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Archive for August, 2009

 

Thales of Miletus - illustration by David V. Black

Thales of Miletus - illustration by David V. Black

    I realize that the title of this post sounds a bit like the Lord of the Rings, but after three months in Philadelphia at the Chemical Heritage Foundation my research fellowship is ending. I am very thankful for the opportunity that I’ve had to be here, which was made possible by a grant from the American Section of the Société de Chimie Industrielle. My stay at CHF has been extremely productive, more so that I could possibly have hoped. In addition to acquiring over 7500 photos of books and archives here, I have taken the opportunity to visit nearby sites related to The Elements Unearthed project, such as the Lackawanna Coal Mine near Scranton, PA and the Sterling Hill Zinc Mine in New Jersey. I’ve interviewed Dr. Eric Scerri, a noted expert on the history of the periodic table (I will have samples of that interview on this post shortly) and I’ve photographed mineral and gem samples at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. I’ve also created some illustrations (here’s a new one of Thales that I drew by hand, then digitally colored) as well as animations and scripts for episodes. Not bad for only three months!

    Meanwhile time continues to fly by. These three months have been great to focus solely on this project, but now I need to head back to Utah and actually earn my keep again. I hope to gain further sponsorship of this project so that work can continue unabated; if not, I’ll continue to edit the footage on a part-time basis until funds do come in. Several episodes are nearing completion and should be done by the end of September, at which time I’ll finally officially create the iTunes podcast. A few segments will be uploaded to this blog and to YouTube over the next several weeks. I’m sorry for the delay, but decided to spend my time at CHF acquiring materials instead of editing them. I figure it will pay off in the end.

Table of Elements by Antoine Lavoisier

Table of Elements by Antoine Lavoisier

 

    This last week at CHF I have ran the curators ragged finding several obscure books that contain illustrations I’ve known about and have even drawn before for posters and other projects I’ve worked on, including Antoine Lavoisier’s Traite du Chimie, with his famous list of the then known elements (showing oxygen for the first time);

Glauber furnace

Glauber furnace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a diagram of a furnace by Johann Glauber in his De Furni Novi;

and illustrations of the Greek philosophers in the Nuremburg Chronicles (yes, CHF has a 1493 edition of this monumental work, an attempt to tell the entire history of the world). The illustrations are rather interesting because the same woodcuts are used several times and the ancient philosophers are dressed in 15th Century clothing. Not that anyone really knows what Empedocles looked like anyway . . . .

 

Illustration of Empedocles from Nuremburg Chronicles

Illustration of Empedocles from Nuremburg Chronicles

I also took some final photos of exhibits here at CHF. Even though I’ve looked at everything, I hadn’t read all the notations on the exhibits, and was a bit astonished to discover that a rather nondescript piece of pottery with glass objects sitting in it was rather familiar to me – none other than Joseph Priestley’s pneumatic trough, with which he tested the properties of air. This is one he probably had made in America after a mob had destroyed his lab in England and he emigrated here.

 

Joseph Priestley's pneumatic trough

Joseph Priestley's pneumatic trough

 

 

 

 

    Now, after fond farewells at CHF, I am busily packing up the minivan and getting ready to drive home tomorrow. I’ll take 6 1/2 days to get to Utah, stopping at several places related to this project, such as the Drake oil well in northwest Pennsylvania near Titusville; an interactive periodic table installation at DePauw University in Indiana; an interview with Theo Gray in Illinois; a tour of the Bonne Terre Lead Mine in Missouri; a salt mine in Hutchinson, Kansas; the Molly Kathleen Gold Mine in Cripple Creek, CO; and the mining museum in Leadville, CO. I’m also stopping at some historical sites such as Gettysburg National Military Park and Kirtland, Ohio. I’ll be camping most nights, and it will be a busy but fun trip, my own vacation before the hard work of editing all of this begins. By the time I return home, I should have enough material for at least 30 complete or partial podcast episodes. Wish me luck! My nest post should be very interesting!

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    With my daughter safely back in Utah beginning her freshman year at the Univeristy of Utah and the ISPC symposium done, I have returned this week to documenting/ photographing books related to this project. I have progressed to the early modern period (18th and 19th Centuries) and the foundations of modern chemistry (what Robert Boyle at the time called “Chymistry”). I have, in fact, photographed a 1680 edition of his “Sceptical Chymist” (the 1661 that CHF has is so rare that I don’t dare touch it). The 1680 edition has the advantage of having some additional notes by Boyle published in the back. It was very interesting reading through the text and finding references to Paracelsus and Van Helmont. He wrote the book as a dialogue between several people, the main voice being an experimental chemist who argued for overthrowing the Aristotelian ideas that had dominated chemistry for so long. Because Boyle advocates experimentation and observation over dogma, this book is considered the birthplace of chemistry as a science. Boyle also speaks out in favor of a “corpuscular” theory of matter, reviving the long neglected atomic matter theory. In his words:

Page from "The Sceptical Chymist"

Page from "The Sceptical Chymist"

” … there may be some Clusters of Particles, wherein the Particles are so minute, and the Coherence so strict, or both, that when Bodies of Differing Denominations, and consisting of such durable Clusters, happen to be mingl’d, though the Compound Body made up of them may be very Differing from either of the Ingredients, yet each of the little Masses or Clusters may so retain its own Nature, as to be again separable, such as it was before. As, when Gold and Silver being melted together in a Due Proportion . . . Aqua Fortis will dissolve the Silver, and leave the Gold untoucht.” (Pp. 152-153)

 

Molecule diagrams by John Dalton

Molecule diagrams by John Dalton

    I’ve also been photographing works by Amedeo Avogadro, John Dalton (a first edition of his landmark 1808 book A New System of Chemical Philosophy), Antoine Lavoisier, Nicholas Lemery (who wrote a textbook on chemistry in 1675), Humphry Davy, and others.

Diagram from "Elements of Chemistry" by Lavoisier

Diagram by Lavoisier

    I have continued to photograph a few more technical books as well, including the amazing  Amphitheatrum sapiente by Heinrich Khunrath and the wonderful Utrisque cosmi maioris by Robert Fludd. Both have detailed illustrations. Khunrath’s book has engravings that are so packed it would take hours to find all the information they contain, and Fludd was a polymath similar to Leonardo Da Vinci;

Khunrath illustration

Khunrath illustration

his book covers all kinds of subjects from astrology to the creation of the elements to practical geometry to musical mathematic theory (and how to tune a lute) to how to build a water clock that plays music to how to draw the human face to how to build military fortifications (including a cannon battlement that can be moved forward on wheels – much like Da Vinci’s armored tank)

Robert Fludd movable battlement

Robert Fludd movable battlement

. . . anyway, it was a fun book to look at, and I am amazed at the level of knowledge and technology it displays given it was written between 1617 and 1634.

Comparison of Periodic Tables before Mendeleev

Comparison of Periodic Tables before Mendeleev

    My biggest discovery this week has been a collection in our archives of the notes of Edward Mazurs, who wrote the definitive work on classifying different systems of periodic tables in 1957 with  a revised edition in 1974 (Graphic Representations of the Periodic System During One Hundred Years; University of Alabama Press). Mazurs was a professor of chemistry at the University of Riga in Latvia until he escaped the Soviet occupation following World War II. After working for many years at Argo Corn Products in Chicago, first as a janitor and later as a chemist,  he retired from Argo and moved to Santa Barbara, CA where he taught at Westmont College.

Wooden periodic table by Edward Mazurs

Wooden periodic table by Edward Mazurs

He collected articles and wrote extensive, detailed notes on every version of the periodic table he could find as it developed from its start in the early 1860s with the work of de Chancourtois through 1974. All of those notes have been donated to CHF and fill up ten binders, with meticulous drawings, charts, tables, and frequent additions and changes. There are also some pieces of the original artwork prepared for the book, and a wooden model of the periodic table Mazurs built himself. I am including photos of a few of the more interesting forms of the table here.

Periodic table shaped like rabbit ears

Periodic table shaped like rabbit ears

Spiral-form periodic table

Spiral-form periodic table

 

 

 

 

 

 

    As for me, I’ve struggled for years to teach the periodic law to first-year chemistry students and find the structure of the common medium-format table to be a hindrance when explaining the electronic structure of atoms. The order of electron orbital filling is simply too hard to grasp using the usual table. Mazurs came to the conclusion – and so have I – that a left-step table works best, as shown here. As one progressed through the eight periods (rows) one adds electron orbitals in the correct order. The only remaining problem is the First Period – hydrogen is OK in the alkali metal column (that’s where it usually is placed) but helium doesn’t belong in the alkaline earth family, at least not chemically (although it does electronically as it has filled an s-orbital).

Left-step periodic table

Left-step periodic table

    Perhaps hydrogen and helium should be floated above the main table as they are now in the medium-long format. But that is for chemical theorists and philosophers to debate on. In the meantime, I continue to photograph a few more books in my remaining week at CHF, then packing up and driving back to Utah. I had hoped to have an episode or two completely done by now, but have made the decision to spend my time at CHF acquiring more materials rather than editing; the final edits will have to wait until I get back to Utah. Sorry about the delay, but by the end of September the first two podcast episodes will be done. With what I plan on videotaping on my way back to Utah and what we already have done, there will be enough material to make approximately 30 episodes. Now I just need to find the time and funds to edit it all.

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David Black in Lackawanna Coal Mine

David Black in Lackawanna Coal Mine

    For the last two weeks I have been so busy collecting materials for The Elements Unearthed project that I haven’t had time to write any blog entries. My daughter flew in from Utah to visit us in Philadelphia and she has helped me videotape and photograph some local mines and minerals. I’ve collected materials for four new podcast episodes, including anthracite coal mining in Pennsylvania, minerals and gems of the Smithsonian, zinc mining in New Jersey, and the history of the Periodic Table of the Elements. Let’s take a look at samples from each of these future episodes:

Coal tipple at Lackawanna Coal Mine

Coal tipple at Lackawanna Coal Mine

 Lackawanna Coal Mine:

    On Thursday, August 6 we traveled to Scranton, PA and visited the Lackawanna Coal Mine and the Anthracite Heritage Museum. The tour into the mine lasts about an hour, and our guide, Roger Beatty, was informative and funny. He allowed us to attach a wireless microphone system to him, which we then fed into my small HD camera so that we could have good audio regardless of where we were standing underground. The video itself is pretty good for being hand-held and in the semi-darkness of a coal mine. The coal here in northeastern Pennsylvania is anthracite or metamorphic coal and has to be mined using hard rock techniques. The veins that were mined and which underlie the Lackawanna Valley (Scranton) range from 8-10 feet seems to 18 inches tall. These thin “monkey” veins had to be mined on all fours, usually at a steep incline. Since the coal seems are broad and stretch for miles in all directions, the technique for mining is to create a grid of galleries and cross-cuts with pillars of coal left in place in between to support the weight of the rock above. Some galleries are made wider as gangways for cart tracks and ventilation; once the edge of the mine property is reached, the mining procedes backwards as the pillars are robbed. If too much coal is mined, the entire area may collapse.

Roger Beatty, Tour Guide

Roger Beatty, Tour Guide

    In the Wyoming Valley nearby, unsafe mining techniques led to a stope in the Knox Mine being cut only three feet under the muddy bottom of the Susquehanna River, and on Jan. 22, 1959 the weight of the water punched a hole into the mine and eventually flooded all the mines in the valley and drowned 12 miners. Anthracite coal was already having hard economic times when this disaster led to the closing of most of the anthracite mines in Pennsylvania. It is estimated that if the mines could be pumped out, there still remaines over 8 billion tons of anthracite coal in Pennsylvania alone.

Centralia, PA:

    In addition to roof collapse and mine flooding, coal mines can have other hazards. Over 30,000 men died in the anthracite mines from the time records were kept in the 1870s until now. But in one case, no one died except a town.

Fumes coming from hillside near Centralia, PA

Fumes coming from hillside near Centralia, PA

    In 1962 the coal town of Centralia, PA was a prosperous village near Ashland and about ten miles from Frackville. Then burning trash in an abandoned open pit mine set a seam of coal on fire. When the fire was put out on the surface, the coal continued to burn underground, and repeated efforts to extinguish the slowly burning seams have all failed. The fire has gradually spread and the fumes (sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, etc.) were deemed too hazardous for the residents to stay, so the town has been evacuated and the houses moved into the next valley (except for a few die-hards who refuse to leave).

Layer of smoldering ash under the surface

Layer of smoldering ash under the surface

    Now you can visit the town, as we did on our way back to Philadelphia, and see roads that lead  nowhere and a hillside near the cemetary that is still smoldering. In one small mound we could see several vents with fumes wafting out, so we took our video equipment over and documented it. We found that you certainly don’t want to breathe the fumes! I tried to pick up a few pieces of slate mixed in with the gray coal to see what was underneath, and the ground was hot to the touch. Once the slate was pulled out, a layer of coal ash could be seen in the hole left behind. After 47 years, Centralia is still on fire.

Gold nuggets in the Natural History Museum

Gold nuggets in the Natural History Museum

Minerals and Gems at the Museum of Natural History:

    We visited Washington, D.C. on August 7-9 and I spent some time in the Natural History Museum photographing the rocks, minerals, and gems. The Smithsonian has such an extensive collection that all the specimens are amazing; they have enough to even show displays of unusual crystals and mineral colors and crystal shapes. They also have samples of many famous meteorites, of all types of rocks from the rock cycle, examples of deposition and erosion, families of minerals (such as sulfates and silicates) on display, and, of course, some of the most famous gemstones in the world, including the Hope Diamond. Although the Hope is certainly nice, I personally like the emeralds better.

Indian Emerald Necklace from Columbia

Indian Emerald Necklace from Columbia

    I have often been accused of having rocks in my head, and all the photos I took (I filled up about 3.5 GB of disc space) certainly proves that at least I have rocks on my mind.

Sterling Hill Zinc Mine:

    On Wednesday, Aug. 12 we drove to northern New Jersey about 30 miles due west of New York City to the town of Ogdensburg where the Sterling Hill Zinc Mine is located. Operations shut down here in 1986 and the mine facilities have been turned into a museum of mining artifacts and a world-class mineral exhibit, including fluorescent zinc minerals such as the green-glowing willemite seen here. They have a display of the elements of the periodic table, and even have a sample of ore from the Tintic Mining District in Utah (the Mammoth mine).

Willemite (green) and calcite (red) fluorescence

Willemite (green) and calcite (red) fluorescence

    After touring the museum, we spent 90 minutes touring the mine. The zinc was deposited through igneous activity in ancient sea floor limestone deposits, which were then uplifted and metamorphosed into marble with the zinc as veins running through the marble.

The Periodic Table:

    In addition to all of this, Chemical Heritage Foundation hosted the International Society of the Philosophy of Chemistry (ISPC) annual symposium Aug. 13-15  and I attended some of the sessions. Although some of the philosophy was beyond the scope of this project, there were some sessions that tied in directly, including the history and philosophy of the periodic system. Dr. Eric Scerri, a noted authority on the history and structure of the periodic table, presented at the conference and consented to be interviewed by me.

Dr. Eric R. Scerri

Dr. Eric R. Scerri

He is the author of the book: The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance (2007, Oxford University Press), and I asked him a series of questions about the discoveries and knowledge that led to Mendeleev’s successful table and some of the issues that still remain, such as whether or not the periodic system can be fully deduced from quantum mechanics (a central point of discussion at the symposium). In addition to Dr. Scerri’s interview, I hope to visit several installations of periodic tables on my way back to Utah along with the one here at CHF and the one at the zinc mine and have enough materials to create several podcast episodes specifically on the periodic table.

    Couple of final notes: As part of the symposium, one of our curators, Jim Voelkel, put out some of the rarer of our rare books and this time included a hand-written manuscript of Issac Newton’s, with notes on his alchemical experiments. I finally got to see it, and here is a photo of it.

Notes on alchemy by Sir Isaac Newton

Notes on alchemy by Sir Isaac Newton

    One of my goals this summer was to gain at least 2000 images related to this project; since I have bought my new camera in May, I have taken almost 7000 images, over half of which are for The Elements Unearthed. I am looking forward to using them in upcoming episodes. I certainly feel I have succeeded in my goals so far at CHF, and now have two more final weeks to finish up my research, then drive back to Utah. On the way, I am planning on a few more stops such as a lead mine in Missouri and a gold mine in Colorado. By the time I return to Utah, my students and I will have collected video and photos that can be used for at least 30 podcast episodes on subjects ranging from beryllium to zinc. I’ll have some video samples of the coal and zinc mines and Dr. Scerri’s interview next time, and some final podcast episodes ready by August 29.

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