From Acids to Superacids: From Lavoisier to Olah

Chemistry, History
Acid theory evolved in stages. Our understanding of what constitutes an acid has improved, but that is not all. As a result of our better understanding, acids of greatly increased strength – superacids – have become available, as well. Early Acid Theory – Lavoisier [caption id="attachment_24574" align="alignleft" width="240"] Lavoisier & wife[/caption] The 18th century French chemist, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, later guillotined by French revolutionaries, developed a theory of acids inaccurately based on a required presence of oxygen. This theory lasted into the 19th century. Its popular downfall was prompted by its undue restrictions on what constitutes an acid. Many acids contain no oxygen whatsoever. Hydrogen and Acids – Baron Justus von Liebig [caption id="attachment_24577" align="alignright" width="240"] Leibig[/caption] Although there was no detailed theory, credit should be given to Justus von…
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Pirates: Where Does the “Black Spot” Come From?

History, The Arts
Movies and TV shows featuring Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and their supposed exploits usually deviated enormously from reality. Even when there was a grain of truth, the productions were often encased in fictitious chaff. But Westerns were not the only shows we craved. Pirates were an enormous favorite as well. Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, were popular Hollywood fare for a buccaneer-hungry public. Fictional Pirates [caption id="attachment_24548" align="alignright" width="300"] Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver with his parrot[/caption] Ned Buntline and Zane Grey enthralled the young with action/adventure stories of the 'Wild and Wooly West'. Robert Louis Stevenson gave us cowboys of the seas in his salty novel Treasure Island. Treasure Island features Long John Silver, the peg-leg buccaneer, and his band of misfits. Included in…
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Gutta Percha: From Underwater Cables to Golf Balls to Dental Work

Chemistry, History
[caption id="attachment_24465" align="alignright" width="340"] From the 1851 book: Gutta Percha, Its Discovery, History, and Manifold Uses[/caption] Gutta percha thermoplastic¹ is a tough and leathery resinous produced from the milky fluid tapped from certain trees. Isoprene is an extremely important building block widespread in nature. The main component of gutta percha is, in fact, the trans-1,4-isomer of polyisoprene. The cis-1,4,-isomer is, interestingly enough, the primary constituent of natural rubber. It is produced from the milky fluid tapped from "other" trees. The reason for the considerable difference in physical characteristics between rubber and gutta percha (or, rather the trans and cis isomers of polypropylene) is the greater crystalline character of the trans isomer. Notice the difference between the trans and cis isomers in Image 2. How do these isomers differ? Synthesis from…
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Prussian Blue – The Traditional Blue of Blueprints: Its Chemistry?

Chemistry, History
[caption id="attachment_24391" align="alignright" width="480"] A Canadian architectural blueprint. Image by Chris Gonzaga.[/caption] The image you see at right is a traditional architectural blueprint. In fact, this style of blue-inked drawing is how the word blueprint originated. Now the chemistry of this blue colored “ink” is of interest, both historically, and from the science perspective. Let’s see how. Identifying the Blueprint Ink The blue ink has a number of names including Paris Blue and Berlin Blue. But the name it is best known by historically is Prussian Blue. Perhaps you will note Prussian Blue is similar to another name, Prussic Acid. Prussic Acid is another name for the deadly poisonous hydrogen cyanide, HCN. And in fact, the ink is closely connected to this acid. But which was first to be called…
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Dimethylsulfoxide, DMSO: Snake Oil? Why or Why Not?

Chemistry, History
[caption id="attachment_24310" align="alignright" width="480"] Dimethylsulfoxide[/caption]An exciting discovery received the public’s attention during the 1960s. Researchers discovered an unlikely organic compound, dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO) might be useful in delivering medications safely through the skin. The general public, in their enthusiasm, sometimes lay hold of a concept and run with it. Then, if there is negative publicity, the fickle public may – just as quickly – drop the idea. This is well-illustrated in an article produced for the (former) Decoded Science website by author John A. Jaksich, entitled Potassium Bromate: Food Additive and Carcinogen? Yet, was the rise and fall of DMSO popularity due to a fickle public, or was it due to an organizational structure of rigid rules that holds back advances, despite advantages the public might receive? For example, drug approval…
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FBI “Sheiks” Visit a Virginia Superfund Cleanup Site

Chemistry, History
[caption id="attachment_24210" align="alignright" width="480"] Former Office Building at the Superfund Site[/caption] The best known superfund¹ cleanup site has to be the Love Canal, named for William T. Love. It is located in northwestern New York State. Originally envisioned as a community, this 70-acre tract later became a dumpsite for the Hooker Chemical Company. At the end of its use in the early 1950s, the waste site was sold for the sum of $1 to the Niagara Falls School Board, for the purpose of constructing a new school. Built into the sale was a far-reaching disclaimer to avoid legal action against Hooker. The end result was the conceiving of a community riddled with miscarriages, chromosomal damage, birth defects, and leukemia. Media-driven notoriety peaked during the late 1970s. American Cyanamid Superfund Site…
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The Peculiar Origin of the Graham Cracker

Food, History
[caption id="attachment_23324" align="alignright" width="480"] Available circa 1915[/caption] Crackers come in every shape and size. One of the most famous cracker varieties is not served with fish or olives. Rather, it is a sweet treat, often eaten stand-alone, or with butter, peanut butter, honey, or perhaps jam. It can be crumbled to make pie crust. We know it as the Graham cracker. The Flour behind the Cracker The Graham cracker is generally dark tan and has a somewhat gritty texture. This is because it is made from unsifted coarse-grind whole wheat flour. This namesake cracker was inspired by the preaching of the somewhat eccentric Sylvester Graham (1794-1851).¹ As a young man, Sylvester tried many occupations, eventually deciding to be a clergyman. However, the message he preached was swayed by personal belief,…
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Double Tragedy for the Japanese-American Iba Family of California

History, People
I am a chemist. So why do I write about the tragedy befalling a family? It stems from an article I wrote entitled The Tragic Case of the Los Angeles Wannabe Chemist. In that article, I describe a chemical explosion in 1947 that killed 17 and injured more than 150 persons. Alice was not simply killed. Her body was blown to bits. She was assisting the Ohio-born wannabe chemist, Robert M. Magee. Magee not only lied about his higher education credentials, he hadn't even finished high school, according to his mother. Introducing the Iba Family Alice had been hired just one month-and-a-half before the incident, and was given a change of assignment to work alongside Magee. Her education appears to have been limited to high school. How old was she?…
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Wilson H. Fitzgerald – “Rags to Riches” in Camden NJ

Genealogy, History
Probably the name Wilson Fitzgerald doesn't ring a bell for you. He was an imposing fellow, but it is the time and events in which he was involved that make him interesting. Wilson H. Fitzgerald... 1. Was a member of the Philadelphia Resolution Hose Company. 2. He built dozens of homes in Camden, New Jersey. 3. Pioneered special business practices in Camden, New Jersey. 4. Once traveled the rails West on one of Raymond's Vacation Excursions. 5. Was guilty of assault and battery against a fellow City Council member.¹ 6. Found a large chunk of human flesh on his property 5 miles from an explosion. 7. Found twenty-five or thirty Revolutionary War cannonballs on his property. 8. Helped his son-in-law escape charges for embezzling from the Postal Service. 9. Had…
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Some Prospered from the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression

History, People
[caption id="attachment_19683" align="alignright" width="440"] Soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone.[/caption] The Great Depression is the term applied to a serious and long-lasting financial depression that began in the United States in 1929 and lasted through approximately 1941. Naturally, it affected the world in general. Curiously, but when you think about it, not too surprisingly, not all U.S. citizens suffered from the Great Depression. In fact, some even prospered as a result of it. Who? How? The Masses Probably contrary to what you might suppose, life expectancy actually rose. It's natural to think suicide would have lowered life expectancy; yet suicide represents only a tiny fraction of total deaths. Even though suicides increased, longevity improved. The CNN reference offers some suggestions why. Individual Success Charles Darrow: Some prospered not…
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