Posts Tagged ‘alchemy’

Golden Apple cover-m

My own cover design for the book I am completing for NaNoWriMo this month (Nov. 2018). It is based on the cover page of Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier.

Today is Nov. 1, 2018 and it is time to begin another year of NaNoWriMo: the National Novel Writing Month program that encourages writers to complete at least 50,000 words during November. I will be splitting my writing over four major projects. The first is to catch up and maintain these blog posts here at Elements Unearthed and at my other post: www.spacedoutclassroom.com, where I have been writing about activities and lessons in astronomy education. My second project is to write a series of lesson plans on STEAM education projects for chemistry classes, which I will report on and share here as well. My hope is to create a collection of 20-30 lesson plans that incorporate the arts and history and publish them through the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). My third project is to write and illustrate a series of young adult (8-14 year old) fact-based books on exploring the world (and beyond) written from the perspective of fictitious youngsters who experience these adventures. It will be largely based on my own travels. The final project is to complete the first novel in my Trinum Magicum series, which I started for NaNoWriMo last year. This blog will describe that project and other silver linings that came during my job hunt last year.


A map of the Hradcany, the castle hill in Prague with St. Vitus’ Cathedral. Most of my novel is based in Prague in 1609 during the time of Emperor Rudolf II.

Upon my return from the Teacher Research Data Conference in Washington, D.C., I was faced again with the challenges of my situation. Just two weeks before, I had been laid off from my teaching position at American Academy of Innovation because of budget problems, and now I had to pick up the pieces and somehow find a new position for myself when the school year was already well underway. My situation seemed pretty cloudy and dreary, but for every cloud there are silver linings. Mine came in the shape of unexpected opportunities to fulfill two of my Bucket List items: to be in a community theater production (more on this in the next post) and to start my long-planned Trinum Magicum book series.


A photograph of Emblem 6 of Atalanta Fugiens, written by Michael Maier and illustrated with engravings by Mathias Merian. The book’s central mystery involves this book, which was perhaps one of the first attempts at multimedia, as it contains illustrations, poems, epigrams, and fugues.

For the first few weeks of October, my priority was to get all of my materials, books, filing cabinets, and papers from AAI put away into my house, as they were all stacked up in my carport exposed to the elements. I had to build a bookshelf, clean out rooms in my house and workshop, and do a lot of sorting and packing, but I finally found a spot for everything. Then I took some time to plan out my goals for the coming weeks as I looked for work. I had to make at least four contacts per week to maintain my unemployment benefits, so that was the top priority. I signed up for quite a few job seeking aggregate sites, went for interviews at Workforce Services, filled out a lot of paperwork, and started applying for jobs.

Prague castle

An illustration of what Prague looked like around 1609. The main Hradcany was on a hill with a steep wall in front. St. Vitus’ Cathedral had only been completed to the transept – the nave wasn’t completed until the 20th Century.

One job opening was for an informal science education director at Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City, which I thought was an ideal job for me (and me for them). 35 people applied, and I was one of the five chosen for interviews. The interview went well, but I could tell that I didn’t have enough large-scale grant experience for what they wanted. They hired another person who had worked as an educator at a planetarium before and whom I had actually met before at The Leonardo museum in Salt Lake. It was disappointing on top of all the other disappointments, but at least I came close (although close only counts in hand grenades, atom bombs, and horseshoes).


St. Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague as it exists today. At the time of my book, the Choir and Altar and Transept with towers were completed but the Nave was not (until 20th Century), so the cathedral had a truncated appearance.

Feeling down on myself for not getting this job that had seemed so right, I walked to a local bookstore to browse articles on job seeking and just to take my mind off my problems for a while. I picked up a copy of Writers Magazine, and it had an article about a program that encourages people to write novels, a kind of community tracking project called NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write at least 50,000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November. It was the fourth week in October when I read this, and I checked out the website and decided to go for it. After all, I finally had the time to complete another item on my Bucket List.

Carbboard model of Prague

A cardboard model of Prague built in the 1820s-1830s by a man named Langwell. You can see that St. Vitus’ Cathedral is truncated and incomplete, and that the Hradcany castle complex overlooked the old city (Mala Stana) and Vltava River.

I had an idea for a novel that had been simmering in my head for eight years, ever since I spent the summer in Philadelphia at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. It would be a time travel adventure into the history of chemistry as the protagonists searched for clues to an ancient mystery involving that remarkable book by Michael Maier called Atalanta Fugiens. I started doing research into Maier and the history of the book, and found that he had written it shortly after leaving the service of the Emperor Rudolf II of Prague, so I started researching the Emperor as well. He was a remarkable person living in an incredible city and time, full of many story possibilities including the kunstkammer (Cabinet of Curiosities) he collected, the Voynich Manuscript, the Devil’s Bible, enough artists and alchemists and scientists (Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Anselmo de Boodt, John Dee, Elizabeth Weston, and many others) to provide a rich cast of characters, and backed up by the intrigue of the events leading up to the 30 Years War. And there was that whole business about the Golem of Prague, too. Great stuff!


Prague as drawn by Hoefnagel from the early 17th Century.

So I built a plot up, the first book in a series (I hope), and on November 1st started in on writing the novel. This was my second such attempt, the first being a novella competition sponsored by Tor.com in 2015 where I wrote a 39,000 word novella called Dead Stone Lions in about two weeks. That experience was remarkable in that the story wrote itself – minor characters would take on a life of their own and show up as major story points, and ideas just popped into my head as I wrote it, a process that is often referred to as discovery writing. I barely finished in time and had no time for editing, so of course the novella was rejected. But at least I got a first draft done, and will edit it at some future time.

Prague in 1606

A drawing of Prague in 1606 showing the Charles Bridge across the Vltava River.

For the NaNoWriMo novel, which I titled The Golden Apple, the protagonists discover that Atalanta Fugiens is actually a time machine of sorts. By singing the fugues in the book in three voices (Atalanta, Hippomenes, and the Golden Apple) while holding a crystal, they are able to travel to Prague to the Court of Rudolf II and find themselves in the middle of the machinations of Matthias, the brother of Rudolf who is gradually taking control of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg dynasty. Here is a synopsis I wrote for the book:


In the twisted streets of the Old City, a misshapen monster stomps its way through the fleeing crowd. Jeremy McGowan, science teacher and time traveler, is running for his life . . .


Since my novel is set in Prague in 1609, I have to include a Golem or two. Rabbi Loew, the supposed creator of the Golem of Prague, lived until October 1609.

His fellowship at the Nexus Foundation was supposed to be an escape from the constant reminders of his lost love, not an escape from the legendary Golem of Prague. When he stumbles upon a secret hidden in a remarkable book, Jeremy embarks on a journey with science historians Ankha Zalinski and Benjamin Johnson to the court of Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia. They hope to solve an ancient puzzle: as a child, Ankha memorized a poem handed down through millennia from her ancestors. It speaks of a Golden Apple, which may be the key to unlocking incredible power.

Emblem 1 color

The first emblem of Atalanta Fugiens, showing Boreas, the God of Winds. In 50 emblems and epigrams, with essays and fugues, Michael Maier laid out the steps needed to achieve the Inner Transformation required to make the Philosophers’ Stone.

Using the legend of Atalanta as their guide, the explorers become the Trinum Magicum, the three alchemical emblems of Paracelsus, on a perilous quest to the past. Pursued by clandestine agents of the Emperor’s brother, Matthias, and hounded by a dark entity from beyond history, they must grapple with the limits of their own humanity. With the aid of Johannes Kepler, Elizabeth Weston, Rabbi Loeb, and other brilliant scholars, they hope to find the Golden Apple, decipher the symbols of a strange manuscript, and prevent a war that will rip Europe apart.

Fire salamander emblem

One of the emblems in Atalanta Fugiens, showing a fire salamander. In some books, such as the copy in the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, the first ten emblems have been hand colored to enhance the value of the book.

In this unique tale of historical science fiction, what appears to be magic may simply be a technology beyond comprehension, if only the travelers can find it in time.

I made my goal, barely, with 50,380 words by November 30, although I had to write 7000 words that last day. Since then, I have taken the book on to over 68,000 words and it is now about halfway done. It is a different experience than Dead Stone Lions, as I’ve had to plot it out much more carefully and think through the details of the whole book series in order to lay a good foundation. It even required writing a long poem full of chemical history references. But it is certainly coming along. Now I need to get back to it, with the goal of finishing it up during this 2018 NaNoWriMo so I can edit and submit it by the end of the year. My goal is to write one of these each year. If I do succeed in finishing it, then in December I will work editing and finding an agent or a publisher that wants to print and market it.

Golden Apple progress chart

This is my progress chart through the month of Nov. 2017. I made my goal of 50,000 words just barely (by 380 words). It required a major sprint of 7000 words on the last day!

We see many space operas, biological science fiction, future tech explorations, and so on but chemistry science fiction is rare. I can only think of Asimov’s The God’s Themselves, which has some chemistry in it (radioactive tungsten, anyone?) but is also about physics, entropy, multiple universes, and space colonization. So I hope my book finds an untapped market, with its references to real alchemists and history and some fascinating mysteries to solve in a remarkable time and place.


My badge for making my goal of 50,000 words.

So there are seldom any challenges we face that do not have some benefits for us, including silver linings and opportunities that we may never have accepted if we weren’t in dire straits. These changes in direction are never voluntary, but they can be for our good. Sometimes you have to look for the windows that open up when the doors are closed in your face. Sometimes they find you, like these two opportunities that dropped in my lap. I am glad I had the courage to accept them.

Emblem 50 color

Emblem 50 from Atalanta Fugiens, another enigmatic symbol. Reading through the translations of the Latin and German epigrams and discourses doesn’t help all that much for understanding the book. Maier wrote in symbolic language that used many of the ideas behind Rosicrucianism. It will take me years to write all the books; maybe by the time I’m done I’ll have a clearer idea of what he was trying to say. Or maybe not . . .

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by Tanner Sorensen

A big part of the development of Alchemy originated in Islam. The word alchemy came from the Arabic word al-kimia, which came from the Persian word kimia. Will Durrant quotes in his book The Story of Civilization IV: The Age of Faith,

“Chemistry as a science was almost created by the Moslems; for in this field, where the Greeks (so far as we know) were confined to industrial experience and vague hypothesis, the Saracens introduced precise observation, controlled experiment, and careful records. They invented and named the alembic (al-anbiq), chemically analyzed innumerable substances, composed lapidaries, distinguished alkalis and acids, investigated their affinities, studied and manufactured hundreds of drugs. Alchemy, which the Moslems inherited from Egypt, contributed to chemistry by a thousand incidental discoveries, and by its method, which was the most scientific of all medieval operations.”

Alchemy poster

Alchemy Section from the Elusive Atom poster

There are many Islamic figures in chemistry, and they often aren’t as acknowledged as they should be. Early Islamic chemists such as Jabir ibn Hayyan, Al-Kindi and Al-Razi made important chemical breakthroughs such as perfumery; distillation apparatus; muriatic, nitric, acetic and sulfuric acids; purified distilled alcohol, soda and potash; and filtration.

Jabir understood the importance of experimentation. Jabir created the alembic when he discovered how to complete the process of distillation. Jabir’s teacher, Ja’far al-Sadiq, refuted Aristotle’s theory of four elements by saying “I wonder how a man like Aristotle could say that in the world there are only four elements – Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. The Earth is not an element. It contains many elements. Each metal, which is in the earth, is an element.”

Drawing of Geber

Jabir ibn-Hayyan, known in the West as Geber

Another influential Muslim chemist was al-Razi. Al-Razi was the first to distill petroleum, invent kerosene and lamps for it, invent soap bars and recipes for soap, make antiseptics, and developed many chemical processes like sublimation.

In addition to all other contributions, Muslim alchemists developed theories on the possibility of the transmutation of metals, the philosopher’s stone, and creating artificial life in laboratories, as in later medieval European alchemy, though these theories were eventually discredited and rejected by practical Muslim chemists from the 9th century thereon. Therefore, medieval Arabic alchemy was the biggest contributor to Alchemy and Chemistry as we know it today.

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Ramon Llull portrait

Portrait of Ramon Llull

As we have studied the history of chemistry for our recent unit in Honors Chemistry, I’ve had my students do a bit of research on what is known and supposed about various alchemists. For example, a student in each of my sections was assigned to research Ramon Llull, the Majorcan alchemist. We started by finding out what is known about the real person. He was born in Palma in 1232 AD, and was a courtier, poet, and womanizer at the court of King James of Aragon, then had a religious epiphany that converted him into a fervent missionary for Catholicism. After a nine-year hermitage and writing many religious tracts, he set off on a series of missionary journeys to North Africa. He was fluent in Arabic and was unusual for his time in that he believed in converting the Muslims through reasoned argument instead of Crusades and the sword. He wrote some of the first works in Catalan, his native language, and died after being stoned in Tunis.

Ramon Llull title page

Ramon Llull title pagae

I also had the students research what is attributed or credited to the person in tradition and later writings, such as Ramon Llull’s alchemical works and his having created the Philosopher’s Stone.

Uroboros from Michael Maier

Uroboros from Atalanta Fugiens

Each student also had to find an image of the person and include it, then take their short report and convert it to simple bullet points to summarize their findings. I’ve now taken those bullet points and turned them into a Keynote/Powerpoint slide show and added their images as well as photos I took last year at the Chemical Heritage Foundation as part of my fellowship sponsored by the Société de Chimie Industrielle (American Section). This is the first time, except for a few progress report blog posts, where I have started to use all the materials I assembled. I am attaching it here, and hope you enjoy going through it and using it in your own classes.

Alchemy_History (Powerpoint)

Alchemy_History (PDF)

Sorcerers Apprentice

A Sorcerer’s Apprentice Masters the Transmutation of Copper into Gold

It was my privilege last summer to dig into the very books these alchemists wrote, and I’m still digesting what I discovered. One result has been my own creation of the White and Red Elixirs and the formation of the Stone itself; in fact, I demonstrated my alchemical prowess for my students by converting copper into silver and then into gold. Several of my students had achieved the inner transmutation sufficiently to successfully direct the Stone’s powers as well, as shown in the photo. (Of course, we really aren’t making gold. This is the old “Alchemists Dream” activity where copper pennies are coated with sodium zincate [using a combination of 6.0 M sodium hydroxide and zinc powder], then heated gently in a Bunsen burner flame to alloy the zinc with the copper to form brass, which looks like gold).

Basil Valentine

Portrait of Basil Valentine

These student-created projects are part of my overall philosophy of science education and the main rational of this Elements Unearthed project: that students learn best when they are actively involved in sharing their knowledge with others. With modern tools for publishing on the Internet through blogs and PDF files, Powerpoints and videos, students now have an audience for their work that is much greater than simply their peers and teachers in class. Tomorrow is the unit test; we’ll see if my theory holds water then!

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Norton's Ordinall of Alchemy

Norton's Ordinall of Alchemy

    One of the points I hope to make as I build podcast episodes for The Elements Unearthed project is to show the threads that lead to modern chemistry as an empirical science. I have seen from my research here at Chemical Heritage Foundation that there are at least three major threads that all came together in the 17th and 18th Centuries to define what we call Chemistry today.

    The first thread was that of Theory or Logical Speculation – beginning with the Greek philosophers (such as Democritus and Aristotle) and continuing with attempts through the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods to reconcile atomic theory with church dogma (such as the attempts of Pierre Gassendi) or to refine and build on elemental (Aristotelian) theory, such as the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. This thread wasn’t concerned with experimental proof – that would only come later – but instead valued logical consistency and careful reasoning. The culmination of this thread was the revised (modern) atomic and corpuscular theories of Daniel Sennert, Robert Boyle, and John Dalton.

Emblem VI in Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier

Emblem VI in Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier

    The second thread was that of Alchemy, which I have been pursuing these past three weeks by locating related books in the CHF archives and photographing interesting pages. The alchemists had several goals in mind – the transmutation of base metals into gold, the creation of immortality (or at lest the cure of diseases) through the Elixir of Life or Philosopher’s Stone, and the purification of the inner self (spriritual alchemy). Despite their tendency to become secretive and overly allegorical, their constant experiments toward these goals laid a basic foundation for modern chemistry through all the compounds and materials they created which were failures. Sometimes the symbolism can be a lot of fun, such as this page from Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens (Atlanta Fleeing). In a series of emblems representing different alchemical processes, Maier created a publishing masterpiece that includes symbolic drawings (the first eleven are even hand colored), epigrams (riddles), songs, and other brain teasers. Perhaps even his title is a pun; maybe Fugiens is a play on the word fugue (again my lack of Latin training could be steering me wrong). If so, it would place his work in the company of Bach and Escher. I photographed all the emblems and all the music, and I hope to try out the songs and see if they have any fugue-ish qualities. If so, it would be fun to record them and use them for background music for the podcast episodes. 

A page from Pyrotechnia by Birringuccio

A page from Pyrotechnia by Biringucci

    The final thread, which is perhaps under appreciated, is that of the craftsman. These were the metalworkers, glass makers, stonecutters, painters, masons, engravers, sculptures, dyers, miners, printers, book binders, potters, jewelers, and other people who made practical materials and works of art. They developed high levels of technical skill during the Middle Ages (one of the reasons we don’t call them the Dark Ages anymore). Their skills were rarely written down, and even then usually as a set of lab notes of basic recipes without much explanation. Some of these lab notes have come down to us, recopied and much garbled, such as the Leydon Papyrus X, the writings of Pseudo-Democritus (Bolos of Mendes), the Natural History of Pliny, the Mappae Clavicula, and a very few others. I have been looking over a modern translation of the Treatise of Theophilus, who has been identified as one Roger of Helmarshausen, a talented metalworker who lived around 1100. Some of his works, such a portable alters and elaborate book covers, still exist in museums. His book is much more than the standard lab recipes; he gives detailed instructions and his chapter on metalwork is especially vivid and shows the first-person perspective of someone who did metalwork every day. His work was very influential in later technical books, such as the Pyrotechnia of Biringucci (1540) shown here or Antonio Neri’s Art of Glass or Agricola’s De Re Metallica. In this page, Biringucci shows how to hang bells that have been cast. Theophilus discussed how to cast and hang bells as well, showing this to be an ancient and highly technical skill.

The Sceptical Chymist by Robert Boyle

The Sceptical Chymist by Robert Boyle

    This past week I have begun to tie these threads together into the beginnings of modern chemistry. Although Antoine Lavoisier is credited with finally turning chemistry into a quantitative science, it was Robert Boyle who first proposed that chemistry should be based on experimentation and observation rather than logic and speculation. If there was one moment when Aristotle was finally cast into the fire, it was 1661 when Boyle first published The Sceptical Chymist. You see here a photo of the title page of a first edition of that book, which is extremely rare (less than 35 copies remain). We held an open house at CHF this Wednesday for invited guests (mostly chemistry experts and historians) and the archivists brought this book out and I managed to get a few photos of it. In addition, they had the first full printed version of Mendeleyev’s periodic table, and the notebook of Richard Smalley from 1985 where he first drew the structure of buckminsterfullerine (the famous bucky ball) that won him a Noble Prize. All very cool stuff for us chemistry geeks.

First fold-out periodic table

First fold-out periodic table

Richard Smalley's drawing of a Bucky Ball

Richard Smalley's drawing of a Bucky Ball

    Finally, more on the order of a teaser than for any other reason, here is another Earth animation. The texture this time is a NASA photographic montage of the Earth taken in May, 2007 (notice the recent snow in Europe) with ocean bathymetric data added. This is the most detailed Earth texture I have tried yet. I haven’t created any new animations this week because I’ve been having so much fun with the rare books, but the progress toward final editing of the student episodes is continuing; my plan remains to have serveral episodes ready to upload by August 31, with more shortly thereafter. I’ll have more teasers in the weeks to come. August will be a productive month for this project as I am planning to duplicate some of the CHF photo collection; interview several experts on matter theories, the history of chemistry, and the periodic table; and to visit several mine sites including a zinc mine in New Jersey, a coal mine in Scranton, and the mineral exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. All of this will be shown in future posts. Until then . . . . TTFN.

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Zosimos, Theosebeia, and a Distillation Furnace

Zosimos, Theosebeia, and a Distillation Furnace

    For the last two weeks I have continued my research into the alchemists of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, including such shadowy figures as Hermes Trimegistos (the mythic father of alchemy who, according to some medieval writers was a grandson of Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, to others was a contemporary of Moses or Abraham) and Zosimos of Panopolis, the first verifiable real person whose alchemical writings have survived. Zosimos lived in Egypt, probably Alexandria, during the late 3rd and early 4th Centuries A.D. His teachings were written in Coptic Greek and later translated into Arabic. One book he wrote was the Mushaf as-Suwar, or Book of Pictures. The Chemical Heritage Foundation has a book edited by Theodor Abt with a facsimile copy of this manuscript, which was discovered in Istanbul and apparently dates from pre-Islamic times. This is seen from the fact that the book contains over forty color illustrations depicting Zosimos, his student Theosebeia, and various gods, demons, and angels. Depicting the human form is forbidden in the Quran, so these drawings predate Islam. In the Mushaf as-Suwar, Zosimos used allegorical language and the symbolism of gnostic Christianity to describe a series of dreams in which the processes of grinding and roasting and distillation where used to purify substances, but which also symbolized the inner transmutation of the soul; the purification of the alchemist himself. In the image above, Zosimos and Theosebeia with the sun and moon with faces over their heads (representing their eternal, perfected souls) are standing by a furnace with a distillation alembic on top. The size of the furnace (the same size as the figures) indicates an inner or spiritual transformation. Interestingly enough, these same symbols – sun god and moon queen standing by a distillation vessel – are quite common in alchemical allegorical symbology.

A recipe for red glass using gold powder

A recipe for red glass using gold powder

    In addition to this “deep alchemy” research, I’ve begun to photo books that document technologies and processes used in the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods. One such book is Antonio Neri’s Art of Glass, written in Florence around 1612. Neri was a master glassmaker and his book details recipes and techniques for glass blowing, enamels, paints, etc. One page of the English translation by Merritt shows Neri’s recipe for red glass using gold powder that has been “calcined” using Aqua Regis and roasting. The diagrams in the book show the use of tools very similar to those used today; this is one art form that has not changed all that much. A modern glass blower could go back in time 400 years and still be perfectly qualified to practice the art; the only real difference is that back then, the glass factories would make their own colored frit (hence Neri’s recipes) instead of buying the frit ready-made.

A windlass for raising ore

A windlass for raising ore

    Another fascinating book of technology that I’ve started to photograph is De Re Metallica by Georg Agricola, first published in 1556. It details mining practices in Germany at that time, and Agricola goes into elaborate detail on the types of mineral deposits and veins found, how to survey them, what tools to use to dig the ore out, how to raise and lower the ore buckets (as in the windlass diagram shown here), and even several techniques to pump water out of the mine shafts. Here he has a diagram of a multi-stage sump pump that is powered by an overshot waterwheel above the mine. Interestingly enough, Pliny the Elder talks about a similar technique that used human-powered treadmills to raise sump water in stages inside the Rio Tinto gold mines in Spain during Roman times.

Multi-stage water pump

Multi-stage water pump

    Agricola’s book required over 270 woodcut illustrations which held up its printing for years. It was a masterwork, a book of beautiful design and quality, as you can see. I feel very priveleged to even look at it, let alone photograph it.  Unfortunately, Agricola died in 1555, a year before it was finally printed. I guess that’s a lesson to scholars to not be too perfectionistic in our work!

    Finally, I continue to explore the area surrounding Philadelphia with my family. We traveled to Ocean City, New Jersey last Saturday and I took some good photos and video of the ocean, which will surely come in handy. I’m already thinking of places to use it. Here’s a sample photograph:

Beach at Ocean City, New Jersey

Beach at Ocean City, New Jersey

It reminds me of Isaac Newton’s saying, that he considered himself merely a boy playing on the beach looking at interesting shells and pebbles, while all around him the ocean of knowledge lay unexplored.

    I have also continued working on illustrations and animations for forthcoming podcast episodes. Here is a video clip of an animation of the Earth rotating. It was created in Daz Bryce 6 using a brass sphere surround by a gold sphere, the texture of which contains a world ocean mask (which I found at a NASA website) to cut out the ocean areas. I’ve been using this to create animations which zoom in to Greece, Egypt, Rome, etc. for various parts of the Greek atomic theory episode that will be posted at the end of August.

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   Last week I drove 2300 miles from Utah to Philadelphia to take up my three-month residence at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Today I’ll describe more about what CHF is, how I came to have this fellowship, and what I will be doing with it.

Entrance to Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia

Entrance to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia

   The Chemical Heritage Foundation was established as the Center for the History of Chemistry in 1982 at the University of Pennsylvania with support from the Americal Chemical Society (ACS) and later from the American Institute for Chemical Engineering (AIChE). In 1987 it incorporated as the non-profit National Foundation for the History of Chemistry, and in 1992 it was renamed the Chemical Heritage Foundation. In 1995, the foundation purchased the old First National Bank building in downtown Philadelphia, having outgrown its space at the U. of Pennsylvania. Today it has several divisions and research arms, including the Othmer Library of Chemical History which houses over 100,000 titles including journals, reference books, portraits, photos, oral histories, and even scientific instruments. It also houses the 6000 titles of the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, a collection of rare books from the 15th Century and later, some 400 titles being unique to this collection.  The Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry manages the research of visiting scholars and fellows at the library.

The Reading Room at CHF.

The Reading Room at CHF.

   In addition to the holdings in the library, CHF has museum spaces and exhibits and a convention center/meeting hall. The First National Bank building was rennovated and turned into museum space which opened last fall for the permanent exhibit called “Making Modernity,” which is a collection of instruments and artifacts that helped define the rise of chemistry as a science, with everything from samples of ancient Roman and medieval glassware to 20th Century pH meters, electron microscopes, and mass spectrometers. They also have changing exhibits such as “sLowlife,” a look at the adaptations and movements of plants; “The Whole of Nature and the Mirror of Art: Images of Alchemy” which is a series of photographic reproductions of illustrations from medieaval manuscripts; and “Transmutationa: Alchemy in Art” which displays paintings of alchemists by various artists. CHF also has traveling exhibits and the Ullyot Meeting Hall for conferences and conventions. It is a unique space for such meetings, since we are located right in the historical district of Phildelphia at 315 Chestnut St., diagonal to Carpenter’s Hall (where the First Continental Congress met in 1774) and just two blocks down from Independence Hall.

Roman glass display in the "Making Modernity" exhibit at CHF.

Roman glass display in the "Making Modernity" exhibit at CHF.

   The fellowships and travel grants managed through the Beckman Center are provided by the donations of individuals and 3rd party organizations. My fellowship is sponsored by the Societe de Chimie Industrielle (American Section), which has as its mission to provide better public understanding of the chemical industries, which is precisely what my project intends to do. I found out about this fellowship while researching grants about 18 months ago, and before that had not heard of CHF. I didn’t think I would qualify, since I don’t have a PhD or a disseration, but then I read the requirements for the Societe fellowship and found I might just qualify. I wrote a proposal and asked two people who know me and my work to write letters of recommendation, and sent the whole in by e-mail in Feb., 2008, thinking my chances were slim. When I received an e-mail from CHF  in April, 2008, I wasn’t able to read it at first because it came into my inbox as Chinese characters. I assumed it was the “thanks for your application we had many great applicants sorry we can’t accept all of them” and so on letter I’ve received before. I hit the reply button so I could get the Chinese translated into English and was amazed to find out this wasn’t a rejection letter at all. I had been selected! What remained was deciding when I would be here. My term of appointment is September 2008 through August 2009, but in discussions with my managers at MATC, they were not willing to let me take a sabbatical, especially in the fall when classes were beginning. Finally we compromised on this summer, the last three months of my fellowship term, when I would have fewer students to leave at MATC. They gave me such a difficult time about it, however, that I decided perhaps the time had come to leave MATC, which I have now done. 

Painting of an alchemist in the "Transmutations" exhibit at CHF.

Painting of an alchemist in the "Transmutations" exhibit at CHF.

   During my three months here, I will be conducting background research into atomic theory and its origins and development through the Middle Ages until revived by Dalton and others. I’ll also be looking at the instrumentation and labware of alchemists and chemists through the ages, and anything else that might be useful (there are some great reference works here, and those oral histories). Basically, this will all become background material for The Elements Unearthed, with images and information used to provide historical depth and richness to our project. I hope to take the illustrations of labware that I find, for example, and turn them into 3D models and animations, perhaps re-create entire laboratories of famous chemists. For all this work, this is the place to be; no other library has so much information specifically related to this project, and this fellowship comes at an ideal point to move into Phase II. I am very fortunate to be here, and so far I am being treated very well indeed.

   My goal is to not only use my time here to finish editing the students’ projects into final video podcast episodes, but to create several new episodes based on the information and images I acquire here, so that about ten episodes will be ready for uploading at last by the end of August. I’m going to stuff as much information as I can find, as many photos as I can get, into a hard drive and use them over the next several years as the project develops. I can’t afford to waste any time, so I’ve set up a detailed research schedule and so far I’m following it well, with some wonderful new information about Democritus and Aristotle that I didn’t know before. I’ll share more of what that is and how my research is going in my next post.

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