his crucial wartime role as director of all NDRC-OSRD radar research in World War II, and (4) his exceedingly close personal relationships with many of the leaders of American science and government in the mid-twentieth century…


The financier who became a scientist and helped win World War II: Alfred Lee Loomis. For more, see Jennet Conant’s Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II. (Conant is the grandaughter of James B. Conat– in the photo above– chemist, President of Harvard, and friend/collaborator of Loomis).

* Daniel J. Boorstin


As we applaud awesome amateurs, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Edward Williams Morley; he was born on this date in 1838. A chemist who was first to precisely determine the atomic weight of oxygen, he is probably best remembered for his collaboration with the physicist Albert A. Michelson. In what we call the Michelson–Morley experiment (actually a number of experiments conducted between April and July in 1887), they attempted to detect the luminiferous aether, a supposed medium permeating space that was thought to be the carrier of light waves; their method was the very precise measurement of the speed of light (in various directions, and at different times of the year, as the Earth revolved in its orbit around the Sun). Michelson and Morley always found that the speed of light did not vary at all depending on the direction of measurement, or the position of the Earth in its orbit– the so-called “null result.”

Neither Morley nor Michelson ever considered that these null results disproved the hypothesis of the existence of “luminiferous aether.” But other scientists began to suspect that they did. Almost two decades later the results of the Michelson–Morley experiments supported Albert Einstein’s strong postulate (in 1905) that the speed of light is a constant in all inertial frames of reference as part of his Special Theory of Relativity.


“Those distinct substances, which concretes generally either afford, or are made up of, may, without very much inconvenience, be called the elements or principles of them”*…

An interactive encomium to the elements…

A review of the Periodic Table composed of 119 science haiku, one for each element, plus a closing haiku for element 119 (not yet synthesized). The haiku encompass astronomy, biology, chemistry, history, physics, and a bit of whimsical flair…

Elemental haiku,” by Mary Soon Lee (@MarySoonLee) in @ScienceMagazine from @aaas.

Robert Boyle, The Sceptical Chymist


As we celebrate chemical compliments, we might send illustratively-arranged birthday greetings to Alexandre-Émile Béguyer de Chancourtois; he was born on this date in 1820. A geologist and mineralogist, he was the first to arrange the chemical elements in order of atomic weights (in 1862). But De Chancourtois only published his paper, not his graph with the novel arrangement; and because it was a geology paper, it was largely ignored by chemists. It was Dmitri Mendeleev’s table, published in 1869, that became the standard– and the model for the periodic table that we know today.


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