Post Tagged with: "history"

Wellcome chemical images

The UK’s leading medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust, have donated a treasure trove to the world; 100,000 images covering the history of all aspects of medicine, science and technology are now freely available to any and all.

The database contains pictures of weird and wonderful medical instruments, copies of historical documents and stunning examples of science related works of art from Van Goghs to cartoons. It’s a joy just to peruse the library jumping from one fascinating image to the next. But, being a chemist, I was of course, particularly drawn to the documents and apparatus depicting the history of my chosen field.

Take the paraphernalia of the great and the good which gives a wonderful insight into their lives, working habits and personalities.

Of course Watson and Crick are well represented. There’s the draft of their famous paper describing the double helix of DNA, complete with hand written notes and annotations. But a better testament to Crick’s temperament and modesty is a photo of some graffiti allegedly scrawled by him. It seems to be part of a exchange with Enoch [Powell?] whilst also suggesting Crick may have had ambitions beyond a mere Nobel Prize.

Francis Crick’s graffiti, date unknown

Francis Crick wall graffiti Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Francis Crick wall graffiti, Location and date unknown 'Keep the Lefties Out. Crick for God' Crick Papers Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK,

 

There’s plenty of material on double Nobel Laurette, Marie Curie. Images of her laboratory are fascinating insight into her practices.

However, it’s her scruffy laboratory notebook that I find most interesting. Madam Curie was certainly a genius but her notes probably won’t pass muster with most PhD supervisors today.

Pages from Marie Curie’s notebook 27 May 1899 – 4 December 1902 

redit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Page from notebook. 27 May 1899 - 4 December 1902 Holograph note-book containing notes of experiments, etc. on radio-active substances. Marie Curie Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK

 

Then there’s the equipment that highlights how science has progressed.

Take the X-ray spectrometer lovingly developed by the Leeds physicist William Henry Bragg. The 100 year old device is  the direct ancestor of equipment housed at synchrotron like the massive Diamond light source.

Bragg’s X-ray Spectrometer 1910-1926

Bragg X-ray spectrometer, England Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Bragg X-ray spectrometer, England, 1910-1926 Developed by William Henry Bragg (1862-1942), a professor of physics based in Leeds, England, this X-ray spectrometer was used by him and his son William Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971) to investigate the structure of crystals. The Braggs developed new tools and techniques to understand crystals. Their research was the basis of ¬X-ray crystallography, a technique that was used to advance chemistry, physics and biology. The Braggs won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1915. 1910-1926 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK

Or the penicillin fermentation vessel, one of thousands originally used by Glaxo (now GlaxoSmithKline) to grow the penicillium mould from which the antibiotic was extracted. Later the mould was grown in fermentors. Now of course the antibiotics are made synthetically.

Penicillin fermentation vessel, 1940-45

Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Penicillin fermentation vessel, England, 1940-1945 Thousands of glass fermentation vessels like this one were used in Glaxo (now GlaxoSmithKline) laboratories to produce penicillin. The penicillium mould was grown on the surface of a liquid filled with all the nutrients it needed. This approach was superseded by the method of growing the mould within large industrial fermenters. The antibiotic was first used in the early 1940s and saved the lives of many soldiers during the Second World War. 1940-1945 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK

And there’s a wealth of early infographics, like this table of chemical characteristics from 1799, which predates the modern periodic table and chemical notation. Instead the elements (along with light and combustion) have been given symbols which are then combined to represent the compounds formed when these element are reacted together. The result is a beautiful if confusing representation of the state of chemistry in the 18th century.

 

Chemistry: symbols of elements and substances. Coloured engraving by H. Ashby, 1799, after W. Jackson. 

Chemistry: symbols of elements and substances. Coloured engr Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Chemistry: symbols of elements and substances. Coloured engraving by H. Ashby, 1799, after W. Jackson. 1799 By: William Jacksonafter: Henry AshbyPublished: 26 October 1799 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
. Coloured engraving by H. Ashby, 1799, after W. Jackson.
1799 By: William Jacksonafter: Henry AshbyPublished: 26 October 1799
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK

Finally the mundane but no less fascinating. How about a cunning 3D representation of the periodic table lovingly mounted in a jam jar!

L0002952 Model showing Periodic Elements of Chemistry Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Model showing Periodic Elements of Chemistry. From a model prepared at the Royal Institute of Chemistry Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images From a model prepared at the Royal Institute of ChemistryCopyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK 

 

This post originally appeared in the Guardian.

By January 30, 2014 1 comment general chemistry

A Short History of Proteins in Ink.

I teach a short course called Nature’s Robots (blatantly copying the title of Tanford and Renynolds’ book of the same name). It’s a potted history of protein science. I got bored of reading essays so I asked the students to create a short video on the subject instead.

One of thems produced this absolutely beautiful set of ink drawings.

In future I’ll just show students this video and sparing them my lectures!

By October 23, 2013 0 comments chemical education

Happy Berzelius Day

Jöns_Jacob_Berzelius
Today, August 20th, marks the birthday of Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779–1848).

I decided to write this post because, frankly, I knew nothing about Berzelius. He seems to be something of an “unsung hero”, despite his important contributions to science. I thought I’d take the opportunity to collect some key facts about this visionary chemist’s life.

The late 18th and early 19th centuries were formative years for modern chemistry. The names of many of the pioneers of that age – such as Lavoisier, Dalton, Avogadro, Volta and Faraday – live on in the minds of scientists to this day (mostly, perhaps, in the form of the units we use). Berzelius lived through much of this revolutionary (in more ways than one) period, and many of his discoveries and innovations have underpinned chemistry for centuries since.

Berzelius trained as a medical doctor, and found himself fascinated by the work of Volta and the latter’s invention of voltaic piles. Berzelius incorporated electricity into his medical research, investigating the effect of direct current on unwell patients. It turned out that giving his patients electric shocks did not improve their condition, but this result didn’t abate Berzelius’ scientific curiosity.

He was living in the golden (or should that be cupro-zinc?) age of electrochemistry. Berzelius was a systematic experimenter, able to collect and collate vast quantities of data and extract trends and conclusions in his analysis. His examination of the electrochemistry of metal salts led him to his theory of “dualism”. This theory proposed that all atoms bore a charge – positive or negative – and that compounds were formed by the neutralisation of opposite charges. This offered an early analogy to ionic bonding. However, the theory of dualism fell out of favour towards the end of Berzelius’ life, as its inability to accommodate new discoveries, including the developing field of organic chemistry, became clear.

It was around the time of Berzelius’ studies on dualism that John Dalton published his New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808), which introduced his development of atomic theory – that elements were made up of indestructible and indivisible atoms, which were identical for a given element. Dalton also published a table of a handful of atomic weights and associated atomic symbols.

Dalton_atomic_symbols

Unfortunately, Dalton’s determinations were limited in terms of accuracy, and the majority of known elements were omitted. Berzelius systematically examined all of the elements known at the time, and published 43 atomic weights which have proven remarkably accurate (considering the pioneering nature of the work) when compared to modern values.

As he used so many elements and compounds, Berzelius began to find the chemical notation of the time to be cumbersome. Chemicals were typically represented by pseudo-alchemical symbols, making the construction and parsing of chemical formulae difficult and error-prone.

Berzelius changed all this, and, in a short paper, introduced the basis of the chemical notation we use to this day. He substituted the alchemical symbols for letters: C, Cu, O, etc. The proportion of atoms in a compound was denoted by superscript numbers: CO2. Nowadays, of course, we denote the proportions with subscripts, but in all other respects Berzelius’ notation has stood the test of time remarkably well.

progression_of_formula

Berzelius also discovered four elements: cerium, selenium, silicon and thorium, and in addition introduced several terms to the chemical lexicon – although their meanings have changed since: allotrope, polymer, catalysis and isomer.

Berzelius’ systematic identification of the chemistry of minerals, along with his many other discoveries, earned him the Royal Society’s Copley Medal in 1836, jointly with Francis Kiernan.

Berzelius’ legacy was doubtless cemented by his publication of numerous widely-translated textbooks. It is interesting to consider that these textbooks may have educated some of the big names of the next generation: Mendeleev, Clausius, Helmholtz, Joule, Bunsen, perhaps even Darwin. Whether or not they did, it is doubtless that they, in common with generations of chemists since, owe much to the discoveries of Berzelius and his contemporaries.

So, today let’s remember Berzelius, one of the “Fathers of Modern Chemistry”.

A bit of trivia:

Berzelius is the academic great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Prof Martyn Poliakoff, of University of Nottingham and Periodic Table of Videos. Small world?

Like many chemists, Berzelius has a piece of glassware bearing his name. A tall and thin glass beaker is otherwise known as a Berzelius beaker.

 

Sources/further reading: http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/online-resources/chemistry-in-history/themes/electrochemistry/berzelius.aspx

http://www.nndb.com/people/051/000094766/

http://pubs.acs.org/subscribe/archive/tcaw/13/i12/pdf/1204chronicles.pdf

Periodic Table of Videos – Berzelius

For a review on Berzelius’ techniques and involvement with atomic weights, see W. MacNevin, J. Chem. Educ.195431, 207. (paywall)

All images are public domain.

Five most memorable chemistry papers

Ash over at The Curious Wavefunction has asked for our five most memorable chemistry papers. Here’s mine.

 1) A Specific, Highly Active Malate Dehydrogenase by Redesign of a Lactate Dehydrogenase Framework (Wilks et. al 1988)

If there is a single paper that had the greatest affect on my career decisions then its this one. It quite simply describes how a lactate dehydrogenase was engineered into a malate dehydrogenase. I remember reading it as an undergraduate and marvelling at the fact that mere mortal man had the power to redesign nature’s creations. It drove home the power of molecular biology as well as the wonders of proteins.

I sought out the authors and ended up doing a PhD with one of them.

2 and 3)  A Thermodynamic Scale for the Beta-Sheet Forming Tendencies of the Amino Acids (Smith et. al 1994) and Measurement of the Beta-sheet forming propensities of Amino Acids (Minor & Kim 1994)

These two are both really nice papers that I referred to a lot during my PhD. But the main reason I’m including them in my list is that they are IDENTICAL (within experimental error)! The two groups selected the same protein, made the same mutations, did the same experiments, (reassuringly) got the same results and then published at the same time.

You’ve got to feel sorry for Smith et al. they published in good old Biochemistry, whilst Minor and Kim got a Nature paper. There has got to be a fascinating back story about what happened here, but I’m afraid I have no idea what it is. Maybe I’ll write to the authors and find out.

4) A Day in the Life of Dr K. or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Lysozyme: A Tragedy in Six Acts (Gunnar von Heijne 1999)

Why are papers so often so dry? Here’s the perfect counter to all that dusty language, a review article written in play form and to cap it off diagrams sketched out on napkins. Plus its another career altering paper, it  pushed me towards membrane proteins.  Screen Shot 2013-08-09 at 14.09.09

5) Blackawton bees (Blackawton et al. 2010)

This one is a bit of a cheat, because its very obviously not a chemistry paper. However it is a lesson to us all on how to write a paper. Its clear, jargon free and a joy to read.  Why can’t all papers be this clear? Probably because they are rarely written by primary school children. And don’t forget to check out the crayon diagrams and tables drawn with pencil. 

By August 9, 2013 1 comment general chemistry