Chemical Heritage Foundation

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    The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics was given to three Japanese researchers for developing the first commercial blue light-emitting diode (LED), but the original technology for a blue LED was developed in the early 1970s in Princeton, New Jersey.  

    In this video Benjamin Gross (fellow at CHF and curator of the Sarnoff Collection at the College of New Jersey) and Jonathan Allen (a retired physicist) attempt to turn on the original blue LED built in 1972 at RCA’s laboratories in Princeton. Do they succeed?

    For more information, check out this article on WHYY’s The Pulse.

    By Mariel Carr

    When modern microscopy was still in its infancy in the 1870s, a German physicist and microscope manufacturer named Ernst Abbe stated that optical microscopes would never be capable of showing something smaller than 0.2 micrometers in size. He calculated this limit based on how small a glass lens could be built that still focused the wavelength of visible light. That’s small enough to let us see really tiny things, such as the main structures inside animal cells like mitochondria, but not small enough for us to see DNA and proteins.

    While Abbe’s calculations were accurate, his prediction was not. More than a century later the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to the men who proved Abbe wrong. Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell, and William E. Moerner sidestepped the limitations of traditional optics by looking at molecules using light the molecules produce themselves. The simple version is that they can control which molecules glow to obtain a higher-resolution image than they would get if everything was glowing at the same time.

    The importance of this discovery might seem insignificant compared to electron microscopy, which can show objects smaller than 50 picometers (one trillionth of a meter). Electron microscopes shoot beams of concentrated electrons at their subjects that, when combined with colored dyes to get the necessary contrast, often end up damaging them. Optical microscopy offers scientists a relatively unobtrusive method of observation.

    Long before any of these Nobel Prize–winning scientists did their work, and 200 years before Abbe proclaimed to be impossible what the winners succeeded in doing, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek saw microorganisms under a microscope of his own making. His work, and that of later microbe hunters, was dramatically retold in Paul de Kruif’s book Microbe Hunters. You can read about the impact of de Kruif’s book on the scientific world in the upcoming issue of the magazine.

    By Jacob Roberts

    Image: Illustration of spermatozoa by Antoine van Leeuwenhoek, published in Opera omnia, seu arcana naturae (1722–1730). The cells probably came from a rabbit. Wellcome Images.

    The images in Louis Simonin’s Mines and Miners: or, Underground Life (1868) provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of miners just after the middle of the 19th century. As Simonin puts it (the book was translated from the French and adapted by H. W. Bristow)

    In the following pages we purpose to describe the struggle of the miner in its reality, without exaggeration of any sort. We shall follow him to the field of his labours, observe him in his subterranean life, and describe his habits in various countries; and as we would not only amuse, but instruct, we shall speak of the countries he inhabits, and of the substances he digs from the earth: in short, we shall endeavour to explain the social position of this pioneer of civilization. We ourselves have long sojourned with him both in Europe and in America, and have made ourselves acquainted with the manly qualities which so eminently distinguish him.

    Despite the emphasis on reality, I find the pictures stylized, as if a scene has been set before the artist got to work. Despite that, the disaster scenes pack quite a punch, a useful reminder of what a dangerous job mining was, and, in many cases, still is. It has only been four years since 33 Chilean miners were trapped underground for 69 days before being rescued.

    The book is in CHF’s Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library.

    By Michal Meyer


    You can learn more about this immortal animal in our latest video.

    Ebola Before The Outbreak


    With the unprecedented outbreak of Ebola in West Africa this year, it is important to put the disease in historical perspective.

    The first major outbreak of Ebola occurred in the 1970s in Sudan and Zaire near the Ebola River, from which the virus gets its name. Doctors were shocked by symptoms that mirrored the flu at first but quickly escalated to vomiting, diarrhea, and internal hemorrhaging within a matter of days. Compounding the danger, these fluids had the potential to transmit the disease. The origin of the outbreak was never discovered, but scientists suspected that direct contact with monkeys and fruit bats caused the virus to jump to humans. More than 300 cases were recorded; unsterilized medical equipment was the culprit for most of these infections.

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    What do fossilized whales and beer have in common? According to an article and a video by NPR, they both contain yeast.

    Amateur paleontologist Jason Osbourne scraped a living subspecies of yeast from whale bones he found in a Virginia swamp with the help of microbiologist Jasper Ackerbloom. They used the yeast to brew what they call Bone Dusters Paleo Ale. The yeast itself probably came from the swamp and is not as ancient as the 35-million year old fossilized proto-whale.

    You might remember that the theme of our May 2014 Distillations podcast was beer. Our guest Patrick E. McGovern helped brew ancient ale with Dogfish Head Brewery. McGovern’s oldest brew is based on ingredients found in 9,000-year-old pottery dug up in Jiahu, China, but it looks like Osbourne has usurped the crown of “oldest” ancient ale.

    Image: Skeleton of a maiacetus inuus in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. This type of ancient whale had four legs and was likely amphibious. Wikimedia Commons.

    Want to learn how to preserve food in jars? Today at 5:30 p.m. CHF will be streaming a canning demonstration with writer and instructor Marisa McClellan. You can watch the presentation live on CHF’s Youtube page, or if you’re in Philadelphia, stop by and see the demonstration in person at tonight’s First Friday festivities. Doors are open until 8.

    Before the show, brush up on the history of food preservation with an article from our magazine, “Processed: Food Science and the Modern Meal.”

    Image: Heinz factory workers filling and weighing cans of beans by hand in 1898. (Senator John Heinz History Center)

    Inspired by our most recent podcast guests, Pamela Dalton and David Barnes, we conducted our own smell experiment on our colleagues at CHF. 

    We presented our volunteers with a recreation of the odor of yellow fever, conceived by David Barnes and manufactured by the folks at Monell Chemical Senses Center. We asked each volunteer to describe the smell without first telling them what it was. The responses varied greatly, and we recorded them for your listening enjoyment.

    Special thanks to our CHF colleagues Clay Cansler, Daniel Liu, Edward Allen Driggers, Juan Andres Leon, Stefano Gattei, Nadia Berenstein, Alexis Jeffcoat, Beth Alfaro, and Bruce Moran for being our willing subjects.

    By Mariel Carr

    Wake up and Smell the Story: A Podcast about Your Nose

    If you asked people which of their senses they most feared losing, they’d probably say sight or hearing. But what about the ability to smell? This episode of Distillations examines what is perhaps our most underrated sense, and ponders what life would be like without it.

    First, producer Mariel Carr hits the streets of South Philadelphia to understand how a pervasive odor troubled neighborhood residents throughout the summer of 2014. Then reporter Jocelyn Frank tells us the story of Mario Rivas, a man who has lived his whole life without a sense of smell, and the great lengths he went to gain one.

    Then, we talk to two smell experts, Pamela Dalton, a psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, and David Barnes, a professor of the history of medicine and public health at the University of Pennsylvania. Our guests discuss the connections between smelling, odors, and emotions, as well as the history of odors, germs, and public health crises.

    This is a detail of a Puck cartoon drawn in 1896 by Frederick Burr Opper. It depicts Uncle Sam participating in the blue glass craze described in this audio clip. (Library of Congress)

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