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Posts Tagged ‘iron

“Why were Europeans, rather than Africans or Native Americans, the ones to end up with guns, the nastiest germs, and steel?”*…



Oil painting by E.F. Skinner showing steel being produced by the Bessemer Process at Penistone Steel Works, South Yorkshire. Circa 1916


The story of steel begins long before bridges, I-beams, and skyscrapers. It begins in the stars.

Billions of years before humans walked the Earth—before the Earth even existed—blazing stars fused atoms into iron and carbon. Over countless cosmic explosions and rebirths, these materials found their way into asteroids and other planetary bodies, which slammed into one another as the cosmic pot stirred. Eventually, some of that rock and metal formed the Earth, where it would shape the destiny of one particular species of walking ape.

On a day lost to history, some fortuitous humans found a glistening meteorite, mostly iron and nickel, that had barreled through the atmosphere and crashed into the ground. Thus began an obsession that gripped the species. Over the millennia, our ancestors would work the material, discovering better ways to draw iron from the Earth itself and eventually to smelt it into steel. We’d fight over it, create and destroy nations with it, grow global economies by it, and use it to build some of the greatest inventions and structures the world has ever known…

The story of the emperor of alloys: “The entire history of steel.”

* Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel


As we celebrate strength, we might recall that it was on this date in 1867 that F. Joseph Monier launched a (then-)new use for steel: a gardener in Paris, he received the first patent on reinforced concrete (which he used to create stronger garden tubs, beams and posts).  Monier had found that the tensile weakness of plain concrete could be overcome if steel rods were embedded in a concrete member… and in so doing created a key material that would be used in skyscrapers, bridges, and much of what we now take for granted as the infrastructure of modern life.

Joseph_Monier source


Written by LW

July 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy”*…


Reddit turns its lens on itself and its users…

Randall Munroe sorted the sciences nicely by purity. Let’s see what sequence the application of other metrics, like usage amount of specific words in the respective subreddits, yields.

About 434k randomly chosen comments to about 34k submissions from 2013-08 to 2014-07 on /r/biology/r/chemistry, /r/compsci, /r/engineering, /r/geology, /r/math, /r/medicine,/r/physics, /r/psychology and /r/sociologywere collected and analysed for frequency of specific words and phrases…

By way of analytic example: given the chart above, one shouldn’t probably shouldn’t be surprised by these results…

More insight at “Science subreddits and their choice of words.”

* Ren and Stimpy


As we get our rocks on, we might send stony birthday greetings to Raphael Pumpelly; he was born on this date in 1837.  A geologist and explorer, Pumpelly is best remembered for his pioneering petrographic study of the Great Lakes region, as a result of which he sensed the increasing importance of steel, and advised investors to search for iron rather than gold– making those who heeded his advice great fortunes.



Written by LW

September 8, 2014 at 1:01 am



In 1870, a German chemist made a single, simple error in transcribing his data on how much iron was in spinach… and provided an object lesson in the spread and persistence of erroneous information in society:

One of the strangest examples of the spread of error is related to Popeye the Sailor. Popeye, with his odd accent and improbable forearms, used spinach to great effect, a sort of anti-Kryptonite. It gave him his strength, and perhaps his distinctive speaking style. But why did Popeye eat so much spinach? What was the reason for his obsession with such a strange food?

The truth begins more than fifty years earlier. Back in 1870, Erich von Wolf, a German chemist, examined the amount of iron within spinach, among many other green vegetables. In recording his findings, von Wolf accidentally misplaced a decimal point when transcribing data from his notebook, changing the iron content in spinach by an order of magnitude. While there are actually only 3.5 milligrams of iron in a 100-gram serving of spinach, the accepted fact became 35 milligrams. To put this in perspective, if the calcu­lation were correct each 100-gram serving would be like eating a small piece of a paper clip.

Once this incorrect number was printed, spinach’s nutritional value became legendary. So when Popeye was created, studio ex­ecutives recommended he eat spinach for his strength, due to its vaunted health properties. Apparently Popeye helped increase American consumption of spinach by a third!

This error was eventually corrected in 1937, when someone rechecked the numbers. But the damage had been done. It spread and spread, and only recently has gone by the wayside, no doubt helped by Popeye’s relative obscurity today. But the error was so widespread that the British Medical Journal published an article discussing this spinach incident in 1981, trying its best to finally debunk the issue.

Ultimately, the reason these [types of] errors spread is because it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds cor­rect, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact.

From Samuel Arbesman’s The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date.

[TotH to the wonderful Delancey Place— from which, the image above]

And lest we think that this kind of mistake has faded into the past, it turns out that the academic research that underpins Paul Ryan’s budget (and the agressive austerity approach that it embodies) contains a simple arithmetic error (not to mention a serious structural flaw)… one that, when corrected, suggests that deficits are not, after all, necessarily an impediment to economic growth and health.


As we eat our spinach anyway, we might spare a thought for Gerardus Johannes Mulder; he died on this date in 1880.  An accomplished organic and analytic chemist, Mulder was the first to use use the word “protein” (drawing on work by Berzelius), the first to propose that animals acquired protein by ingestion (of plants, Mulder suggested), and the first to identify “fibrin,” the clotting protein in blood.  (Mulder had an impact in the Plant Kingdom as well:  he was first to analyze phytol correctly during research on chlorophyll, and confirmed that theine and caffein were the same compound.)



Written by LW

April 18, 2013 at 1:01 am

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