The United Nations declared that 2022 is the International Year of Glass, and Newscripts would like to take this opportunity to celebrate the crucial contributions of scientific glassware to chemistry. With items as varied as Pyrex flasks and cell phone screens, glass gear has long been a mainstay for researchers around the globe. Chemists in particular owe a debt of gratitude to vitreous accoutrements and the glassblowers who craft them, says Catherine M. Jackson, a chemist and historian of science at the University of Oxford. Her research centers on the evolution of the chemical sciences in the 19th century, the era when scientists took the first forays into organic synthesis and the 3D structures of molecules. “It’s through the agency of glassware that chemists first appreciate the molecular nature of matter,” Jackson tells Newscripts. Specialized glassware enabled scientists to observe chemical worlds enclosed in transparent vessels. People skilled in manipulating molten silica mixtures crafted each precious piece.
Take the kaliapparat, Jackson says. This triangular piece of glassware, which is enshrined in the American Chemical Society’s logo, was designed by Justus von Liebig in 1830. It was used to analyze the amount of carbon in organic molecules via combustion of the compound and collection of the resulting carbon dioxide. The kaliapparat made carbon analysis easier than any other methods available to scientists of the time. “By making this apparatus smaller, cheaper, much more accessible, it meant that a lot more people could get involved in chemistry,” Jackson says. Glass has remained the medium of modern chemistry ever since, she adds.
Later this month, Jackson will get to share the legacy of synergy between chemists and glassblowers in Iowa at the first joint event of the ACS Midwest Regional Meeting and the American Scientific Glassblowers Society in honor of this Year of Glass.
The aesthetics of graduated cylinders filled with colorful liquids, the looping coils of reflux condensers, and the elegance of a humble round-bottom flask make laboratory glassware iconic for both its scientific function and its artistic sensibility: a grand tradition that translates easily to the space of a postage stamp. Daniel Rabinovich started collecting stamps when he was a child as a way to learn about history and culture from around the world. Now a chemist at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, Rabinovich uses a curated cache of chemistry stamps to communicate science to students and colleagues. These illustrate the deep connection between chemists and their glassware, he says.
“Sometimes we take glassware for granted. Glassware has lots of rich histories, lots of interesting stories to tell,” he tells Newscripts. Consider the retort: a transparent flask composed of a hollow globe that elongates into a tapered neck that was traditionally used in distillations. Retorts feature prominently in Rabinovich’s collection, but so too do the water-cooled condensers that later replaced them. In a presentation at ACS Fall 2022 in Chicago, Rabinovich commemorated the International Year of Glass by giving a tour of the history of chemistry through the glassware that’s appeared on postage stamps from Portugal and Panama and beyond.
Even if they aren’t teaching a history lesson, stamps are still a special way to communicate with the people we care about. Rabinovich enjoys adding special stamps when he mails written correspondence. “It’s a way of really surprising someone with a nice touch,” he says.
It’s a lesson worth writing home about, and this Newscriptster is off to find the perfect stamp to post some good old-fashioned snail mail.
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This story was updated on Oct. 17, 2022, to correct the spelling of Justus von Liebig's name. It was incorrectly spelled as Justus von Leibig.