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Posts Tagged ‘sceptical chymist’

    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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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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