Issue Date: March 7, 2016
"The chemistry book"
I’ve really been enjoying “The Chemistry Book.” This is the latest venture—his first into “between-hardcovers authorship”—by Derek Lowe, the well-known blogger of In the Pipeline who is also a medicinal chemist working on preclinical drug discovery at Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
This book is part of a series that highlights events, discoveries, and concepts in a particular field (physics, biology, law, and so on) throughout history. And so, from gunpowder to graphene, the book covers 250 milestones in the history of chemistry.
As the book “traces the evolution of the ‘central science,’ ” it is interesting to observe Lowe’s choices. Penicillin, sulfuric acid, the Ziegler-Natta reaction—it’s all there. But I particularly commend him for not shying away from noting the less celebrated aspects of chemistry, such as the Bhopal disaster, the thalidomide tragedy, or the use of chemicals in warfare.
In this chronological overview, 1912, 1951, and 1965 are prolific years, with five entries each. Of these, 1951 takes the crown for me: It includes Frederick Sanger’s sequencing of the B chain of insulin; the discovery of the birth control pill; the elucidation of proteins’ structural motifs (the α-helix and the β-sheet); the discovery of ferrocene (Recall the famous quote from a then-assistant editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society to Robert Burns Woodward: “We have dispatched your communication to the printers but I cannot help feeling that you have been at the hashish again”); and the discovery of transuranic elements, a tribute to Glenn T. Seaborg, who was involved in the discovery of nine of them.
Another entry I find particularly fascinating explains the polywater saga, which happened 50 years ago. I had not heard of polywater, but after I read about it in Lowe’s book, it piqued my interest and I did some digging. In 1966, scientists in the Soviet Union thought they had discovered a new form of water, produced by condensation of pure water vapor in ultrathin quartz tubes. It had strange, unexpected properties: Instead of freezing at 0 °C, it solidified at –40 °C; it was 10 times as viscous as and 40% denser than normal water; and it had a much higher boiling point than 100 °C.
When other scientists tried to produce polywater, some were able to do it and others weren’t. And the myth and speculation just grew bigger. A lot of time, resources, and effort were spent investigating this new substance. In 1970 alone, nearly 100 scientific papers were devoted to polywater. Some theorized that the water molecules were locked into place by stronger bonds than the van der Waals forces observed in regular water. In a proposed chemical structure, molecules were linked in hexagons, like honeycombs made of water.
It wasn’t until Sérgio Pereira da Silva Porto, a Brazilian physicist, became interested in polywater that its true nature was discovered. When he tried to run Raman spectroscopy on the sample, the polywater would get burned by the laser and turned into char. Porto and his team performed an analysis for sodium, and they were able to find it—as well as potassium, chlorine, and calcium. One of Porto’s team members guessed what it could be, analyzed his own sweat, and showed that the infrared spectrum was almost identical to the pattern produced by polywater. So it turned out that polywater was just sweaty water, and so the myth of polywater was dead.
This is a story of the record correcting itself. There was no fraud—the data were correct—just misinterpretation on the part of the scientists involved.
Although the focus of the book is the history of chemistry through today, it concludes with two future entries. Both relate to the generation and storage of energy: hydrogen storage for 2025 and artificial photosynthesis for 2030. Both are major areas of research, and significant recent advances have been made. Lowe cautions, “The task is enormous but so are the benefits.” Lowe’s timescales don’t look overly optimistic. Can this be achieved?
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