Summer 2012, Vol. 30, No. 2
Take in the glow with the story of neon, its enthusiasts, and its symbolism. Bulk up on nutritional history with a look at the vitamin’s earliest days and its continued controversy. Squeeze into a tiny mine high in the Andes that held a miracle metal, or consider less tangible limits with an essay on transhumanism. Plus treasures from CHF’s collections, book and museum reviews, oral histories, and more.
“More Human Than Human”
With a long history of nebulous definitions, transhumanism today generally refers to a convergence of three technologies: genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. These technologies, transhumanists believe, will soon enable human beings to radically remake themselves.
A Blaze of Crimson Light: The Story of Neon
Neon is a dull and invisible gas until it’s trapped in a tube and zapped with electricity. Literally pulled out of thin air, neon became the bright light of the modern world, a symbol of progress, and an essential component of the electronic age.
Boyle’s Sceptical Chymist (London, 1661) is an acknowledged landmark of science, having earned a place in lists of the most significant books in the history of science. But the book’s reputation is based less on what it is than on what it is perceived to be.
Casualty of War
On May 1, 1915, Clara Immerwahr Haber sat down at her desk to write farewell letters to friends and family. A week before her death her husband had organized the first chlorine-gas attack of World War I at Ypres, Belgium, in an attempt to break the military stalemate in Germany’s favor.
Cellophane Comes to Buffalo
In 1905, in France, chemist Jacques Brandenberger spilled wine on a tablecloth and wished for a material that could be wiped clean with a wet cloth. Swiss-born Brandenberger spent the next several years perfecting a transparent, moisture-repellent film he named cellophane.
Changes in the Air
In 1992 the Subcommittee on Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources of the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing to discuss the current state of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The title underlined the concerns of the committee’s senior members—“Toxic Substances Control: Still Waiting After All These Years.”
Modern chemistry can fill in some ancient gaps. It turns out that a few stubborn chemicals in soft tissues can survive decay almost indefinitely, even under extreme heat and pressure. And with these new particles scientists have started to piece together the textures, shapes, and even colors of ancient creatures for the first time, including the most famous extinct creatures of all, the dinosaurs.
For Love of the Lab
Reatha Clark King grew up in the segregated South. While being forced to leave her native Georgia to pursue a graduate education might not sound positive, she takes the optimistic view. “Maybe,” she says, “it was one of the best things the state of Georgia ever did for me.” King is one of the first African American professional women chemists, and attributes her success as a senior research chemist, president of a university, and head of a philanthropic foundation to self-confidence and a willingness to make her own way.
How and why did science move into the immortality business, and at what cost? Philosopher John Gray, author of The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, attempts to answer these questions.
Let It Bleed
In April 1841 Joseph E. Snodgrass, an American physician, editor, and occasional correspondent with Edgar Allan Poe, contributed a poem to a Baltimore newspaper. “To My Spring-Lancet” praises a tool then carried by all doctors. Snodgrass’s poetry memorably reflected the public faith in bloodletting as medical treatment.
Loud and Clear
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first published 50 years ago. Her genius lay in pulling together already existing data from many areas and synthesizing it to create the first coherent account of the effects persistent chemicals had on the environment.
Chemistry Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann is having a lot of fun crossing back and forth over the borders of science and literature.
Pop, Fizz, Memento
A close look at three empty champagne bottles reveals no mere cocktail-party discards. Signatures are crowded onto the label of each, including those of William Moberg, Robert Burns Woodward, and George Büchi.
The olive is a versatile and essential plant, with a past and a present rife with scandal. In Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Tom Mueller tells the olive’s story.
The Fourth Wall
Minneapolis’s Washburn A Mill, once the largest flour producer in the world, has exploded twice: first in 1878 and again in 1928. Strangely enough, the mill’s two disasters also bookended the peak decades of the city’s flour industry. The Washburn A—or rather, what’s left of it—has entered its third life as the Mill City Museum, a site uniquely suited to explore the history of an industry and its geography.
The Polanyi Puzzle
The career of Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) presents a puzzle that dominates Mary Jo Nye’s Michael Polanyi and His Generation: how could one person occupy two completely different realms of thought, and do it so ably?
The Rocks at the Top of the World
Vanadium was a rare metal, but for 100 years after its first discovery in 1801 no one cared—until a chemist discovered it strengthened steel. In a new age of automobiles, machinery, and weapons, manufacturers desperately needed more of this wonder metal. Enter two Peruvians and a tiny mine high in the Andes.
Vitamins Come to Dinner
They’re everywhere: in the kitchen, the bathroom cabinet, and the supermarket. Neither medicine nor food, the vitamin pill was born in the early 20th century and came of age during World War II. Now, vitamins are here to stay—and so is the controversy that swirls around them.
In 2011 students from more than 60 countries participated in a worldwide water-testing experiment. That same year children across Africa and Europe were invited by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) to submit water-themed art. These events were part of the United Nations’ International Year of Chemistry (IYC 2011) initiatives aimed at raising awareness of chemistry’s importance in addressing pressing issues of global concern, such as sufficient food and clean water.