Archive for the ‘Chemical History’ Category

Some Fantastic Christmas Presents

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Bethany Halford and the crew at C&EN‘s Newscripts blog run an annual holiday gift guide with some cool gift ideas for chemists, but sometimes it’s more exciting to be surprised by the creativity of your family.

I got a few great chemistry presents for Christmas. The first was a Periodic Table of Magnets that I’ll put on my office door. Next, from one of my new brothers-in-law, I received a fail button in the colors of SLU that plays the sad trombone sound. I’m not sure if all of my students will appreciate this gift, so maybe I’ll keep it in an inconspicuous location. My orgo lab instructor at NYU used to have a bullseye taped to his wall captioned “hit head here”. He would point to it when students realized a silly mistake they made on a exam. I thought the sign was hilarious, but some of my classmates thought it was obnoxious.

From my other new brother-in-law, I received a copy of “How to Live Longer and Feel Better” signed by Linus Pauling. Very, very cool. Apparently, signed chemistry texts by Pauling command a much higher price tag, but I would much rather have something signed relating to Pauling’s medical quackery than chemical bonding or crystallography.

Finally, from my lovely fiancée wife, I received this:


That, my friends, is total victory: a stuffed animal version of ChemBark’s mascot, Ed the Dog. I am a very lucky boy.

That’s it for the chemistry presents, but I got a bunch of other great gifts and had a wonderful wedding three days later (that will be the subject of another post). I hope everyone had as good a holiday break as I did, and best wishes for a happy and productive 2014!

A Treasured Artifact: My First Periodic Table

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Sometimes it’s fun to look back and figure out how you got to where you are. When people ask me when it was I knew that I wanted to become a chemist, I always point back to when I was 15 and enrolled in AP Chemistry. The material was incredibly interesting, and my teacher posed questions to us unlike any other science teacher I’ve had. In addition to calculations, our homework problems had essay questions where we had to give thorough explanations in complete sentences. My friends and I would spend hours on the phone discussing things like Le Chatelier’s Principle and solvation effects in gory detail, then I’d hang up and spend the next hour writing paragraph after paragraph of explanation on sheet after sheet of college-ruled notebook paper. I have always enjoyed writing, and there was something especially satisfying about being able to think and explain instead of just crunching numbers. Dr. Liebermann also had us spend a lot of time in the lab doing all sorts of fun experiments, from precipitations of colored salts to the determination of the thickness of the copper coating on a penny. Chemistry has always appealed to me for its ability both to make stuff and solve problems/answer questions. Mathematicians and physicists don’t seem to get to make stuff as often as we do.

Anyway, the other day I was looking through some old photos and had to reconsider when, exactly, it was that I first fell in love with chemistry.

That poster of the periodic table has adorned my bedroom in my parents’ house since I was 9 or 10. Until I left for college, it was the last thing I saw at night and the first thing I saw every morning. My dad brought it back from the UK after a business trip; I believe it is a product of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

I must have cared deeply about the poster long before I had ever taken a class in chemistry. When my sister ransacked my room sometime in junior high school, she tore down the poster and ripped the hell out of it. Rather than put up something else, I took the time to mend the table and mount it on a foam board. You can see how the tape of my repair job has yellowed with age, but the table still hangs proudly in my old room as the first artifact of my chemical career. Today, you can buy similar posters for less than $20 on eBay, but I don’t think I’ll ever have the heart to throw my beloved, tattered one away.

Los Cinco Mejores Químicos Hispanos

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Aquí está mi lista de los cinco mejores químicos hispanos en la historia:

5. Andrés Manuel del Río – El descubridor del vanadio.

4. Luis Miramontes – Inventor del primer anticonceptivo oral (con Carl Djerassi y George Rosenkranz en Syntex).

3. Mario Molina – Demostró la amenaza de los CFC a la capa de ozono de la Tierra

2. Pedro Cuatrecasas – El padre de la cromatografía de afinidad y un químico médico muy bueno.

1. Severo Ochoa – Descubrió cómo los sistemas biológicos sintetizar ARN

0. Henry Eyring – El padre de la teoría de estados transiciónes nació y se crió en México, pero él era americano.

Greatest Chemists of All-Time

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Late last week, the editors at Nature Chemistry conducted a Twitter poll to answer the age-old question: “Who is the greatest chemist of all-time?”  Such a conversation falls right in my wheelhouse, and in honour of the lads at NChem, I am going to write this post in English.  (I am qualified to do this, as my mother’s from England.)

The results of the poll are summarized on the NChem blog, Sceptical Chymist.  Of the 86 votes cast, the following chemists received three or more:

Linus Pauling (16)
Dmitri Mendeleev (11)
Antoine Lavoisier (7)
Marie Curie (6)
R.B. Woodward (4)
Michael Faraday (4)
Gilbert Lewis (3)

Perhaps Sir Winston Churchill was right when he said, “the best argument against a democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”  Incidentally, please follow my Twitter feed (@ChemBark) if you are interested in reading about what I eat for dinner.

With all due respect to my Twitter “tweeps”,  are you daft?  Who picks Marie Curie as the greatest chemist ever?  Yes, she was a fantastic chemist.  She might be most inspirational chemist ever, but the greatest ever?  How could six of you agree on that?

Here’s how I see it using football as an analogy: if Pauling is Manchester United, Curie is Everton; she’s right up there in the top flight, but she’s not qualifying for the Champions League.

There were some other head-scratchers in the also-rans:  Moseley? Noyori? Walden? Cannizzaro?  Don’t get me wrong, they are all great chemists too, but number one?  And let’s go back to Mendeleev.  Yes, the concept of the periodic table is fantastic—and Mendeleev was robbed of a Nobel Prize for it—but I don’t think that this contribution alone is enough to justify a number-one vote.  Others chemists made similar observations as Mendeleev, and even then the work was incomplete.  The work in quantum mechanics that explains why the Periodic Table appears as it does is a greater contribution than the table itself.

Coming up with a rank-ordered list of the greatest chemists is a tough task, but I took a stab at it in the NChem comments thread.  (Since then, I’ve decided to swap my #3 and #4.)

Top 5 Chemists…EVER

5.  R. B. Woodward

He is the supreme deity of organic chemistry, and I’m still not sure he belongs in the top 5.  Nevertheless, the magnitude of his accomplishments in a career that spanned the heyday of the field is humbling.  He won the Nobel Prize in ’65 for his work in organic synthesis, and could have shared in two others: the ’73 prize for organometallics and the ’81 prize for orbital symmetry (the Woodward-Hoffmann rules).

4.  Antoine Lavoisier

A rigorous experimentalist with major contributions to the understanding of gases, nomenclature, chemical education, and analytical chemistry.

3. Willard Gibbs

Laid out the foundation of chemical thermodynamics.  Kind of important.

2.  G.N. Lewis

Discovered the covalent bond and made major contributions to chemical thermodynamics, photochemistry, and acid-base theory.  He probably should have won a share of the ’34 Nobel Prize for the discovery of deuterium.

1.  Linus Pauling

Number one despite his rampant medical quackery.  Applied quantum mechanics to understanding the nature of the chemical bond—a concept that lies at the very heart of chemistry.  Also made major contributions to structural biology, particularly the structure of proteins.  He might have won the race to the structure of DNA had he been privy to the same data as Watson and Crick.

My confidence in these assignments is low; I could easily have overlooked something.  Feel free to ridicule me in the comments.  And just for fun, here’s a blast from the past: my 2006 list of greatest organic chemists.

From the C&EN Archives

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Chemical and Engineering News brought its photo albums out of the attic yesterday and posted PDF scans of its old issues.  What a treasure trove.  As of now, the archives appears only to go back to 1988, but it already includes some real gems.

Naturally, the first thing I was inclined to do was search for my advisors.  I was not disappointed.  The September 15th, 1969 issue features Harry Gray playing guitar on the cover.  The accompanying story discusses his receipt of the Pure Award in Chemistry, and the lead paragraph pretty much sums up the awesomeness of the article:

Harry Gray talks in a breezy vernacular more often associated with locker rooms than with chemistry labs; he owns two fast cars, a Corvette and a 1957 Jaguar XK140; he loves tennis and plays the game with a loping, easy grace that belies his 6-foot 4-inch frame. Like two thirds of American males, Dr. Gray has been known to bend an elbow with the boys, and even jests that his involvement in what he calls “inorganic biochemistry” resulted from an idea that hit him “on my 17th drink.”

In the same article, Harry pointed to center field with less ambiguity than Ruth in ’32, and declared:

“We’re at a plateau right now in inorganic chemistry,” he says, “and 90% of the people in the field are just spinning their wheels. Sure, we’re making slow progress in a number of areas, but the great renaissance in inorganic which resulted from application of the discoveries of quantum theory is over. In the fifties we had this upsurge of creativity, but in the past few years it has been obvious that most work is just an extension of work done in this renaissance era. Until we go to the next level of creative effort,” Dr. Gray adds, “I don’t believe the excitement is going to reappear.”

The next upturn will come in five or six years, Dr. Gray believes, and he thinks he knows one important area of work that will be responsible for it. His own.

“Inorganic biochemistry”—the area upon which Dr. Gray is placing his bets—is another of those endless, seemingly casual brainstorms which scientists and inventors are wont to have.

Pretty cool.  As a footnote, concerned citizens later wrote letters-to-the-editor to protest the portrayal of Harry’s Jag as “12-cylinder” and to applaud C&EN on not being “uptight”.

Finally, I would lose my membership in the Organic Division if I did not search the archives for all-things-Woodward.  His obituary, which is unsatisfactorily bland, can be found here.  What I want to know is what happened to the 7-29-1947 edition of C&EN?  It is supposed to feature a cover shot of our hero and a colorful story on his days at MIT:

The rest of his life, before he entered MIT at the doddering old age of 16, consisted of being born on April 10, 1917, attending schools at Quincy, Mass., and generally living as an average American youth. One exception to the latter statement might be found, however, in that the great majority of the younger male Americans do not become engrossed in devising a synthesis for quinine. His activity on this problem, which Woodward carried with him from his high school days, taught him, in his own estimation, the great bulk of his knowledge of organic chemistry. He strongly recommends attempting to synthesize a ‘tough molecule’ as the best teacher in this field.

“The success of this Woodward system of self-education was affirmed by Dr. James Flack Norris…’When he [Woodward] entered the institute as a freshman, he already had as much knowledge of organic chemistry as a man normally acquires during four years of enrollment in undergraduate classes.'”

In spite of this, Woodward flunked out of MIT in the middle of his second year. “At that point, the slow [to him] pace of the prescribed chemistry curriculum caused a restlessness and boredom that nearly proved disastrous to his career. Fortunately, as advocates of progressive education will claim, the MIT faculty grasped the situation and designed a curriculum for Woodward’s exclusive use. Its flexibility enabled him to experiment in his own laboratory and spend as little time as he wished in classes, provided, of course, that he presented himself for examinations. This arrangement proved especially helpful to the young scientist because it enabled him to take courses, the total hours of which amounted to more than the 168 found in the conventional week.

“In June 1936, at the end of his third year, MIT awarded Woodward his bachelor of science degree. In the commencement ceremonies of the following June, while his class was receiving their baccalaureate recognition, the student of ‘tough molecules’ donned the gold tassel of the Ph.D.

The C&EN archives also lets us know that long before Nicolaou employed metaphors of Greek mythology, Woodward spoke of “dragons to be slain” in chemistry.  From the same story, it is interesting to note that he got C&EN to treat his Nichols Medal address on progress towards the synthesis of reserpine as off-the-record.

I’ll keep searching for that July 29th, 1947 issue with Woodward on the cover; it is currently missing from the archives.  I can only assume some C&EN editor’s mother found the magazine under a mattress and threw it out.