From the inside covers of elementary science textbooks to
the walls of chemistry labs all around the world, the periodic table is one of
the most pivotal and enduring tools of modern science. To honor the 150th
anniversary of its discovery, the United Nations General Assembly and UNESCO
have declared 2019 to be the International Year of the Periodic Table of
As with all scientific progress, Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic
table was the result of decades—centuries, even—of research performed by
scientists all over the world. Aristotle first theorized the existence of basic
building blocks of matter over 2,500 years ago, which later were believed to be
earth, air, fire and water. Alchemist Hennig Brand is credited with discovering
phosphorus in the late 17th century, sparking chemists to begin
pursuing these basic atomic elements.
Recently, I stumbled upon a few new discoveries that I would have guessed had already been figured out. These discoveries were surprising to me because they fell into the category of “obviously someone else knows this,” even though I didn’t—you know, the stuff you would just do a quick Google search to find out about.
Anyway, it made me reflect on the world we live in, filled with endless information. At times, it seems as if we know it all (at least all the obvious stuff), which can stifle discovery by limiting the sources from which we seek new information. It can appear futile to embark upon research in established fields. But sometimes discoveries occur when you look in familiar places from a new vantage point.
Today’s blog illustrates how seeing science in new ways can lead to this type of unexpected discovery.
Sometimes seeing science is about how you are looking.
The first discovery that got my attention was in an article that described the use of drones and Google Earth by archaeologists to discover a monument made of stone hidden below the sand at a World Heritage Site in Petra, Jordan. This is one of the most visited and well-studied archaeological sites in the world. Yet, a huge structure had remained undiscovered despite continual investigation of the site.
Looking for last-minute gift ideas? Wondering what chemistry has to do with Valentine’s Day? The chemists of the American Chemical Society (ACS) have curated a web page called Valentine’s Day Chemistry that offers gift ideas (for example, make a crystal heart using pipe cleaners, borax and hot water), explains the chemistry behind chocolate and flowers, shows a video that equates chemical bonding to people interacting at a party and more. The links and videos offer something for everyone, whether you want to have fun with friends and family of all ages or just want to learn something new about chemistry.
If you are a scientist you know the American Chemical Society (ACS) for their high quality journals (all 39 of them) and for their annual meetings and conferences. But did you know the ACS also focuses on community education and outreach? The ACS mission is “Improving people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry.” According to their website, ACS has 189 local chapters at colleges and universities around the country. Bharat Mankani (in the white coat in the photo) tells us about his work with the ACS chapter at Texas A&M.
One day while reading a knitting blog I discovered in 1883 a Scottish chemist created the first “ball-and-stick” model of a molecule using knitting needles and balls of yarn. This initial ball-and-stick molecule represents the structure of sodium chloride and is constructed of knitting needles, representing the bonds, and alternating balls of blue and red yarn, representing the atoms of sodium and chloride. It’s being displayed as part of the International Year of Chemistry 2011 activities.
The chemist who created this model was Alexander Crum Brown, distinguished chemistry and professor at the University of Edinburgh, and one of his particular interests was the arrangements of atoms in molecules and the depiction of these structures. Those of us who spent countless hours poring our organic chemistry books and molecular model sets trying to understand nucleophilic attacks and SN1 and SN2 reactions have Alexander Crum Brown to thank. Those students who now use computer 3D modeling programs to accomplish the same studies (without the delight of chasing down the last nitrogen atom that has rolled off the desk and under the dresser) are also indebted to Dr. Brown.
For many, this time of year brings with it the opportunity to enjoy a bit of holiday fun with kids. In fact just recently I had the chance to spend a day doing several home science activities with my four- and seven-year old boys. All were simple to set up using commonly found household items in a way that was both instructive and rewarding. Continue reading “Getting Our Hands Into Some Good Ol’ Home Science”
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