Chemical Heritage Foundation

A CHF blog that brings the stories of science and culture directly to you.


Additional pages

Flickr Feed

Loading Flickr...

    More - Flickr

    Find ChemHeritage on...

    More liked posts

    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!

    Uranium Continues to Plague Navajo Lands

    By Michal Meyer


    (White Canyon Plant in Utah in 1953. Uranium and vanadium were mined from the sandstone canyons and then turned into vanadium oxide and uranium oxide.Vanadium Corporation of America Collection, Chemical Heritage Foundation Image Archives.)

    History rarely stays safely in the past. In the magazine last year we ran a story on uranium mining on Navajo lands. That story started in World War II with the production of yellowcake and finished with recent efforts to remediate the environmental pollution left behind by decades of mining. A few days ago a piece in the New York Times showed that you can’t rely on history to stay safely buried. One village faces such severe problems from uranium contamination that officials want to permanently relocate its inhabitants. 

    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.

    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

    Getting art students interested in science: Q&A with animation professor John Serptentelli:


    In 2012 CHF began a collaboration with John Serpentelli’s Commercial Animation class at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts to create videos that illustrate concepts in chemistry. This year the class created two videos based on objects from CHF’s collection. Half of the students made a humorous animation of the 17th-century painting Interior of a Laboratory with an Alchemist. The other half brought to life the 1887 book Real Fairy Folks: Explorations in the World of Atoms, a children’s story where the imaginary lives of fairies describe chemical processes. As production wrapped on the 2013 crop of videos we spoke with John Serptentelli about the experience for him and his students.

    Q: As an artist teaching at an art university, did you have any initial concerns about getting your students interested in chemistry?

    A: Yes. They’re used to more of a fantasy world, so their reactions were, “How are we going to do this?” Because in animation the only real science we normally deal with are optical illusions.

    Q: So how did you draw them in?

    A: I think they trusted me—as an animator—that we could make the videos work and make them interesting.

    Q: How did you come up with topics for the animations? How did you approach them to make them engaging?

    A: My initial concern was how we could make science entertaining. Last year I suggested we approach the videos with a first person, “how science affects me” sort of narrative. I thought this could be an entry point to anyone watching. We got last year’s video ideas from personal stories. The first one told the story of a friend who suffered a bad hair day from soft water she encountered while traveling. So we used that anecdote as a way to talk about the chemistry of water. The same was true for a story that CHF’s Bob Kenworthy [science consultant for the project] told the class about getting sunburned in the days before effective sunblock.

    Q: How did you approach the project differently this year?

    A: This year Jeff Guin [manager of new media at CHF and executive producer of the project] was determined to animate one of CHF’s paintings, so we settled on Interior of a Laboratory with an Alchemist. After that I walked around CHF’s museum to see what struck me. First I saw the display about magenta and I thought the idea of a color not existing at one point was fascinating. Then of course the Great Stink was a contender. Guys never get over fart jokes. But then Michal suggested Real Fairy Folks andI was really drawn to it. I’ve always liked old books and illustrations from artists’ points of view. The books themselves used art to make science more approachable—which is what we were trying to do with these animated videos. It was such a natural link that even the Great Stink had to go away.

    Q: Were there any surprises this year?

    A: The big surprise was that we thought the alchemy painting would take much longer than the fairy book, because it was a new style of animation for the students, but the reverse happened.

    Q: Why do you think that was?

    A: The alchemy video took a painting and animated it, so the students didn’t make any original drawings. Also, a lot of them were already familiar with Photoshop and After Effects, the programs we used. The fairy video became more complex because the students had to use a drawing style that was similar to the time period from the book. So there were stylistic constraints.

    Q: It seems like the style of animation in the fairy video is a bit similar to the styles of fantasy animation your students like.

    A: Yes, and I think they got into it, you know—one-armed fairies, fairies getting crushed.

    Q: Any other takeaways?

    A: It was good to see them rise to the occasion. It wasn’t just an assignment but a project bigger than themselves.

    Food for Thought

    By Michal Meyer

    Editor, Chemical Heritage Magazine

    Food for thought, food for love, even food for life. Food is far more than a list of ingredients on food labels. Fat, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, preservatives—these can’t give the whole story of food.

    Not even CHF can give the whole story of food, but here’s some food for conversation. The topic of the month is processed food in all its many forms. I like history, and CHF likes history. So lets jump back in time with Sarah Everts, who shows that civilization and preserved food go hand in hand in “Processed: Food Science and the Modern Meal.” Sarah begins her story deep in the pyramids of ancient Egypt, so expect a few surprises.

    Chemical Heritage’s Clay Cansler uncovers a 19th century way to process beef that was invented by a famous chemist and a roadbuilder. Even more surprising than its origins is the fact that the method is still in use today.

    Some processed food stories appear to start out as fairy tales, with valiant heroes rescuing us from health hazards. David Schleifer shows us just how wrong these tales can go in hishistory of transfats, in which a food hero is unmasked as a villain.

    I forgot to mention calories, which are now always included on food labels. Calories have their own history: born in a 19th-century chemistry lab, used by scientists to figure out how much work a laborer could do, and then counted by millions of dieters in the 20th century. Check out the calorie’s background here.

    Anyone with a sweet tooth might like Jesse Hicks’s history of saccharine. In it President Theodore Roosevelt tells the man behind the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act that “anyone who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot. Dr. Rixey gives it to me every day.” The overweight Roosevelt was on a diet prescribed by his doctor.  

    From fats and calories it’s a short hop to vitamins, which got their start in processed food in part because of another Roosevelt. In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the National Nutrition Conference for Defense to address the problem of an undernourished nation. The result: vitamin enrichment of food became standard. But, as Diane Wendt shows in“Vitamins Come to Dinner,” we may be putting a little too much faith in vitamin supplements.

    No blog post on food can be complete without considering taste. In this podcast we explore the first synthetic flavors and discover how the genes of supertasters—people with an acute sense of taste–might offer health benefits.

    And finally a conversation with David Schleifer and Bryant Simon on how today’s food got so processed. Watch the webcast, “Why the Chicken Became a Nugget and Other Tales of Processed Food.

    I think we’re going to have to come up with hashtag #itscomplicated

    #HistChem guest Bryant Simon (author of Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks) on who’s to blame for the lack of nutritional consideration in today’s foods. Time: 21:30

    Loading posts...