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    Happy Birthday OXYGEN.  I guess.  Words enter language and sometimes words disappear-often as quickly as they appeared.  In the transition from the ancient ideas of the ‘four elements’ of earth, air, fire and water, to the modern Periodic table, scientists struggled to understand basic chemical reactions such as oxidation.  In 1730 the word phlogiston entered the scientific vocabulary, meaning a hypothetical inflammatory principle, formerly believed to exist in all combustible matter, and later extended to cover reactions such as oxidation.  The word came into English from Modern Latin around 1702, which came from the Ancient Greek word φλογιστον phlogiston (1610s in this sense), neuter of φλογιστος phlogistos meaning burnt up, inflammable, from φλογιζειν phlogizeinto set on fire, burn, which came from from φλοχ phlox (genitive phlogosflame, blaze.  The theory was propounded by German chemist George Ernst Stahl in 1702, denied by French chemist Antoine Lavoisier by 1775, defended by English theologian and chemist Joseph Priestley but generally abandoned by 1800. When Lavoisier composed the word oxygen in 1777 (in French, oxygen entered English in 1790), he was reacting to and rejecting the idea of phlogiston, composing his word from the Ancient Greek word oxys meaning sharp or acid and the -gene suffix used to indicate the origin orformation of something.  The word was meant to indicate‘acidifying principle’ because it was considered essential in the formation of acids, though this has since been shown not to be true. In fact, when Priestley isolated oxygen for the first time on August 1, 1774 he called it deplhogisticated air, but Lavoisier’s endeavors a year later meant the end of the phlogiston.

    Image of iron oxidation courtesy Dustin Jamison, used with permission under a Creative Commons 3.0 License.

    Oxygen has a fascinating history. Check out Joseph Priestley’s biography page on the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s website and an article about James Woodhouse from our magazine.

    Arnold Thackray Turns 75: Celebrate with Some Atoms of History

    In this video on John Dalton’s atomic theory, a gentleman-historian tells the story of a scientific discovery of first rank: how Dalton, a teacher in Manchester, England, in the early 19th century single-handedly revived the ancient concept of atoms and gave it an experimental foundation. It is nothing less than the foundation of modern chemistry, explained in just six minutes. The storyteller is obviously at ease with both the camera and the books around him, and the viewer is immediately captured by the story, and even more so by the man explaining it. Who is this man?

    Read more

    Mystery Men


    Three faceless men crouch in front of a device. The first grasps a small pot, preparing to add it to a pile of finished pottery. An enormous factory looms over him. The others look on, envious of the factory that makes pots so easily. Except they are not even facing the factory, and … I clearly have no idea what I’m talking about.

    All I know is that this picture is somehow connected to the Atoms for Peace program. The rest is a mystery. Part of the Atoms for Peace mission was to shift the focus from the destructive power of nuclear technology to its potential for clean, renewable energy. Beginning in the 1950s with President Eisenhower, the United States sought to carefully distribute the secrets of nuclear energy to nations around the world. In return: a guarantee that the recipient countries would not use this information to build atomic weapons.

    Atoms for Peace spawned propaganda campaigns and exhibitions around the world, and you’ll find some related posters in this issue of our magazine. But the one that stumped us is the hieroglyphics-like image above. What does it mean? It shares the style of those safety cards describing how to evacuate from an airplane after a crash. Except those cards are designed to be understood by anyone, regardless of language, while this image is as impossible as Olmec (the earliest known American writing system, and one that has yet to be deciphered).

    By Jacob Roberts

    Image: Photographic reproduction of a diagram illustrating an ‘Atoms for Peace’ pictorial exhibit released recently by the Department of Public Information of the UN. January 1956.

    Blue Blood Donors


    In the first half of the 20th century, scientists faced a vexing  problem. Too many people were being sickened and killed by bacterial endotoxin—a substance in a bacteria’s outer membrane toxic to animals and resistant to heat—contracted through vaccines and surgery tools. The only way to determine if something was contaminated was to test it on animals, a slow and expensive process.

    In 1956 a scientist named Fred Bang was studying the blood circulation in horseshoe crabs. He observed that when a crab became infected with gram-negative bacteria (a type of bacteria difficult to detect with standard tests), its blood coagulated and turned into a thick jelly.  He continued analyzing this phenomenon and found that horseshoe crab blood contains a cell that releases a clotting agent that captures foreign contaminants before they infect the whole crab.

    Horseshoe crabs need this clotting ability to keep the billions of microscopic organisms in the ocean at bay. If a crab gets a cut or a puncture in its shell, its blood will harden around the hole and freeze foreign contaminants in place. This trait may have helped the horseshoe become one of the oldest living animals; the species is more than 500 million years old.

    Scientists were quick to isolate the clotting agent (named Limulus amebocyte lysate, or LAL) and use it to test the presence of bacteria in medicine and pharmaceutical equipment. If the LAL turns into gel after coming into contact with a vaccine, the vaccine is contaminated. If nothing happens, it is safe to use on humans. This simple test has saved thousands of lives since its invention.

    The only issue is that scientists now need horseshoe crab blood, and lots of it. Hundreds of thousands of crabs are bled each year to keep up with the demand for LAL, and each time a crab is harvested about 30% of its blood is taken before it is released back into the ocean. The blood is drained by strapping down the crab and inserting a large needle into the tissue near its heart. The medical industry claims that mortality rates are low, but some studies suggest that as many as 15% of all crabs harvested end up dying.  Additionally, other studies have shown that even though the crabs can replenish most of their blood in a few weeks, the harvesting process has a detrimental effect on their movement speed and breeding ability. With horseshoe crab populations already threatened by fishermen who use them as bait, pharmaceutical companies need to switch to an alternative to LAL sooner rather than later.

    Luckily there are some promising substitutes already available. A laboratory at Princeton University is testing microchip coated with antimicrobial peptides found on the back of the African clawed frog. When the peptides react with bacteria, the microchip sends out an alert. Other labs have developed recombinant Factor C, essentially a synthetic version of the clotting agent in horseshoe crab blood.

    By Jacob Roberts

    Image: Horseshoe crab blood is harvested and used to test for vaccines for potentially deadly contaminations. The bright blue color of the animal’s blood comes from the copper molecules used to carry oxygen (human blood uses iron). Wikimedia Commons.

    Nye Tries to Burn Ham

    Neil Gussman

    At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, February 4, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Ken Ham, CEO of the Creation Museum debate at the Creation Museum. The debate can be watched at

    Our magazine reviewed the museum a while back. Kelly Tuttle, the reviewer, found the place dull, for reasons you can explore here.

    If you decide to watch, you will, in effect, be participating in the meta-debate about whether Bill Nye should participate. The conventional wisdom among the scientific community is not to participate in debates with Creationists. The scientist is at a disadvantage because the creationist is reasoning back from a conclusion, so is less constrained by facts than the scientist. Furthermore, the debate format itself promotes a false equivalency between the two positions, similar to a doctor of immunology debating Jenny McCarthy on vaccination. 

    The physics that demonstrate the age of the universe stem from Einstein’s work on relativity and have been verified by a century of experimental physics. The Creationist position sets the age of the earth and the universe by adding dates in the Old Testament and then revising science to fit. 

    The debate will be a chance to observe the tension between science and a subculture hostile to science—while using satellite technology, solid state electronics, and many other products of the very science that subculture denies.  It should be fascinating.

    Telling (True) Tales


    By Michal Meyer

    Editor, Chemical Heritage Magazine

    I haven’t read comics since I was 10. I tried a few graphic novels—Maus was the most memorable, but even it did not make much impression. I came to the conclusion that I must be so word obsessed that images added nothing to a story, even a non-fiction story such as Maus.

    History tells a different story. There was a time when comics had a different kind of superhero, the doctor or scientist who overcame enormous odds to make the breakthrough discovery or find a cure. In “Stories of the Great Chemists,” Bert Hansen and Boaz N. Adler tell how science-themed comics influenced a generation of children in the 1950s and 1960s. The trials and tribulations of scientific heroes—such as Lavoisier, Pasteur, Curie—and their road to eventual success inspired some of the children to pursue science as adults.

    For science to appear in comics it must be part of the public culture. “Graphic Knowledge” charts how newspapers, magazines, and comics brought science into popular culture. This story begins with four New Jersey boys bitten by a possibly rabid dog in 1885. The media turned what was a local story into a national one by following the boys on their trip to Paris, their receiving the new Pasteur vaccine, and their triumphant return to the Unites States. 

    Before knowledge must come the desire for knowledge. What drove me to study science at university was not theories or facts but true stories about scientists on a quest for knowledge. The quest is an old storytelling form, one still going strong. Most of the Indiana Jones movies follow the format in which the hero (less often a heroine) goes on a journey of discovery (this can take place in a lab), faces opposition (other scientists, badly-behaved equipment, dead ends), and finally triumphs (a cure is found, new fields of knowledge open up).

    The quest for knowledge can make compelling reading. Richard Holmes talks about the adventures of some early balloonists in his new book, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. Science as entertainment or entertainment as part of science also has a history.

    But when it comes to heroes we now live in a more skeptical age. We don’t quite trust heroes. Enter a new age of graphic novels and graphic nonfiction. Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s recent Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb changed my mind about the marriage of word and image. Each builds on the strengths of the other—drawings heighten the emotional power of the text while visual metaphors enlighten scientific explanations. 

    Trinity is not a simple of story of heroes overcoming obstacles on their way to ultimate success. There are too many dead bodies for that. It is historical nonfiction driven by powerful visual and literary storytelling instincts.

    How to make science engaging to kids and even adults is a perennial question. Telling stories has always been one answer. I don’t know if Trinity will inspire anyone to go on to study science, but it might well inspire them to look more deeply into the history of science. It’s a start.

    Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Bert Hansen will be telling true stories at CHF on January 22, and you are invited to watch via webcast. “Drawing History: Telling the Stories of Science through Comics and Graphic Novels” will air at 6:30 p.m. EST. Watch it live at

    Nov. 20th #HistChem Webcast: “Why the Chicken Became a Nugget and Other Tales of Processed Food”

    On November 20, 2013, the Chemical Heritage Foundation will present a live #HistChemwebcast that takes a historical look at how humanity has shifted its expectations about food, from fresh and flavorful to fast and frugal.

    The webcast will air at 6 p.m. eastern time at Guests will include historian Bryant Simon and sociologist David Schleifer

    Simon is the author of Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks and Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America. He is now working on a broad ranging study of the high costs of cheap food.

    Schleifer earned his Ph.D. in sociology from New York University. He researches health care, food, science, and technology. He is writing a book proposal based on his dissertation, “What Happened to Trans Fats?” which explains one of the most significant changes in the contemporary American food system.

    To view past webcasts visit the Chemical Heritage Foundation Vimeo channel. Subscribe to the highlights playlist on YouTube via the videos below.

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