The Chronicle Flask’s festive chemistry quiz!

Tis the season to be jolly! And also for lots of blog posts and articles about the science of christmas, like this one, and this one, and this one, and even this one (which is from last year, but it’s jolly good).

But here’s the question: have you been paying attention? Well, have you? Time to find out with The Chronicle Flask’s festive quiz! I haven’t figured out how to make this interactive. You’ll have to, I don’t know, use a pen and paper or something.

Arbol_de_navidad_con_adornos_de_personajesQuestion 1)
Which scientist invented a chemical test that can be used to coat the inside of baubles with silver?
a) Bernhard Tollens
b) Karl Möbius
c) Emil Erlenmeyer

Question 2)
Reindeer eat moss which contains arachidonic acid… but why is that beneficial to them?
a) a laxative
b) an anti-freeze
c) a spider repellant

1280px-ChristmasCrackers_2Question 3)
Which chemical makes crackers and party poppers go crack?
a) gunpowder
b) silver fulminate
c) nitrogen triiodide

640px-Glass_of_champagneQuestion 4)
We all like a glass of champagne at this time of year, but what’s in the bubbles?
a) carbon dioxide
b) nitrogen
c) oxgyen

Question 5)
What’s the key ingredient in those lovely bath salts you bought for your grandma?
a) calcium carbonate
b) magnesium sulfate
c) citric acid

The Bird - 2007Question 6)
Which chemical reaction is responsible for both perfectly browned biscuits and crispy, golden turkey?
a) Maillard reaction
b) Hodge reaction
c) Caramel reaction

Question 7)
Sucrose-rodmodelWhere are you most likely to find this molecule at this time of year?
a) in a roast beef joint
b) in the wrapping paper
c) in the christmas cake

Question 8)
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow… but which fact about (pure) water is true?
a) It glows when exposed to ultraviolet light
b) It expands as it freezes
c) It’s a good conductor of electricity

Ethanol-3D-ballsQuestion 9)
Where are you likely to find this molecule on New Year’s Eve?
a) in a champagne bottle
b) in the party poppers
c) in the ‘first foot’ coal

OperaSydney-Fuegos2006-342289398Question 10)
Who doesn’t love a firework or two on New Years Eve?  But which element is most commonly used to produce the colour green?
a) magnesium
b) sodium
c) barium

(Answers below…)

1a) Bernhard Tollens (but his science teacher was Karl Möbius).
2b) It’s a natural anti-freeze.
3b) Silver fulminate (it always surprises me how many people guess gunpowder. That would be exciting).
4a) carbon dioxide.
5b) magnesium sulfate which, funnily enough, also causes ‘hard’ water.
6a) the Maillard reaction, although Hodge did establish the mechanism.
7c) In the cake – it’s sucrose (table sugar).
8b) it expands as it freezes and is thus less dense than liquid water (which is why ice floats). We take this for granted, but most things contract (and become more dense) as they turn from liquid to solid. You should be grateful – live probably wouldn’t have evolved without this peculiar behaviour.
9a) In the champagne – it’s ethanol (or ‘alcohol’ in everyday parlance).
10c) barium – copper produces green flames too, but barium salts are more commonly used in fireworks.

So how did you do?
Less than 4: D, for deuterium. It’s heavy hydrogen and it’s used to slow things down. Enough said.
4-6: You get a C, by which I mean carbon. Have another slice of coal.
7-8: You’ve clearly been paying attention. B for boring, I mean boron.
9-10: Au-ren’t you clever? Chemistry champion!

Happy New Year everyone! 🙂


Why weigh atoms that way?

A couple of days ago I was listening to the latest Radiolab podcast. If you’ve never listened to one of these, you really should. They are beautifully produced and, without fail, utterly fascinating. Over the last year or so I’ve learned about a possible cure for a disease with a 100% mortality rate, an apocryphal Russian story about horses frozen into a block of ice, and a new theory for the end of the dinosaurs where, if I understood it correctly, they were essentially grilled to death. Episodes of Radiolab always feel like a thoroughly good use of brain-time.

Anyway, if you’re still with me and haven’t dashed off to immediately download some of these little gems, the most recent episode is about weights and measures and how we’ve standardised them over the years. In particular the kilogram, which is the last physical standard in use, although possibly not for long (listen to the podcast).


So what are the scales made of…?

This got me thinking about atoms and, in particular, how we decide their mass. This matters you see, because the mass of atoms tells us chemists how much stuff to use. If I want a saline solution with a particular concentration, all I need do is look up the numbers on the periodic table, weigh out the appropriate amount of salt and dilute it with the appropriate amount of water. And if you’re a patient who needs a saline drip, you’d better hope I did it correctly.

Anyway, if you remember your periodic table (which of course you do, but just in case, here’s a picture) all the elements come with two numbers.

The Periodic Table

One of these numbers is the atomic number, which is the number of protons in the nucleus of each atom of the element. Conveniently, nature has managed to produce an atomic nucleus for each number between 1 and, at last count, 118 and if you ‘read’ the periodic table from left to right, top to bottom, you’ll see the numbers go up one at a time.

The other number, relative atomic mass, is a bit less tidy. It still goes up as you go along the periodic table, but in less regular jumps of roughly between one and three.  Without going into lots of detail, relative atomic mass is standardised against 112 the mass of carbon-12. Which begs the question, why? The more mathematically aware will have clocked that 112 of 12 is, well, 1. So why don’t we compare all the elements to hydrogen, which actually has a mass of 1? Or if that’s infeasible for some reason why not, I don’t know, choose 19 of beryllium-9, or 128 of silicon-28?

Well actually, almost exactly 200 years ago now, atomic mass (called atomic weight, at the time) was originally compared to hydrogen, and it was thought that all elements would have masses which were exact multiples of hydrogen’s.

The problem with this was that as measuring techniques became more sophisticated it became clear that some elements were inconveniently failing to follow the rule. In fact, some were downright contrary, like chlorine which appeared to have a mass which wasn’t even a whole number.

This was, at least partially, sorted out in 1932 when James Chadwick proved the existence of neutrons. The existence of isotopes had already been suggested, but this finally cleared up what the pesky things actually were. It turns out some atoms are fatter than others, having one or two more uncharged particles in their nuclei. This doesn’t change what atom they are – they still have the same number of protons – but it does make them a bit heavier. Take a sample of pure chlorine, for example, and you find that roughly three quarters of the atoms in it have a mass of 35, whereas the other quarter have a mass of 37. These are the isotopes of chlorine: imaginatively named chlorine-35 and chlorine-37. Work out the weighted average of the two and you get 35.5, which is the number you see on periodic tables.

In the mid-20th century something of a minor squabble between chemists and physicists broke out (chemists and physicists often squabble: they’re a bit like the English and the French: they like to visit each other but only so that they can moan about how annoying the other lot are and how badly they do everything). By this time had been a switch from using hydrogen (the lightest element) to oxygen as the standard to which other elemental masses were compared. This was mainly for the convenience of chemical analysis: oxygen combines with a lot of things to make straightforward oxides, whereas hydrides are less common and trickier to work with. Plus, large quantities of hydrogen gas are a bit (in the sense of an elephant being a bit heavy, or cyanide being a bit poisonous) of an explosion risk. Oxygen causes other things to burn jolly nicely, but isn’t actually flammable itself. If you can manage to keep it away from other flammable stuff it’s a far safer option.

The problem was that chemists were using a mass scale based on assigning the number 16 to a natural mixture of oxygen (which contains mostly oxygen-16, with little bits of oxygen-17 and oxygen-18). Physicists, on the other hand, had instead assigned the number 16 to the isotope oxygen-16, which they had isolated using the technique of mass spectrometry.

Josef Mattauch

Physicist Josef Mattauch

You may think the physicists’ method sounds more logical, but the chemists’ reasoning was that in naturally-occurring compounds there would be a mixture of isotopes, so it made sense to use a number based on that mixture since you never actually encounter one atom on its own. Either way, the result was differences in the numbers, admittedly some way down the decimal places, but none the less a difference. Of course it was possible to convert between the two, but at the time scientists were fiddling with such tricksy things as nuclear energy and, of course, bombs. Even a tiny discrepancy in the nth decimal place was potentially catastrophic. Something had to be done.


Chemist Edward Wichers

In 1961 a compromise was agreed, thanks largely to the combined efforts of the physicist Josef Mattauch and the chemist Edward Wichers, who set about persuading their respective groups to be reasonable and play nicely with each other.

The result was that carbon-12 was assigned a mass of exactly 12 and the relative atomic mass scale became based on that. The choice of carbon was, to an extent, somewhat arbitrary. It suited the physicists, who were already using carbon as a standard for mass spectrometry. It fell in between the two previous values (1 for hydrogen and 16 for oxygen), which meant it wouldn’t throw every existing piece of work out by too much. In particular, chemists weren’t keen on switching to the physicists’ method of 116 of the oxygen-16 isotope, because it would change their numbers quite significantly. Switching to 112 of carbon-12 meant, surprisingly, a smaller change. Carbon is also, of course, a naturally abundant element and it was easy to get samples of pure carbon.

And that, as they say, is that. The carbon-12 scale is still used today, over 50 years later, and it’s not going anywhere. Hydrogen is officially 112 the mass of carbon-12, and we use carbon-12 because, basically, it was the only option the chemists and physicists would agree on. Hey, it’s as good a reason as any.

Phabulous phenol

I was thinking about phenol the other day. “Very interesting,” I hear you say, “now if you don’t mind I’ve got a fascinating patch of drying paint I need to keep an eye on.” But wait! Bear with me. Phenol is a very interesting molecule. It’s history has a little something for everyone, from lawyers to doctors to advertising copywriters. There are gruesome tales from history, legal wrangles, and even a warning about the dangers of believing everything you read on the internet. So drag yourself away from the eggshell white, find yourself a comfy seat and I’ll begin.


Phenol: a simple molecule with a complicated history.

Phenol is a simple molecule, consisting of a single -OH group attached to what chemists call a benzene ring (the structure of which was, so legend has it, finally determined after the German chemist August Kekulé dreamt of a snake eating its own tail).

You may think you’ve never heard of phenol, less still used it, but chances are you’ve come across the term ‘carbolic soap‘ somewhere. Phenol’s other name is carbolic acid, and it’s the main ingredient in carbolic soap, a mildly disinfectant cleaning agent that used to be a common household product in both Britain and America (in the form of Lifebuoy), was widely used in English state schools up until at least the 1970s, and is distributed to disaster victims for routine hygiene by the Red Cross to this day.

Carbolic soap isn’t so common these days since it has a tendency to irritate the skin and far gentler alternatives are available, although you can still find it in specialist outlets and apparently it’s quite popular in the Caribbean.

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge

But back to phenol itself. It was discovered in 1834 when it was extracted from coal tar – a by-product of the coal industry – by the chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, also famous for identifying caffeine.


Joseph Lister

Despite his rather glorious name, Runge is not the best-remembered scientist associated with phenol. That honour almost certainly goes to Joseph Lister who, in the late 19th century, pioneered the technique of antiseptic surgery. It may seem difficult to believe today, but back then surgeons weren’t required to wash their hands before treating patients, and even took pride in the accumulated stains on their surgical gowns. Until Lister’s use of phenol (or carbolic acid), people were more likely to die from infection following the treatment than from the original injury itself. Lister started using phenol to sterilise surgical instruments and wounds and after seeing his results others soon followed, completely changing surgery as we know it today.

In case you’re wondering, Lister had nothing directly to do with the invention of the (phenol-free) mouthwash product that bears his name. It was, however, named after him in honour of his work. Interestingly, Listerine was first marketed as a surgical antiseptic, then a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhoea, before it eventually found success as a solution for bad breath.

carbolic smoke ballI mentioned lawyers earlier, and that’s because phenol was instrumental in one of the first examples of contract law: Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company [1892]. It was the main ingredient of the Carbolic Smoke Ball, an ineffective piece of medical quackery marketed in London in the 19th century as protecting the user against influenza and other ailments. The manufacturer advertised that buyers who found it did not work would be awarded £100.

The Carbolic Smoke Ball Company thought this was nothing more than an inspired piece of advertising, and tried to argue that it was “mere puff” that no reasonable person would take literally. The judge rejected their claims, ruled that the advert made an clear promise, and ordered the company to pay £100 to the unfortunate flu-suffering customer Louisa Carlill. To this day, this case is often cited as an example of the basic principles of contract and how they relate to every day life.


St. Maximilian Kolbe

Phenol also has a darker past, injections of it having been used as a means of execution. In particular, in World War II the Nazis used it in the euthanasia program, Action T4. Phenol was inexpensive, easy to make and fast-acting, and so quickly became the injectable toxin of choice. Famously, the Polish Catholic priest St. Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to undergo three weeks of starvation and dehydration in the place of another inmate and was ultimately executed by phenol injection. Kolbe was canonized on 10 October 1982 by Pope John Paul II; he is the patron saint of drug addicts.

Anyone who’s ever used phenol has probably experienced a phenol burn at some point. It doesn’t always hurt immediately but it slowly starts to burn after a little while, leaving white marks that ultimately turn red and slough off leaving brown-stained skin behind. It is, I should stress, not to be messed with – absorption of phenol through skin can result in phenol toxicity, and if left on the skin it can lead to cell death and gangrene. Even a tiny not-even-remotely-lethal spot is really quite painful. I can’t begin to imagine what death from phenol injection must have been like.

5012616170409Let’s end on a slightly lighter note. Have you got a bottle of TCP in your medicine cabinet? Many have fallen into the trap of believing that its initials relate directly to its ingredients, and specifically 2,4,6-trichlorophenol. In fact, a number of chemistry textbooks have stated this as hard, cold fact, as did a number of other online sources.

Not so, TCP originally contained trichlorophenylmethyliodosalicyl (not the same thing, and actually some have even wondered if this is truly a compound), but even that was replaced by other active ingredients in the 1950s. These days TCP contains a dilute solution of phenol (about 0.175% w/v) and halogenated phenols (0.68 w/v). So after all that, it does have phenol in it, but it’s not clear whether ‘halogenated phenols’ includes 2,4,6-trichlorophenol.

For a long time many, many websites stated that TCP contained trichlorophenylmethyliodosalicyl, probably traceable back to an earlier Wikipedia article (Wikipedia’s information has since been updated). As Jim Clark points out on his excellent Chemguide website, “The internet is a potentially dangerous tool. One single bit of misinformation can get multiplied over huge numbers of web sites”.

It’s true. Trust no one. (Except The Chronicle Flask of course*.)

(* If you spot an inaccuracy do let me know…)

Green hair and airborne wasabi: the Ig Nobel prizes

Next week on September 12th some extremely important prizes are about to be awarded that will undoubtedly rock the scientific community. Yes indeed, it’s that time again: the annual Ig Nobel prize award ceremony.

I first met the Igs about 15 years ago when I went to a conference in Seattle ig-nobel(yes I’m that old). The talk was a popular one, the Igs being a bit of light relief from all the serious science being discussed. That year there were awards for the development of a suit of armor impervious to grizzly bears, a study on the relationship between height, foot size and penile length (admit it, you’ve always wanted to know) and Jacques Benveniste of France, for his homeopathic ‘discovery’ that not only does water have memory, but that the information can be transmitted over telephone lines and the Internet (hmm).

So what are they, exactly? Some describe them as parodies of the official Nobel prizes. Home of the Igs AIR, the Annals of Improbable Research, describes them as awards for research that makes people laugh, and then think. Sometimes, as in the case of Benveniste, an Ig is awarded to someone for their, shall we say, excessively creative application of scientific ideas. More often these days they are awarded to scientists who’ve worked on something rather weird and wonderful, but which actually turns out to have some interesting applications.

So, since this is a chemistry blog, what have the last few Ig Nobel Chemistry prizes been awarded for?

2012Johan Pettersson, for solving the puzzle of why, in certain houses in the town of Anderslöv, Sweden, people’s hair turned green.
A great story, this: Several formerly blonde inhabitants of Anderslöv in southern Sweden suddenly acquired new green hairdos. Initially suspicion fell to the water supply, specifically copper contamination, since copper is known to dye hair green. But the problem was only affecting certain households. Testing revealed that copper levels were normal in the water supply itself, however when the water sat in the pipes in some recently-built houses overnight the copper levels rocketed. Why? Copper pipes in the new houses weren’t coated on the inside, so copper was leaching into the water. Residents who’d rather not have green hair have been told to wash their hair in cold water.

2011: Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami, for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.
In this case the title says it all. As anyone that’s ever eaten a lump of that green stuff that comes with sushi knows, if wasabi gets into your nasal passages you know about it. The researchers worked out exactly how much wasabi would need to be in the air for it to be intolerable, and then developed and patented an alarm system that releases that concentration of wasabi in case of emergency. Well, at least it won’t wake up the neighbours.

2010: Eric AdamsScott SocolofskyStephen Masutani, and BPfor disproving the old belief that oil and water don’t mix.
A silly title with a serious motive, oil spills being something of a big deal. A team of scientists conducted controlled discharges of oil and water in the Norwegian sea at a depth of 844 meters and demonstrated that most oil from a spill in the deep ocean would in fact mix with water, rather than rise directly to the surface. The decision to award the prize jointly to BP, given the recent Deepwater Horizon incident, was particularly cutting.

2009: Javier MoralesMiguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castañofor creating diamonds from liquid — specifically from tequila.
This might just be my favourite. It sounds ridiculous, and yet they published a serious paper. Scientists have long used various solvent mixtures to grow thin diamond films, and the researchers in this case were experimenting with mixtures of ethanol (‘drinking’ alcohol) and water. They noticed that the mixture that produced the best results had a similar composition to tequila, and so decided to experiment with the alcoholic beverage. It turned out that some types of tequila really did have exactly the right mixture of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen to promote growth of the films.

2008: Sharee A. Umpierre, Joseph A. Hill, Deborah J. Anderson and Harvard Medical School, for discovering that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide, and to Chuang-Ye Hong, C.C. Shieh, P. Wu, and B.N. Chiang for discovering that it is not. 
The mind boggles, doesn’t it? There are many myths associated with pregnancy, and what does and doesn’t prevent it. No one would seriously recommend Coca-Cola as a contraceptive. However the first set of researchers decided to look into the question in a little more depth. They tested small samples of sperm with different types of Coca-Cola and found that they did, indeed, kill some sperm. However their results couldn’t be reproduced by the second set of scientists, who concluded that if Coke did have a spermicidal effect it was weak – little different to their control sample. A Coca-Cola spokesperson responded that “we do not promote any of our products for any medical use”. Glad they cleared that up.

You can see the full list of Ig Nobel prize winners here. The 2013 Ig Nobel prizes will be announced on Thursday September 12, 2013. You can join in on Twitter with the hashtag #IgNobel, and there’s also a webcast at 5:30pm EDT, which if my calculations are correct is 10:30am over here in the UK. I wonder what will be recognised this year…

Gold! Bright and yellow, hard and cold

200px-Gold-49956Let’s talk about element number 79.  It’s one of the oldest known elements, used for quite literally thousands of years.  It’s constantly at the heart of conflicts and politics.  Poets have waxed lyrical about it, authors have written about it, economists and prospectors have hinged their livelihoods on it.  And, of course, chemists have studied it.

As an element it’s unusual.  It’s a metal, but instead of the boring silvery-grey of most metals it glows a warm yellow.  It’s also one of the most unreactive elements, and yet has found use a catalyst – speeding up chemical reactions that otherwise would be too slow to be useful.  It’s rare, making up only about 0.004 parts per million of the Earth’s crust, and yet its annual production is surprisingly high: 2700 tonnes in 2012.  Its density makes it heavy – weighing over nineteen times more than the same volume of water – but it’s also relatively soft, so soft that it’s possible to scratch a pure piece with your fingernail (in theory, and if you have fairly robust fingernails).

Yes, gold.  Chemical symbol Au, from its latin name aurum meaning ‘shining dawn’ or ‘glow of sunrise’ (how lovely is that?)

The history of gold is fascinating.  You could easily write a whole book about it.  In fact, someone has.  I won’t attempt anything so ambitious, but it does have some very interesting chemical stories associated with it.

Because of its unreactivity, gold is one of the relatively few elements that’s found uncombined in nature.  In other words, you can pick up a piece of pure gold from the ground or, more likely, out of a river bed.  Thanks to this property it’s very probably the first metal that humans as a species interacted with.  It’s too soft to be much use as a tool, so its earliest uses were almost certainly ornamental.  Decorations and jewellery had value and could be traded for other things, and ultimately (skipping over a chunk of history and early economics) this led to currency.

And so it was that early alchemists, some two thousand years ago, became obsessed with the idea of a quick buck.  Could other metals be turned into gold?  They searched long and hard for the mythical philosopher’s stone (like in Harry Potter, only not exactly) which could turn base metals into gold or silver.  Of course they never found it, because it doesn’t exist.  It’s not possible to change one element into another during a chemical reaction.  This is because what defines an element is the number of protons in its nucleus, and chemistry is all about the electrons. Chemical processes don’t touch protons, which are hidden away in the nuclei of atoms.

But where there’s a will there’s almost always a way.  Two millennia after alchemists were hunting for a magical stone, the chemist Glenn Seaborg managed to transmute a minute quantity of lead, via bismuth, into gold by bombarding it with high-energy particles.  Apparently, these days particle accelerators ‘routinely’ transmute elements, albeit only a few atoms at a time.

The trouble is, this method costs a fortune – way, way more than the value of any gold produced.  Gold, after all, is ‘only’ worth about a thousand pounds for a troy ounce (31 grams).  Particle accelerators cost billions of pounds to build, and yet more in running costs.  If you really want gold so desperately, these days there may be more mileage in harvesting it from defunct bits of electronic equipment.

Or just ask people to send you their old jewellery through the post in exchange for cash.  Even Tesco have got into that game now.  Through the post!  Honestly, people fear putting a tenner in a birthday card but gold jewellery in a paper bag?  No problem.

But anyway, back to gold’s reactivity, or rather lack of it.  Gold isn’t the most unreactive element (depending on how you’re defining reactivity, that honour probably goes to iridium) but it’s up there.  Or perhaps I should say down there.  It keeps its shiny good looks even when it’s regularly in contact with warm, damp, salty, slightly acidic skin, which is quite handy from the jewellery and money point of view.

But there is one thing gold reacts with: aqua regia.  Aqua regia is a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid and ancient alchemists gave it its name – which literally means ‘royal water’ – because it dissolves the ‘royal’ metal, gold.  It’s pretty cool stuff, in a slightly scary way.  Freshly-prepared it’s colourless, but quickly turns into a fuming, reddish solution.  It doesn’t keep – the hydrochloric and nitric acids effectively attack each other in a series of chemical reactions which ultimately result in the production of nitrogen dioxide, accounting for the orange colour and nasty fumes. Screen Shot 2013-06-04 at 00.20.27The fire diamond (remember those?) for aqua regia has a 3 in the blue box, putting it on a nastiness par with pure chlorine, ammonia and, funnily enough, oxalic acid (the stuff in rhubarb).  It also has ‘ox’ in the white box, telling us it’s a powerful oxidising agent, which means it’s effectively an electron thief.

All atoms contain electrons but they can, and frequently do, lose or gain them during the course of chemical reactions.  Acids in general are often quite good at pinching electrons from metals, but aqua regia is particularly good at it, and especially with gold.  Much, much better than either nitric acid or hydrochloric acid on their own because, in fact, the two work together, as a sort of two-man gang of acid muggers.  When metal atoms lose electrons they become ions, and ions dissolve very nicely in water.  Hence, aqua regia’s fantastic property of being able to dissolve gold.

Which leads me to a really great story.  During World War II it was illegal to take gold out of Germany, but two Nobel laureates – Max von Laue, who strongly opposed the National Socialists, and James Franck, who was Jewish – discretely sent their 23-karat, solid gold Nobel prize medals to Niels Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen for protection.  All well and good, until the Nazis invaded Denmark in 1940.  Now, unfortunately, the evidence of von Laue and Franck’s crime was sitting on a shelf in a lab, just waiting to be found.  This was serious: if the Gestapo found the gold medals they would persecute von Laue and Franck, and probably take the opportunity to make things very unpleasant for Bohr as well, particularly since his institute had protected and supported Jewish scientists for years.

Nobel_PrizeWhat to do?  At the time a Hungarian chemist called George de Hevesy was working at the institute, and it was he that had the bright idea of dissolving the medals in aqua regia.

It would have taken ages, because although aqua regia dissolves gold, it doesn’t do it quickly, and these were chunky objects.  He must have been anxiously looking over his shoulder the whole time.  But he managed it, and eventually ended up with a flask of orange liquid that he stashed on a high shelf.  The Nazis searched the building but didn’t realise what the flask was, so they left it.  Iit stayed there undisturbed for years, in fact until after the war was over.  At which time, de Hevesy precipitated the gold back out and sent the metal back to the Swedish Academy, who recast the prizes  and re-presented them to Franck and von Laue.

So there we have it, you can’t turn lead into gold (at least, not without a particle accelerator) but, if you know what you’re doing, you might just be able to turn a flask of orange liquid into two solid gold Nobel prize medals!


The title of this post comes from a poem by the British poet, Thomas Hood, 1799-1845. Here it is in full:

Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!
Bright and yellow, hard and cold
Molten, graven, hammered and rolled,
Heavy to get and light to hold,
Hoarded, bartered, bought and sold,
Stolen, borrowed, squandered, doled,
Spurned by young, but hung by old
To the verge of a church yard mold;
Price of many a crime untold.
Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!
Good or bad a thousand fold!
How widely it agencies vary,
To save – to ruin – to curse – to bless –
As even its minted coins express :
Now stamped with the image of Queen Bess,
And now of a bloody Mary.

Chemical catastrophes – who were the biggest baddies of chemistry’s past?

As a big fan of chemistry I like to encourage students to believe that it will be a huge force for good in the future, providing us with solutions to problems such as sustainable energy, currently incurable diseases and new materials.  And I hope I’m right about this.  But there’s no escaping the fact that chemistry has a dark, dirty and dangerous past.  In the days before health and safety – oh we take the mickey, but trust me you wouldn’t actually want to be without it – proper regulations and rigorous testing, chemists threw dangerous chemicals around like sweeties.  Quite literally in some cases.  They tasted and smelled toxic and dangerous substances and, worse, they released them on an unsuspecting population with barely a second thought.

baddySo with that in mind, who are my top three biggest baddies of chemistry’s past?

Fritz Haber (1868 – 1934)
The German chemist Fritz Haber gets the number three slot.  In some ways, he’s a bit of double-edged sword.  He did good along with the bad, inventing – along with Carl Bosch – the Haber Bosch process for making ammonia.  No matter what your feelings about inorganic fertilisers, we have to accept that without them we wouldn’t be able to feed the population of this country, let alone the world.  There just isn’t that much pooh out there.  Some people would argue that the population rise Haber’s process facilitated has been a disaster in itself.  But this is to conveniently forget that, had he not developed it, they probably wouldn’t be here to complain about it.

Haber wasn’t entirely a misunderstood genius though.  He’s also been described as the father of chemical warfare for his work on the use of chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I.  His work included the development of gas mask filters, but he also led teams developing deadly chlorine gas used in trench warfare.  He was even there to supervise its release.  He was a patriotic German and believed he was doing the right thing, supporting his country in the war effort.  During the second world war Haber’s skills were initially sought out by the Nazis, who offered him special funding to continue his work on weapons.  However Haber was Jewish, so in common with other scientists in a similar position he ended up leaving Germany in 1933.

Famously, Haber’s first wife disagreed vehemently with his work on chemical warfare.  In fact, perhaps unable to cope with the fact that he had personally overseen the successful use of chlorine in 1915, she committed suicide by shooting herself with his service revolver.  That same morning, Haber left again to oversee gas release against the Russians, leaving behind his grieving 13 year-old son.

Haber was awarded the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 1919 for his work on the Haber Process.  So the story goes, other scientists at the ceremony refused to shake his hand in protest at his work with chemical weapons.  A tragic story all round.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742 – 1786)
We’ve seen Scheele’s name come up before of course.  In his short – thanks to his bad habit of tasting and sniffing toxic chemicals – life he made a lot of chemical discoveries, but didn’t get the recognition for many of them because he always seemed to publish after someone else.  The ones he is remembered for always seem to be the horribly dangerous ones (maybe no one else wanted the credit).  For example he discovered hydrogen cyanide (a poison beloved of many an Agatha Christie villain, hydrogen fluoride (a highly toxic gas that forms the incredibly dangerous hydrofluoric acid when dissolved in water) and hydrogen sulfide (toxic, highly flammable and stinks of rotten eggs).

But his most harmful contribution to the world was undoubtedly Scheele’s Green, the arsenic-based yellow-green dye that was used to colour fabrics, paints, candles, toys and even, most tragically of all, foodstuffs in the 1800s.  It’s impossible to count but it was undoubtably responsible, directly and indirectly, for huge numbers of deaths in the 19th century.  Essentially he invented a deadly poison that ended up in thousands of homes all around the world.  Aren’t you glad we have safety testing these days?

Thomas Midgely (1889-1944)
Who was worse, Scheele or Midgely?  It’s a tough call, but I think Midgely takes it, particularly because he had some inkling exactly how damaging at least some of his work might turn out to be.

Midgely is famously responsible for synthesising the first CFC, freon.  CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, are neither toxic nor flammable, so were considered much safer than other propellants and refrigerants used at the time.  In fact, he was even awarded the Perkin Medal in 1937 for his work.  This, of course, was some time before the terrible consequences of CFCs were realised.  As we now know, they turned out to very damaging to the ozone layer, and in 1989 twelve European Community nations agreed to ban their production, and they have since been phased out across the world.

Although CFCs were a disaster, Midgely could at least be defended for having no way of knowing how disastrous they would ultimately turn out to be.  Not so for his other famous invention.  Whilst working at General Motors he discovered that adding tetraethyllead, or TEL, to petrol (aka gasoline) prevented ‘knocking‘ in internal combustion engines, which is when the air/fuel mixture ignites at slightly the wrong time.  Knocking makes the engine much less efficient, and so preventing it was a big issue.  You’d think Midgely might have accepted that lead in petrol was a bad idea when he had to take a vacation to recover from severe lead poisoning, but no.  In fact he appeared to have been pretty cynical about the whole thing, pouring TEL over his hands at a press conference in 1924 to demonstrate its apparent safety (its not, and he had to take more time off afterwards to recover).

Unfortunately burning fuel with TEL in it disperses lead into the air where it’s readily inhaled by innocent bystanders, and it’s particularly harmful to children.  Lead exposure has been linked to low IQ and antisocial behaviour, and recently researchers suggested that the ban on leaded petrol across the world in the early 2000s might now be leading to a reduced crime rate.

So for knowingly poisoning people worldwide with lead, and unknowingly taking out a chunk of the ozone layer, Midgely gets my award as biggest chemical baddy.

Would you pick someone else?

Another famous female chemist…

Today I was reminded of another, very, famous female chemist I somehow forgot about when I wrote my blog post on the topic a little while ago.

thatcher ice creamYes, Margaret Thatcher: born 13th October 1925, died today, 8th April 2013.  She read Chemistry at Oxford between 1943-1947.  How could I, a child of the 80s, forget her?  It’s true, she became famous for things other than chemistry, but nevertheless that was her subject.

So never mind the politics.  What did she do as a chemist?

In her final year at Oxford, she specialised in X-ray crystallography under the supervision of Dorothy Hodgkin (another shameful omission on my part – Hodgkin developed the technique of protein crystallography, confirming the structure of penicillin and then determining the structure of vitamin B12, for which she was awarded a Nobel prize).

After graduating Thatcher, née Margaret Roberts, worked for BX Plastics.  After moving to Dartford, she worked as a research chemist for J. Lyons and Co. in Hammersmith, as part of a team developing emulsifiers for ice cream.

So what do emulsifiers do?  Well, as everyone knows, oil and water don’t mix.  At least, not permanently.  You can shake them together temporarily, but they’ll gradually separate.  Emulsifiers act as a sort of bridge between the oil and the water.  They have a hydrophobic (‘water hating’) end and a hydrophilic (‘water loving’) end.  The hydrophobic bit buries itself into oil droplets, whereas the hydrophilic bit hangs out with the water molecules.  Emulsifiers keep everything working together; they’re the mediators of the molecular world.

There are lots of natural emulsifiers.  After all, living things contain fats and water, and it could be potentially problematic if everything kept separating out.  In particular, egg yolks contain an emulsifier called lecithin (don’t worry vegans, there’s a soy version too).  Next time you’re eating pretty much anything with fat in it (chocolate, ice cream, sauces, salad dressing) check out the label – lecithin is probably on there, or its E number, E322.

Anyway, back to Thatcher.  What did she do?  J. Lyons and Co. tasked her with getting more air into ice cream.  The difficulty was keeping it stable, so that it didn’t just collapse into a watery puddle.  The type of the ice cream that Thatcher worked on is what we call today ‘soft serve‘ ice cream – the stuff that gets squirted out of those machines ice cream vans lug around, and into which you stick a delicious chocolaty flake.  Soft serve is has less milk fat (strangely appropriate, given that Thatcher later became famous as the ‘milk snatcher’) and is produced at a higher temperature than normal ice cream, both of which make it cheaper.

Thatcher’s team managed to double the amount of air that could be crammed into the mix, and so those big squirty machines and Mr Whippy was born.

So no matter what you think of her politics, remember that without her work you wouldn’t be able to enjoy a 99 flake from the ice cream van in the summer.  If we see summer this year…