Chemical Heritage Foundation

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    Masters and Apprentices


    Should “fake” paintings by Rembrandt or Da Vinci have less value if even experts cannot reliably tell them apart?

    Part of what makes a work by Rembrandt unique is its particular style. Many of Rembrandt’s students emulated that style and created something beautiful. Perhaps the most important part of a painting is the painter’s idea of what a work should be, and not the act of moving a brush on a canvas.

    In April’s webcast, “Alchemy’s Rainbow: Pigment Science and the Art of Conservation,” art conservator Mark Bockrath explained how chemical analysis is used to link paintings to certain artists. But, he added, it can be difficult to determine who painted what in a specific time period because painters used similar materials and pigments. Chemistry can’t distinguish between a painting created by a master and a painting created by a skilled apprentice in that master’s workshop.

    Debate over Rembrandt’s paintings is particularly volatile. Rembrandt ran an enormous workshop and often collaborated with his apprentices. Sometimes he would add a few finishing touches to an apprentice’s painting, and other times he would repaint the entire canvas. Without detailed records for each painting, art scholars have a hard time knowing whether to attribute a “Rembrandt” to Rembrandt himself or to his assistants.

    Long before Rembrandt, Leonardo Da Vinci worked as an apprentice for Andrea di Verrocchio. Not even Da Vinci could escape the system where masters received credit for their student’s work. Da Vinci did not receive recognition for his contributions to Verrocchio’s paintings until long after his master’s death. He painted the angel in The Baptism of Christ, the most impressive part of that painting. When Da Vinci opened his own workshop in Milan, his apprentices collaborated on many works. Today, scholars cannot agree on which ones should be attributed to Da Vinci.

    In these cases provenance cannot be decided by chemistry. But does it really matter? As long as it looks like a Rembrandt, chemically matches a Rembrandt, should we care if the painting was painted by Rembrandt plus others? The idea of the lone genius is a modern one. A modern analogue to the earlier system might be postdocs working in a professor’s lab. Publications from that lab would carry all the contributors’ names, very often with the head honcho’s name first.

    By Jacob Roberts

    Image: “The Man With the Golden Helmet” was thought to have been painted by Rembrandt until it was attributed to one of his apprentices in the 1980s. (Wikimedia Commons)

    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, 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!

    Jingle Bell Science: Michael Faraday as Pop Icon

    By Jacob Roberts 

    In 1825 Michael Faraday started a series of science lectures at the Royal Institution aimed at young people. Faraday gave 19 talks, including a series about the chemical history of the candle. It was so popular that it was published in a book still in print today. The magic of Faraday’s lectures was built on two devices: he used everyday objects familiar to his audience (such as a candle) to explain abstract scientific concepts, and he employed the tools of theater to amaze people, capturing their imagination with demonstrations of combustion, electricity, and magnetism. To many it must have looked like magic. But the real trick Faraday pulled was showing people that it wasn’t magical at all; these were real applications of math and science that anyone could understand. What came to be known as the “Christmas lectures” started a trend of accessible science.

    The Christmas lectures are still being given at the Royal Institution. Modern science personalities, such as Carl Sagan, have taken over Faraday’s job as academic liaison to the public. Sagan’s 1977 lecture contextualized the planets in the solar system, showing how small and fragile Earth really is. In many ways Sagan illuminated astronomy for nonscientists just as Faraday popularized chemistry. While Faraday’s platform was a podium in a lecture hall, Sagan became famous for his books, television series, and willingness to tackle topics that few academics would touch, such as extraterrestrial life.

    At school, I always made sure to take at least one science course each semester in part because of Sagan’s work. He captured my imagination when I read about the Golden Record he helped create for Voyager spacecraft, probes that were sent careening into interstellar space in 1977 and continue to send data back to Earth. The Golden Record was encoded with a message to other sentient species with operating instructions that could be decoded using numbers associated with the hydrogen atom. Sagan postulated that if we had anything in common with other intelligent life across the galaxy, it would be our understanding of the universal truths of chemistry and physics.

    William Sanford Nye, better known as Bill Nye the Science Guy, was arguably more influential in my youth than even Sagan. Nye’s television show and lecture appearances have always been close in spirit to Faraday’s original Christmas lectures. Bill Nye the Science Guy focused on experimentation and debunked common misconceptions in science while encouraging viewers to always remain skeptical, all while providing a healthy dose of humor. In a classic example of Nye’s show, he explained static electricity in a (literally) hands-on experiment.

    Nye’s commitment to rationalism inspired an entire generation of people who grew up in the 1990s and are now entering college and the working world. A recent article in the New York Times describes the fever pitch his presence created on the campus of Iowa State University, representative of the celebrity he still commands more than a decade after his show stopped production. His subject matter has grown up along with his fans. Today he is a public advocate and teacher of science, speaking out against critics of global warming and evolution.

    Introducing science to children at an early age is a necessary part of creating a responsible, intelligent society. People like Faraday, Sagan, and Nye are the bridge between academics and the general public. I wish more professional scientists would spend time teaching and telling stories. Until they do, inspiration for science can come from anywhere. I didn’t learn how a point on the outside of a rotating record moves faster than a point on the inside at school; I learned it from reading Calvin and Hobbes. So did this guy.

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