I didn’t expect to have a conversation about J K Rowling today, but somehow that’s in part what I ended up discussing with Lawrence Principe after his lecture on alchemy this afternoon. Apparently, if you want an accurate history of Nicolas Flamel and don’t get distracted by the witchcraft and wizardry, Rowling’s account in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone is one of the best.

So what about potions class? I also got to hear about Principe’s alchemy lab at John Hopkins, where he tries out all the experiments he reads about during his research. And the experiments do work, as long as you have the right starting materials.


Fantasy alchemy lab

How I imagine Principe's lab, even though he assures me it's not like that at all


Principe told me a great story about how he spent months trying to perform an experiment without success. The problem? Impurities. Principe was trying to make antimony glass, but he wasn’t using ores from the home town of the alchemist he was investigating. When he imported the ore in from eastern Europe, the experiment instantly worked. The foreign ore contained 0.5 per cent silicon.

Principe’s point is that we should perhaps be less ashamed of our alchemical past, and instead be impressed with what our predecessors managed with the tools and information they had at the time. Chemistry is still about observing phenomena and trying to explain and exploit them after all.

Shining a light

One of the topics that chemistry is trying to solve by exploiting natural phenomena is energy manufacture and storage. Today started with a symposium on using sunlight light to produce fuels (primarily hydrogen) and also featured a press preview of a symposium tomorrow on energy storage.

While the morning session would have been tough to follow for a non-chemist – it’s been a while since I’ve had to think about band gaps straight after breakfast – the afternoon briefing had some really interesting bits about safer, self healing Li ion batteries. I’m looking forward to seeing the new data presented tomorrow.

Well that’s it from me for today, I’m off to calculate my nitrogen footprint, apparently nitrogen is the new carbon.

Laura Howes


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