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  • feedwordpress 09:01:36 on 2018/01/13 Permalink
    Tags: Act Against Multiplication, , chemistry, , Elisabeth of Bohemia, Henry IV, , , ,   

    “The ghost in the machine”*… 


    Pity (detail), by William Blake, c. 1795

    How is it that mind and body manage to interact and affect each other if they are such different things? This question was pressed on Descartes in the spring of 1643 by a young woman of twenty-four, Elisabeth von der Pfalz, also known as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. When others raised such difficulties, Descartes tended to brush them aside. But he listened to the princess…

    Anthony Gottlieb tells the remarkable story of the correspondence between René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—a debate about mind, soul, and immortality: “The Ghost and the Princess.”

    * Gilbert Ryle (The Concept of Mind, in part a critique of Descartes’ mind-body dualism)


    As we try to get it together, we might that it was on this date in 1404 that King Henry IV signed into law the Act Against Multiplication– which forbade alchemists to use their knowledge to create precious metals… and effectively, thus, outlawed chemistry in England.  Since the time of Roger Bacon, alchemy had fascinated many in England.  The Act of Multipliers was passed by the Parliament, declaring the use of transmutation to “multiply” gold and silver to be felony, as a result of concern that an alchemist might succeed in his project– and thus bring ruin upon the state by debasing the national currency and/or furnishing boundless wealth to a designing tyrant, who would use it to enslave the country.  The Act was in force until 1689, when Robert Boyle and other members of the vanguard of the scientific revolution lobbied for its repeal.



  • feedwordpress 08:01:13 on 2017/03/26 Permalink
    Tags: chemistry, folk wisdom, Harry Coover, , , , stare, sun, Super Glue, taboo,   

    “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily”*… 


    All the old rites and superstitions that once warded off mystical evils have been condensed into one single command, so vast and monolithic we’ve forgotten that it’s even possible to disobey: Don’t look directly at the sun.

    Not to look directly into the sun is (at a guess) one of the first lessons everyone is taught by their parents. As unquestioned ideological precepts go, it’s enormously effective. You learn it, you internalize it, and never really think of it again until you have kids of your own. And then you say it once more, repeating your parents’ words, and theirs, in an unbroken tradition going back God knows how many millennia. No, honey, never look directly into the sun…  But people do it. And our world is the better for it, because staring directly into the sun is our moral and political duty…

    Question authority: “What happens when you stare at the sun.”

    * François de La Rochefoucauld


    As we put down the smoked glass, we might spare a thought for the creator of the object of another set of taboos, Harry Wesley Coover, Jr.; he died on this date in 2011.  A chemist working for Eastman Kodak, he accidentally discovered a substance first marketed as “Eastman 910,” now commonly known as Super Glue. Coover was a prolific inventor– he held 460 patents– but was proudest of the organizational system that he developed and oversaw at Kodak: “programmed innovation,” a management methodology emphasizing research and development, which resulted in the introduction of 320 new products and sales growth from $1.8 billion to $2.5 billion.  In 2004, he was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame; then in 2010, received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.



  • feedwordpress 09:01:59 on 2017/01/21 Permalink
    Tags: , aspirin, Bayer, , booze, chemistry, Felix Hoffmann, heroin, , liquor,   

    “In wine there is Wisdom, in beer there is Freedom, in water there is bacteria”*… 


    Alcohol has been a prime mover of human culture from the beginning, fueling the development of arts, language, and religion: “Our 9,000-Year Love Affair With Booze.”

    * Benjamin Franklin


    As we meditate on mead, we might send analgesic birthday greetings to Felix Hoffmann; he was born on this date in 1868.  A chemist, he is best remembered for re-synthesizing diamorphine (independently from C.R. Alder Wright who synthesized it 23 years earlier), which was popularized under the Bayer trade name of “heroin.”  He is also credited with synthesizing aspirin (though whether he did this at his own initiative or under the instruction of Arthur Eichengrün is highly contested).



  • feedwordpress 09:01:26 on 2016/01/05 Permalink
    Tags: chemistry, , , Max Born, Olivia Newton-John, papers, , Robert Boyle, ,   

    “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”*… 


    The first issue of the the first volume of the first scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London

    Scientific papers, at the very dawn of that writing form, hadn’t yet evolved the conventions we’re so familiar with today. As a result, the contents of that first volume (and those that followed) are a fascinating mix of the groundbreaking, the banal, and the bizarre. Some are written as letters, some take the form of essays, some are abstracts or reviews of separately published books, and some are just plain inscrutable…

    For example, this contribution from Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry and a pioneer of the scientific method:

    A New Frigorifick Experiment Shewing, How a Considerable Degree of Cold May be Suddenly Produced without the Help of Snow, Ice, Haile, Wind, or Niter, and That at Any Time of the Year – Robert Boyle (again!) (Phil Trans 1:255-261). The word “frigorific”, which Boyle apparently coined for this title, meant “producing cold”, and Boyle’s claim was that simply mixing ammonium chloride into water would cool the solution down. This doesn’t seem to actually be true (saltpetre is frigorific; straight ammonium chloride can keep water liquid below normal freezing point, but isn’t actually frigorific). But although Boyle’s title is a bit hyperbolic, and he does go on a bit, he describes his experiments quite lucidly, so it’s probably unfair to call this one a weird paper. Whether Boyle was right or wrong, here he was doing modern science…

    Stephen Heard observes…

    Boyle’s Frigorifick paper raises an important point: not every paper in the early Philosophical Transactions was weird, even if in a few case it takes a close reading to realize that. The oddities are interspersed with important observations (like those of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) and descriptions of major advances (like Robert Hooke’s microscopic observations of cells). But the oddities are there by the dozen, and they give the impression of a freewheeling, chaotic, and perhaps somewhat credulous period at the birth of modern science. It was not yet quite clear where the boundaries of science were – where to draw the lines between science and engineering, or architecture, or alchemy, or wild speculation…

    Sound familiar?

    See more examples and learn more at “The Golden Age of Weird Papers.”

    * Albert Einstein


    As we scratch our chins, we might spare a thought for Max Born; he died on this date in 1970.  A German physicist and Nobel Laureate, he coined the phrase “quantum mechanics” to describe the field in which he made his greatest contributions.  But beyond his accomplishments as a practitioner, he was a master teacher whose students included Enrico Fermi and  Werner Heisenberg– both of whom became Nobel Laureates before their mentor– and  J. Robert Oppenheimer.

    Less well-known is that Born, who died in 1970, was the grandfather of Australian phenom and definitive Sandy-portrayer Olivia Newton-John.


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