Chemical Heritage Foundation

The people of the Chemical Heritage Foundation are stewards of the objects, ideas and stories that chronicle humanity's drive to understand the material world through experimentation. If you connect to our passion for sharing this legacy, we hope you'll add your perspective to the content here and pass it along to your online communities.

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    Distillations April Webcast: Alchemy’s Rainbow

    Our latest webcast explores the colorful (and sometimes risk-filled) history of pigments and painters, and the conservators who save paintings from the ravages of time and accidental chemistry.

    "Alchemy’s Rainbow: Pigment Science and the Art of Conservation" features art conservator Mark F. Bockrath and art historian and CHF fellow Elisabeth Berry Drago.

    Our guests discuss and show the messy and occasionally dangerous process of making paints from pigments and the transition to using paints from tubes. They explain how conservators preserve paintings and why alchemists were so important to painters in early modern times.

    Tumblr Topic: Alchemy in Art

    Follow the ChemHeritage Alchemy in Art board on Pinterest.

    Our April 2014 Tumblr Topic explores the colorful history of pigments, painters, and the conservators who save this legacy from the ravages of time and accidental chemistry. Participate in our webcast on April 16 using the hashtag #SciCulture and follow us here for more blog posts on the topic. We’d enjoy hearing your thoughts on this topic. Share the theme using this url: http://chemheritage.tumblr.com/tagged/april2014alchemyart

    Art and Science: Two Parts of a Whole

    By Michal Meyer

    Are art and science ying and yang, essential yet opposite parts of our world?

    We can trace the origins of material science to the first cave drawings made thousands of years ago. The artists who left these pictures likely began with trial and error attempts made with burned wood and colored dirt. Even then art and science were mingling, taking physical form through pigment.

    Art and science also meet in fascinating ways in the Dutch alchemical paintings that were so popular in the 17th century. Not only did these paintings show alchemists at work, they required the skills of alchemists in producing some of the pigments used in them. Elisabeth Berry Drago uses one particular painting to trace out the connections between art and alchemy in the 17th century. These paintings also fascinate historian and chemist Larry Principe, who discusses his favorite here.

    Science and art also work together in the preserving of paintings. Time is not kind to paintings, and natural disasters are positively cruel to them. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina ripped through a collection of American art in Biloxi, Mississippi, leaving many paintings in ruins. Conservators used hi-tech scanners and knowledge of chemistry and art to help them restore the damaged paintings.

    But science goes beyond the art that hangs in galleries. It plays just as big a role in children’s art. Rediscover your inner child through the crayon and the science used to make it. (The audio story of crayons begins at 6:14.)

    You are invited to watch art historian Elisabeth Berry Drago and conservator Mark F. Bockrath explore the colorful history of pigments as part of our live webcast. Join us April 16 at 6:30 p.m. EDT.

    painting like it’s 1699

    How did 17th-century painters create their masterpieces without Dick Blick, tupperware, or modern conveniences like paint in tubes? To explain the matter Elisabeth Berry Drago, a PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Delaware and a fellow at CHF, takes us on an artistic tour of Philadelphia.

    This video will screen as a part of our live webcast with Elisabeth Berry Drago and Mark F. Bockrath, a paintings conservator for Barbara A. Buckley and Associates Painting Conservation. View "Alchemy’s Rainbow: Pigment Science and the Art of Conservation" at chemheritage.org/live at 6:30 p.m. (Eastern Daylight Time) on May 16, 2014.

    You Got your Alchemy in my Art! You Got your Art in my Alchemy!

    Plate IV in William Salmon’s Polygraphice (Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, CHF)

    By Elisabeth Berry Drago

    Art and alchemy, science and painting. They’re kind of a delicious combination. And not as bizarre as it sounds, I promise.

    For a modern reader, William Salmon’s Polygraphice might seem like a strange jumble, a hodgepodge of unrelated things shoved into one overstuffed Hot Pocket of a book. Published in 1685, the Polygraphice is at first glance an instruction manual for artists on the best ways to grind colors, prepare a canvas, and study the proportions of the human figure. But Salmon doesn’t stop there, and neither does his almost 200-word book title (whew!). Not only does he promise to show his readers “the arts of drawing, engraving, etching, limning, painting, washing, varnishing, gilding, colouring, dying, beautifying and perfuming,” Salmon also throws in “a discourse of perspective, chiromancy and alchymy. To which also is added… the one hundred and twelve chymical arcanums of Petrus Johannes Faber, a most learned and eminent physician.”

    This mix of medicine, art, and alchemy strikes us today as odd, like a weird mix of sweet and savory that wouldn’t taste quite right. But Salmon—like lots of folks during the 17th century—thought of these arts as fundamentally interconnected. In his introduction, he makes a point to emphasize that the chapters on alchemy and medicine have been included specifically for “the pleasure and satisfaction of young artists.” Artists made their own paints and solvents, varnishes, glues, and etching acids. They were well aware of the properties of workshop chemicals, and the possible reactions from combining their materials. The idea that some of them might have gone so far as to study alchemy and chemistry isn’t far-fetched.

    The copy of the Polygraphice held by CHF in the Neville Rare Book Collection even gives us a glimpse of the kind of person who might have used such a book. There are plenty of annotations made by a reader interested in the book’s many recipes for gilding and coloring metals, making dyes and stains, and other processes that overlap between what we think of as art, and what we consider alchemy. And our note-taker doesn’t seem to have been shy about criticizing or complementing the usefulness of what he found: on page 524, he calls one recipe “right plain and easy,” while elsewhere he writes in his own ideas for recipe substitutions! It’s almost too easy to imagine an artist or a craftsman in his study or workroom, flipping through the pages to find the technical treasures within.

    So in a sense, art and alchemy are no odd couple: instead, they’re more like chocolate and peanut butter. Two great flavors that just might be even better together!

    Our April 2014 Tumblr Topic explores the colorful history of pigments, painters, and the conservators who save this legacy from the ravages of time and accidental chemistry. Participate in our webcast on April 16 using the hashtag #SciCulture and follow us here for more blog posts on the topic. We’d enjoy hearing your thoughts on this topic. Share the theme using this url: http://chemheritage.tumblr.com/tagged/april2014alchemyart

    Upcoming Live Webcast: “Alchemy’s Rainbow: Pigment Science and the Art of Conservation”

    On April 16 the Chemical Heritage Foundation will present a live webcast exploring the colorful (and sometimes risk-filled) history of pigments and painters, and the conservationists who save paintings from the ravages of time and accidental chemistry.

    “Alchemy’s Rainbow: Pigment Science and the Art of Conservation” will feature art conservator Mark F. Bockrath and art historian Elisabeth Berry Drago.

    Our guests will discuss (and show) the messy and occasionally dangerous process of making paints from pigments and the transition to using paints from tubes. Find out how conservators preserve paintings and why alchemists were so important to painters in early modern times.

    Mark F. Bockrath is paintings conservator for Barbara A. Buckley and Associates Painting Conservation. He has worked at the Intermuseum Laboratory, the Washington Conservation Studio, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Winterthur Museum. He has also worked on several of CHF’s paintings.

    Elisabeth Berry Drago is a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Delaware. She specializes in 17th-century Dutch paintings and the ways such paintings can offer new perspectives on early modern science and artistry.

    Join us online at 6:30 p.m. EDT at chemheritage.org/live. 

    About the event

    This webcast is part of #SciCulture, a web series featuring discussions at the intersection of science and culture. Online viewers are invited to share their thoughts about the topic and questions for the guests on Twitter using the hashtag #SciCulture.

    Looking forward to this Brown Bag talk at CHF featuring Rebecca Guenard (@atomic-o-licious on Tumblr) about our cultural relationship with hair dyes

    From the Fact Checker: Whales in Space

    By Jacob Roberts

    Sometimes the research and fact checking behind a story is just as interesting as the end result. This story is about whales (or bits of them) in space.

    Michal Meyer, editor of Chemical Heritage gave me the idea for Whales in Space . Some time ago, she met a representative of Nye Lubricants at a social gathering. Nye is a company that used to process whale oil for use in everything from car transmissions to watch gears, but switched to synthetic lubricants after whale hunting was banned in 1972.. The representative told her how whale oil was being used in space programs and handed her a copy of The Last American Whale-Oil Company, a history of the company by Ed Parr.

    That book does not mention Nye supplying whale oil to any organization involved in space exploration. However, after Nye was forced to adapt to the bans on whaling, it became a supplier of artificial lubricants to NASA and other aerospace programs. It seemed plausible that the timeline given in the book was wrong. If Nye started supplying NASA before 1972, it’s possible they were providing whale oil.

    I turned to the internet rumor mill to find out. A quick Google search turned up countless (uncited) web pages, blog posts, and articles asserting that whale oil was a staple of space exploration because of its special properties: it does not freeze in extremely low temperatures, making it an effective lubricant even in outer space. A 2008 post on TreeHugger.com, written by Graham Hill, the founder of the site, accused NASA of continuing to use whale oil instead of developing an environmentally friendly synthetic alternative. Hill also wrote that whale oil was used in the moon and mars rovers. An article in The Independent, written by author Philip Hoare, echoed this claim, but clarified that whale oil was specifically used in the Hubble space telescope and Voyager probes. The 2010 History Channel documentary, America: The Story of Us, went beyond any of the other assertions: “Even today, whale oil is used by NASA. The Hubble space telescope runs on it.”

    Not only were these claims lacking any cited evidence, but they were all different. After more searching, I found that the History Channel documentary had led to the greatest amount of  discussion on message boards, prompting NASA to go on Twitter to declare that “no whale oil was used in Hubble.” Despite this denial, the speculation continued. I realized that I had to talk to NASA directly.

    Luckily, Michal was already in touch with Bill Barry, the chief historian of NASA. He explained that NASA had conducted an investigation years ago focusing on the rumor that whale oil was used on the Space Shuttle. They traced the source of the claim back to Nye Lubricants, and after meeting with Nye’s Chief of Engineering, determined that whale oil had been “out of vogue for a good many years and had never been used on the Shuttle.”

    Still, I wanted to know why the modern versions of the legend kept cropping up. What was the original source? I decided to contact the few reputable authors and journalists who had written about whale oil to see if they remembered where they got the information.

    The first person I emailed was Paul Kupperberg, author of Spy Satellites, who wrote that the oil was used in Cold War era reconnaissance satellites:

    “Sorry to say that I no longer have any of my references or notes from the Spy Satellites book (which was published about a decade ago) so I couldn’t tell you where I came up with the whale oil reference. Wish I could have been more help.”

    Next, I contacted Sarah Vowell, the author of the 2012 book Unfamiliar Fishes in which she claims that whale oil was used as a lubricant in moon landers. Her assistant, Ted Thompson, responded to me with a list of sources that he used to fact check her book, including an article on the BBC website and another article in The Independent by Philip Hoare – the same one that I had found earlier.

    I investigated the BBC article. It turns out it was originally published on the user generated website H2G2 before BBC purchased the site and started hosting it under their domain, giving it an accidental appearance of authority. The page cites Sir Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night television show as a source for the claim. I could not find a single episode that referenced whale oil.

    Finally, I looked at the Independent article again. It was written by Philip Hoare, who was the author of The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea where he repeated the claim that the Hubble was lubricated by whale oil. Conveniently, he was the last person on my list of authors to contact.

    Hoare responded quickly to my query, citing the same BBC article that was actually an H2G2 post, and also referenced conversations with his brother who worked in the aerospace industry. Since I already knew that the H2G2 article was useless, I asked if I could speak directly to Hoare’s brother, Clare Moore. The response:

    “I have been retired for 17 years and the information about the use of whale oil only came to me as part of casual conversations during informal breaks at meetings and unfortunately I have no direct references to assist you.”

    Whale oil may have been used long ago for a few obscure space satellites, and then rumors and casual conversations warped it into the legend we have today. Philip Hoare’s work helped convince Sarah Vowell to include it in her book, and undoubtedly another author will see both of these references and write about it again.

    Fact checking is often as fun as it is tedious, and I doubt I will ever know exactly how this myth started. If you want to do any of your own fact checking on this rumor, or if you’ve heard about the myth of whale oil in space in another context, let me know in the comments!

    Following Joe

    By Mariel Carr

    I’ll admit it, I’m an NPR devotee. I listen to Morning Edition as I make coffee, Fresh Air while I cook dinner and Radiolab whenever possible. So I was pretty delighted when I got to spend a recent Friday morning at NPR headquarters following around Joe Palca, the voice and mind behind the science show, Joe’s Big Idea.

    I showed up at the new and gleaming NPR building around 10 am. I passed a tour group in the lobby and was met by Joe Palca himself, whose brightly patterned shirt cheered up the otherwise grey and dreary March morning.

    “It’s Hawaiian shirt day” he told me as we got on the elevator, although I noticed that everyone else was still dressed for winter.

    I filmed Joe while he checked his email, as he watched an animated GIF (Stars! They’re just like us!) and as he navigated the large and sprawling NPR newsroom in search of a vacant studio to record narration for his next story.

    Perhaps sensing my avid fandom, Joe took me on a detour to the Morning Edition studio, where an engineer was getting the show in synch so he could syndicate it to the rest of the country…or something like that. The renowned violinist Anne Akiko Meyers had brought in her $16 million instrument on which she played for Linda Wertheimer the opening of the Spring Concerto by Vivaldi. As she finished the song Joe noted, “Well that’s an easy piece.”

    Now I have a mental picture to accompany my morning listening and coffee-brewing routine.

    You can listen to the most recent podcast about my visit with Joe at NPR on the Distillations website.

    You can also download the Distillations app in the iTunes store.

    Meet Joe Palca: A Radio Story About Making Radio Stories

    Joe Palca is one of the best science storytellers out there. In his 20 years as an NPR science correspondent he’s covered all sorts of obscure topics, from soccer-playing robots and oyster glue to turtle paleontology. He finds the humor in the serious and the thoughtful in the funny, usually by focusing on the human elements of stories.

    “Stories are usually about people, those are the ones we remember. We don’t remember stories about transuranic elements,” Palca says.

    We took this episode of Distillations on the road and visited Palca at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., where we got a behind-the-scenes tour of his program, Joe’s Big Idea.

    Distillations explores aspects of humanity’s scientific and cultural legacy. Our hosts are Michal Meyer, historian of science and editor in chief of Chemical Heritage magazine, and Bob Kenworthy, CHF’s in-house chemist. Each month they guide us through engaging topics about history, technology, and science.

    You can download the Distillations app in the iTunes store or see the full podcast webpage, with show clock and show notes on CHF’s website.

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