Chemistry in History



Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

It is Christmastime, and the season of light: everywhere you look, particularly after dark, is the twinkle of hundreds of little lights. As 2015 approaches, the International Year of Light is also being kindled into action – a year designed to make us think about light technologies and global challenges in energy. So let’s start now, and out of the dark.

One of the earliest human light technologies was the match. What do you need to make fire? Oxygen, fuel and an ignition source – simple enough in theory, but not so much in practice. Fires just don’t start spontaneously. Before matches, ignition sources included flint and tinder, or a magnifying glass which, naturally, only worked on sunny days, when you are least in need of fire. But luckily, something was spontaneous: the accidental invention of matches.

Matches had nearly been discovered more than once. Having synthesised phosphorous in 1680, Robert Boyle showed awestruck onlookers how this new material created fire when rubbed with sulfur, but the combustion exercise was never put to practical use and remained merely entertainment for wealthy dabblers. He wasn’t the first to make such novelties either – as far back as 950 AD, Chinese ‘Records of the unworldly and strange’ mention ‘light-bringing slaves’ (later ‘fire-inch sticks’) that use sulfur to create fire fast from a small spark or dying embers. In 1805, a French chemist, Jean Chancel, dipped a wooden splint in sugar, potassium chlorate, and sulfuric acid, creating an explosion. It was expensive, dangerous and gave off a foul, poisonous odour. But all of these were chemical matches: they required mixing the right things together at the right time to create an exothermic reaction. The first friction match was created by accident, by apothecary John Walker in 1826. (more…)

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‘I do not think it should appear in its present form’. Many a dejected researcher has read those words when their paper is summarily rejected by a journal. Rest assured, however, even the greatest scientific minds have read them on occasion.

Issue one of the Philosophical Transactions
© The Royal Society

In 1839, Charles Darwin submitted a paper on the geology of Glen Roy in the Scottish Highlands to the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. He received a response from Adam Sedgwick, who would later become one of Darwin’s greatest critics. The Society Fellow admired Darwin’s insight but bemoaned his long-winded explanations, rejecting the paper in its present form. It was the only paper Darwin submitted to the journal.

Sedgwick’s critique of Darwin’s work forms part of a new exhibition at the Royal Society about the history of the Philosophical Transactions. Detailing the turbulent beginnings of the journal – which was first published during the Great Plague of London in 1665 – through to the modern publication, the exhibit shines a light on its colourful history. The extensive display, developed by the Royal Society and researchers at the University of St. Andrews, UK, also reveals the birth of the modern peer review process. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Excited, Mary Hunt tipped out the produce of her shopping: a large moulded cantaloupe. She had come across the cantaloupe by chance, and the ‘pretty, golden mould’ had proved irresistible. She had discovered the Penicillium chrysogeum fungus, a species that turned out to produce 200 times the volume of penicillin as Fleming’s variety. It was a serendipitous discovery, and vital at a time when the greatest challenge facing medicine was producing enough of the antibiotic to treat all of the people who needed it.

Hunt’s finding has been barely noticed beside the original accidental discovery: Fleming’s return from holiday to find a ‘fluffy white mass’ on one of his staphylococcus culture petri dishes. Fleming was often scorned as a careless lab technician, so perhaps the contamination of one of his dishes – which had been balanced in a teetering microbial tower in order to free up bench space – was not that unexpected. But Fleming had the presence of mind to not simply dispose of the petri dish, but to first stick it beneath a microscope, where he observed how the mould inhibited the staphylococcus bacteria. Competition between bacteria and fungi was well known and, in fact, when Fleming published in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in June 1929, the potential medical applications of penicillin were only speculative. (more…)

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Guest post by JessTheChemist

‘Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Which of the two has a grander view?’ – Victor Hugo

In 1873, German physicist Ernst Abbe reported that the resolution limit of the optical microscope was 0.2 micrometres. Although this still remains true, recent work in the field of microscopy – specifically Stimulated Emission Depletion (STED) microscopy and single-molecule microscopy – has allowed scientists to visualise molecules smaller than this limit. This is accomplished by tagging molecules with fluorescent labels, which allows a more detailed picture to be visualised. On Wednesday 8th October 2014 Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner were awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry for their ground-breaking work in ‘the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy’. You can learn more about the ins and outs of the Nobel prize winners’ work by reading the recent Chemistry World article.

I am interested in finding out how chemists are connected to each other, and in particular, investigating whether your likelihood of winning a Nobel prize is increased by having a high number of laureates in your family tree.  It is also interesting to see how closely related, if at all, are the scientists that share a prize. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

I first heard the story of the discovery of nylon during a chemistry class in school – it was told as a serendipitous discovery. A young lab assistant, clearing up at the end of a long day, clumsily poured two mixtures in together and noticed a precipitate. Dipping in a stirring rod, he pulled out a thin string, which he stretched out into a tough, translucent fibre. He realised the potential of his discovery, reported it to his superiors and left them to the tiresome job of working out what he had done to make it.

The invention of nylon created a revolution in hosiery
©Shutterstock

It’s funny how we use accident to shape our understanding of discovery and achievement, as though we want to excuse hard work and apologise for years of learning. It’s somehow disappointing, unromantic: the story of research whisks away that tantalising fantasy of stumbling upon treasure, reserving discovery for the experts.

The real story of nylon, interesting though it may be, is a bit of stretch from serendipity. (more…)

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Guest post by JessTheChemist

‘Scientists have a responsibility, or at least I feel I have a responsibility, to ensure that what I do is for the benefit of the human race’ – Harry Kroto

Thank you for your nominations for this month’s blog post. It was great to see so many of you getting involved in this series, highlighting interesting Nobel laureates for me to cover. However, I could only pick one winner, so I decided to write about Harry Kroto, inspired by this tweet from Bolton School:

 

Harry Kroto has a formidable CV. Not only is he a highly distinguished and talented chemist, but he does a great deal to improve the teaching of chemistry to future generations. This has included setting up the not-for-profit Vega Science Trust, which helps scientists communicate with the public at large, and even returning to his childhood school to build Buckyballs with students. (more…)

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‘As for monkshood and wolfsbane, they are the same plant, which also goes by the name of aconite.’ – Severus Snape, Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone by J. K. Rowling

In Harry Potter’s very first potions lesson he learnt about the magical properties of aconite. Muggle chemists, it seems, are only one step behind the magical world.

©istock

Aconitine – spelt slightly differently by scientists – has a highly complex structure that has never before been synthesised in the lab. But now, Duncan Gill from the University of Huddersfield, UK, has been awarded a £133,481 grant to develop a synthetic route to obtain this illusive molecule.

Attempts to make aconitine began after Czech chemist Karel Wiesner revealed its chemical structure in 1959. Weisner went on to publish several papers on the synthesis of alkaloids and terpenoids, an important initial step towards making the molecule. However, it wasn’t until last year that a major milestone was reached, when a team of researchers from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute, New York, announced the total synthesis of the related compound, neofinaconitine. Building on the work of his predecessors, Gill will have to develop new chemical methods to reach his target molecule.

If successful, Gill, who has previously worked as a process chemist at AstraZeneca, will need to be particularly careful when handling this compound. Aconitine is a potent neurotoxin and has been dubbed the ‘Queen of poisons’. One of the most notable references to aconitine comes from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: it is the main ingredient in the toxic potion drunk by Romeo with fatal consequences.

The grant has been provided by the Leverhulme Trust and will be enough to employ a full-time post-doctoral advisor. Only time will tell if they can bring this fictional favourite to life in a laboratory setting.

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Scurvy plagued early sailors, and although many treatments were tried and promoted, a simple cure was masked for centuries behind a series of mistakes and misunderstandings.

This story begins at sea, long into a voyage after the fresh food stock had long run out and the sailors were left with only grains, hardtack and cured meats to eat. The sailors would become desperate as scurvy began to set in. Sailors were lost to scurvy in vast numbers, with estimates as high as two million lives lost between 1500–1800 AD.

©Shutterstock

(more…)

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Guest post by JessTheChemist

‘The noblest exercise of the mind within doors, and most befitting a person of quality, is study’ – Ramsay

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Jack Dunitz at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Little did I know that he was the academic great-great-grandson of the UK’s first chemistry Nobel Laureate, Sir William Ramsay. After discovering this connection, I decided to delve deeper to see which other chemistry legends Ramsay is connected to.

Ramsay began his career as an organic chemist, but his prominent discoveries were in the field of inorganic chemistry. At the meeting of the British Association in August 1894, Ramsay and Lord Rayleigh both announced the discovery of argon, after independent research. Ramsay then discovered helium in 1895 and systematically researched the missing links in this new group of elements to find neon, krypton, and xenon1. These findings led to Ramsay winning his Nobel prize in 1904 in ‘recognition of his services in the discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air, and his determination of their place in the periodic system’. (more…)

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I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Process Research and Development (iPRD) at the University of Leeds. My research is on the synthesis of chiral amines relevant to the pharmaceutical industry but I have a general interest in organic chemistry, catalysis and sustainable methodologies. When I am not in the lab, I blog at The Organic Solution on a range of topics including chemical research, postdoc life and outreach experiences. Recently, I have become interested in the connection between chemists across the globe which has led me to create an academic twitter tree.

To continue this academic tree theme, this blog will explore certain strands of the chemistry Nobel Laureate family tree using the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Chemical Connections. The blog will delve into the life and heritage of different chemistry Nobel Laureates and, amongst other things, we shall find out if having a Nobel winner in your lineage could have an effect on your career, for example, does having a Nobel winner in your ancestry mean you are more likely to achieve academic greatness? If there is a Nobel winner that you would like to see featured, please get in touch.

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