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Posts Tagged ‘chemistry

“The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies”*…


Girl Scout Cookies come in a dizzying variety. Between cool Thin Mints and decadent Peanut Butter Patties, there’s a flavor that appeals to everyone. Which is helpful to the girls in the American youth organization, who sell the cookies to learn business skills and raise funds.

It’s a big operation, so much so that seemingly similar cookies differ across the United States. Since two commercial bakers provide the cookies to different parts of the country, one scout’s Peanut Butter Patty is another’s Tagalong. Even the recipes are slightly different. But all Girl Scout cookies have a common ancestor. Surprisingly, it was kind of boring.

It was an innocuous beginning for a glorious, cookie-filled century. The recipe for the original cookie was provided by local Scouting director Florence E. Neil and printed in the July 1922 issue of The American Girl Magazine (now defunct and unrelated to the current, doll-related American Girl magazine). It was very simple: a cup of butter (or “substitute”) mixed with sugar, eggs, vanilla, milk, and flour. Baking the mix in a “quick” oven produced super simple sugar cookies.

But simplicity was likely necessary, as the scouts baked the cookies themselves. According to the Girl Scouts, this recipe was distributed to 2,000 scouts in the Chicago area who likely needed something quick, simple, and inexpensive to sell. The ingredients for a batch of six to seven dozen cookies clocked in at 26 to 36 cents, which in today’s money is less than six dollars. The scouts could sell a dozen cookies for about the same amount, making a tidy profit…

The tasty tale in its entirety at “The First Girl Scout Cookie Was Surprisingly Boring.”

* Neil Gaiman, American Gods


As we take just one more, we might send almost, but not quite cloying birthday greeting to Ira Remsen; he was born on this date in 1846.  A physician and chemist who became the second President of Johns Hopkins University, he is perhaps best remembered as the discoverer (with Constantin Fahlberg) of the artificial sweetener saccharin.



Written by LW

February 10, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The ghost in the machine”*…


Pity (detail), by William Blake, c. 1795

How is it that mind and body manage to interact and affect each other if they are such different things? This question was pressed on Descartes in the spring of 1643 by a young woman of twenty-four, Elisabeth von der Pfalz, also known as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. When others raised such difficulties, Descartes tended to brush them aside. But he listened to the princess…

Anthony Gottlieb tells the remarkable story of the correspondence between René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—a debate about mind, soul, and immortality: “The Ghost and the Princess.”

* Gilbert Ryle (The Concept of Mind, in part a critique of Descartes’ mind-body dualism)


As we try to get it together, we might that it was on this date in 1404 that King Henry IV signed into law the Act Against Multiplication– which forbade alchemists to use their knowledge to create precious metals… and effectively, thus, outlawed chemistry in England.  Since the time of Roger Bacon, alchemy had fascinated many in England.  The Act of Multipliers was passed by the Parliament, declaring the use of transmutation to “multiply” gold and silver to be felony, as a result of concern that an alchemist might succeed in his project– and thus bring ruin upon the state by debasing the national currency and/or furnishing boundless wealth to a designing tyrant, who would use it to enslave the country.  The Act was in force until 1689, when Robert Boyle and other members of the vanguard of the scientific revolution lobbied for its repeal.



Written by LW

January 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily”*…


All the old rites and superstitions that once warded off mystical evils have been condensed into one single command, so vast and monolithic we’ve forgotten that it’s even possible to disobey: Don’t look directly at the sun.

Not to look directly into the sun is (at a guess) one of the first lessons everyone is taught by their parents. As unquestioned ideological precepts go, it’s enormously effective. You learn it, you internalize it, and never really think of it again until you have kids of your own. And then you say it once more, repeating your parents’ words, and theirs, in an unbroken tradition going back God knows how many millennia. No, honey, never look directly into the sun…  But people do it. And our world is the better for it, because staring directly into the sun is our moral and political duty…

Question authority: “What happens when you stare at the sun.”

* François de La Rochefoucauld


As we put down the smoked glass, we might spare a thought for the creator of the object of another set of taboos, Harry Wesley Coover, Jr.; he died on this date in 2011.  A chemist working for Eastman Kodak, he accidentally discovered a substance first marketed as “Eastman 910,” now commonly known as Super Glue. Coover was a prolific inventor– he held 460 patents– but was proudest of the organizational system that he developed and oversaw at Kodak: “programmed innovation,” a management methodology emphasizing research and development, which resulted in the introduction of 320 new products and sales growth from $1.8 billion to $2.5 billion.  In 2004, he was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame; then in 2010, received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.



Written by LW

March 26, 2017 at 1:01 am

“In wine there is Wisdom, in beer there is Freedom, in water there is bacteria”*…


Alcohol has been a prime mover of human culture from the beginning, fueling the development of arts, language, and religion: “Our 9,000-Year Love Affair With Booze.”

* Mark Twain


As we meditate on mead, we might send analgesic birthday greetings to Felix Hoffmann; he was born on this date in 1868.  A chemist, he is best remembered for re-synthesizing diamorphine (independently from C.R. Alder Wright who synthesized it 23 years earlier), which was popularized under the Bayer trade name of “heroin.”  He is also credited with synthesizing aspirin (though whether he did this at his own initiative or under the instruction of Arthur Eichengrün is highly contested).



Written by LW

January 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”*…


The first issue of the the first volume of the first scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London

Scientific papers, at the very dawn of that writing form, hadn’t yet evolved the conventions we’re so familiar with today. As a result, the contents of that first volume (and those that followed) are a fascinating mix of the groundbreaking, the banal, and the bizarre. Some are written as letters, some take the form of essays, some are abstracts or reviews of separately published books, and some are just plain inscrutable…

For example, this contribution from Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry and a pioneer of the scientific method:

A New Frigorifick Experiment Shewing, How a Considerable Degree of Cold May be Suddenly Produced without the Help of Snow, Ice, Haile, Wind, or Niter, and That at Any Time of the Year – Robert Boyle (again!) (Phil Trans 1:255-261). The word “frigorific”, which Boyle apparently coined for this title, meant “producing cold”, and Boyle’s claim was that simply mixing ammonium chloride into water would cool the solution down. This doesn’t seem to actually be true (saltpetre is frigorific; straight ammonium chloride can keep water liquid below normal freezing point, but isn’t actually frigorific). But although Boyle’s title is a bit hyperbolic, and he does go on a bit, he describes his experiments quite lucidly, so it’s probably unfair to call this one a weird paper. Whether Boyle was right or wrong, here he was doing modern science…

Stephen Heard observes…

Boyle’s Frigorifick paper raises an important point: not every paper in the early Philosophical Transactions was weird, even if in a few case it takes a close reading to realize that. The oddities are interspersed with important observations (like those of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) and descriptions of major advances (like Robert Hooke’s microscopic observations of cells). But the oddities are there by the dozen, and they give the impression of a freewheeling, chaotic, and perhaps somewhat credulous period at the birth of modern science. It was not yet quite clear where the boundaries of science were – where to draw the lines between science and engineering, or architecture, or alchemy, or wild speculation…

Sound familiar?

See more examples and learn more at “The Golden Age of Weird Papers.”

* Albert Einstein


As we scratch our chins, we might spare a thought for Max Born; he died on this date in 1970.  A German physicist and Nobel Laureate, he coined the phrase “quantum mechanics” to describe the field in which he made his greatest contributions.  But beyond his accomplishments as a practitioner, he was a master teacher whose students included Enrico Fermi and  Werner Heisenberg– both of whom became Nobel Laureates before their mentor– and  J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Less well-known is that Born, who died in 1970, was the grandfather of Australian phenom and definitive Sandy-portrayer Olivia Newton-John.


Written by LW

January 5, 2016 at 1:01 am

Suffer the Little Children…


Readers will recall Slinkachu‘s wonderful Little People Project.  As Laughing Squid explains, the artist and photographer…

…stacked pills on a tiny female figurine for Balancing Act, an art installation left last year in the Khayelitsha township of Cape Town, South Africa. On his blog, Slinkachu explains that an estimated 16% of Khayelitsha’s population “experiences many problems such as poverty, crime and a high rate of HIV infection” and that “life can be tough, especially for children.” Prints will be available of Balancing Act at Slinkachu’s upcoming shows and a percentage of the proceeds go to Baphumelele, a “community project in Khayelitsha that aims to help local children” affected by HIV/AIDS. More information can be found at his blog.


As we strive for equilibrium, we might send cavity-free birthday greetings to Harry G. Day; he was born on this date in 1906.  A leading nutritionist in his capacity as Head of the Chemistry Department at the University of Indiana, Day made tremendous contributions to the understanding of the health aspects of food ingredients (e.g., the role of thiamin), principles of food safety (leading to important regulation), and the rudiments of nutrition (e.g., the human requirements of phosphorus, zinc, fluoride, boron and iron).  But he will probably be best remembered for developing stannous fluoride as an additive to toothpaste.  The result of that work, funded by Proctor & Gamble, was Crest– on the sale of which The University of Indiana received a royalty.



Written by LW

October 8, 2012 at 1:01 am

(Not so) Solid Gold…

During World War II, Hitler banned the export of gold from Germany.  But gold, valuable in small amounts and not easily traced, is notoriously difficult to regulate.  (Indeed, that is likely where much of its value derives.) Hitler’s edict was, frustratingly to him, mostly unenforceable.

One exception? Nobel Prize medals.

Before 1980, the medals given by Sweden (that’s to say, all but the Nobel Peace Prize , which is awarded by Norway) were made of 600 grams of 23-karat gold — thus subject to Hitler’s export ban.  And as the recipient’s name was engraved on the back of the medal, its ownership was all-too-clear.  This proved particularly perilous for two German physics laureates, Max von Laue (winner, 1914) and James Franck (1925).  At the outset of World War II, they had entrusted the Bohr Institute, in Copenhagen, Denmark (the research institution of fellow physics laureate Neils Bohr) with the safe keeping of their medals, assuming that Nazi soldiers would otherwise confiscate their prizes.  But when Nazi troops invaded Denmark, they also raided the Institute.  Had von Laue’s and Franck’s medals been discovered, the consequences for the learned duo would most likely have been dire.

Enter Hungarian chemist George de Hevesy, a future Nobel Laureate himself (in Chemistry).  He, Jewish, had gone to the Institute looking for — and temporarily at least, finding — safe haven from the Nazis.   He and Bohr decided that more standard ways of hiding the medals (e.g. burying them) would not suffice, as the risk of harm to von Laue and Franck was too great to chance the medal’s discovery.  The chemist de Hevesy took more drastic action.  He created a solution of aqua regia — a concoction consisting typically one part nitric acid to three parts hydrochloric acid, which is so named because it can dissolve two of the “royal” metals, gold and platinum.  (Wikipedia explains how, for those with a sizable understanding of chemistry.)  He then left the gold-bearing aqua regia solution on his laboratory shelf within the Institute, hidden in plain sight as Nazi stormtroopers ransacked the Institute.

The plan worked, and von Laue and Franck were safe — as were their awards.  The gold remained safely on that shelf, suspended in aqua regia, for the remainder of the war, unnoticed by the German soldiers.  When the war ended, de Hevesy precipitated the gold out of the solution, and the Nobel committee recast the medals.

Bonus fact: Throughout human history (through 2009, at least), mankind has successfully mined roughly 165,000 metric tons of gold.  At gold’s density, that comes out to about 300,000 cubic feet — a relatively tiny-sized amount. For comparison’s sake, all the gold ever mined could be contained by the New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room (seen here), which has a volume of approximately 1.2 million cubic feet.

From the always-illuminating Now I Know.


As we remark that sometimes even things that don’t shine are gold, we might send elemental birthday greetings to Morris William Travers; he was born on this date in 1872.  As the laboratory partner of Sir William Ramsay (who later won a Nobel Prize for the work), Travers participated in the discovery of the “noble gases”– Neon, Xenon… and Krypton.

Bohr model of a Krypton atom

Not, as Wired reminds us, to be confused with the planet Krypton…

When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in Action Comics No. 1 (published June 1938), they named their superhero’s home planet after the chemical element discovered 40 years earlier. Retellings of Superman’s origins place his arrival on Earth around the time of World War I, a mere 20 years after Ramsay’s and Travers’ discovery of krypton.

Siegel and Shuster may have been inspired by the element’s cryptic name [from the Greek kryptos for hidden], its ghastly glow, or perhaps just its sound– like George Eastman favoring the strength of the letter K.

Travers went on to be the founding director of the Indian Institute of Science in the course of a long and productive career as a chemist in both academe and industry…  still he was, from his days with Ramsey, known in scientific circles as “Rare Gas Travers.”


Written by LW

August 25, 2012 at 1:01 am

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