Fall 2012/Winter 2013
Celebrate the 25th anniversary of CHF’s Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry with an issue written entirely by or about Beckman fellows and their research: from chemistry under communism to the history of alchemy to the koshering of coke. Plus treasures from CHF’s collections, book and museum reviews, and more.
Robert Allington was already an engineering undergraduate at 16 when he was diagnosed with polio. Boredom during recovery drove him to open a part-time business based in his home, repairing and making scientific instruments. He called the company Isco.
In March 1656, following a discussion among natural philosophers at Robert Boyle’s lodgings in Oxford, Christopher Wren carried out a pioneering experiment in intravenous injection. Wren, now famous as the architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral, injected Boyle’s dog with a solution of opium. This event occurred in the context of a remarkable period of physiological research carried out in Oxford and later at the Royal Society in London, after its founding in 1660.
The spacious, glass-walled entrance hall to the Corning Museum of Glass houses a lone Dale Chihuly sculpture of twisting greenish tentacles. As I walked in the doors, a part of me felt vaguely disappointed; I had been hoping for a vibrant display of madly colorful glass. Little did I know how much of that dazzling spectacle I would find.
Inside the Box
What would you call a several-hundred-pound, hulking, grey metal box adorned with ungainly, old-fashioned knobs and dials that is large enough to entirely fill an ordinary office? Most readers are likely to shrug—unless they happen to be biochemists, who would immediately proclaim the answer: the Beckman Model E.
Life in Space
Most scientific disciplines address the kind of big questions that stir and excite people. Physics wows us with the origin of the universe, while biology delves into the evolution of human beings—two fundamental mysteries of existence. But chemistry still needs a big question to “own.” A speaker I heard at the American Chemical Society meeting last March suggested a humdinger: how did rocks, gas, slime, and other dead matter ever transform into living beings? How did life arise from nonlife?
On the last day of 1668 Herman Boerhaave was born in the village of Voorhout, on the edge of Leiden. His father was a preacher, and the family expected the son to follow that calling. Instead, Boerhaave was to become the most influential teacher of medicine and chemistry in early 18th-century Europe, his reputation such that young men flocked to Leiden to learn from him.
Polaroid film embodied the pinnacle of the analog instant photo and the marvels of molecular chemistry. But when Polaroid announced the end of film manufacturing in 2008, the Impossible Project set out to continue production.
Over the Wall: Six Stories from East Germany
When Communist East Germany built a wall across Berlin, it created two different cities, two different countries, and for scientists two different careers. These differences did not all collapse when the wall came down. Six chemists, all former citizens of East Germany, share their memories of work, school, and life before and after reunification.
America in the 1880s might seem far from the long-past world of European alchemy, but the hoary image of the alchemist vainly trying to make gold was so familiar to the public that it could serve to mock politicians during the bustling time Mark Twain dubbed the “Gilded Age.”
Ready or Not
In 1944 H. C. Meyer, then president of the Foote Mineral Company, wrote an editorial titled “The Alchemy of the Useless.” He asked, “How often have we seen the useless become useful, the luxury of today become the necessity of tomorrow?” Lithium, the third element on the periodic table and the lightest metal, is a prime example of an answer to this question. It evolved from a relatively useless curiosity to an indispensable component of everyday items like pharmaceuticals and laptop batteries.
Running on Empty
Energy independence. A looming energy crunch. Imminent green revolution. Terms that have become prevalent in both progressive and populist circles in the last quarter century or so are now reexamined by geologist and independent scholar Scott L. Montgomery in The Powers That Be, an offering on energy and society.
Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo is a curious example of postmodernist writing. Building on one of his own graduate-school papers about domestic space, Nicholas de Monchaux expands into the solar system with this study of astronaut apparel for the Apollo program.
The Real Thing: How Coke Became Kosher
As Coca-Cola’s popularity spread in the United States in the 1920s, rabbis around the country asked, is Coke kosher? Atlanta rabbi Tobias Geffen teamed up with the soda manufacturers to find out. In the process he created the first generation of kosher chemists, who went on to revolutionize food labeling.
The Secrets of Alchemy
Discover the secret science! Alchemy began as a mixture of practical knowledge and speculation on the nature of matter. Over time it evolved into the science we know as chemistry. These excerpts from Lawrence Principe’s new book illuminate the ancient origins of alchemy, its use as a medieval medicine, and its modern affects.
The X Factor
Radiographs of fish specimens, with their stark, stunning beauty, encourage viewers to think about a routine scientific tool in a new way. The black-and-white X-ray prints featured in X-Ray Vision: Fish Inside Out leave visitors with a different view of aquatic life, one inhabited by art and science.
Trial by Fire
Over the past year, Jennifer Rampling has been trying to recreate some of the remarkable phenomena described in medieval alchemical treatises.
What’s in a Name?
Jābir ibn Hayyan, whose name is inextricably bound to the foundations of alchemy, is a man of mystery. Thousands of works have been attributed to him, and hundreds of manuscripts have survived, though none written in his own hand. His identity remains shrouded in contradictions. He may be the man who never was.
When I started my blog, Culture of Chemistry, it seemed an innocuous enough experiment. But experimenting on oneself is risky. Seven years ago I wrote my first blog post about flamingos and quantum mechanics. Last year I blogged more than 100,000 words—the equivalent of a 250-page book—and had more than 40 essays appear in print. I juggle conferences and classes with press deadlines and word counts. Hidden underneath my lab coat is a blogger.