↓ Expand ↓

Category → Photo Goodness

Encountering the Curiosity Rover

Life-size Mars rover replica, Drahl/C&EN

Does this photo look familiar? Astute NASA-watchers and C&EN readers will recall that this WALL-E-like robot is the Mars Curiosity

Rover, which blasted off for Mars late last month. The life-size replica is currently in New York City, at the American Museum of Natural History’s “Beyond Planet Earth” exhibit.

I’d read about the size of the rover in Elizabeth Wilson’s C&EN article on Curiosity

:

Curiosity was designed to be big—the size of a small car—so that scientists could pack its belly with laser spectrometers, gas chromatographs, and ovens, not to mention reservoirs of helium and other chemical supplies for the two analytical labs.

But there’s nothing quite like seeing something in person to get a feel for its size.
“Beyond Planet Earth” runs through August 12th of next year.

Curiosity's got big wheels. I couldn't quite touch it but you get the idea. Drahl/C&EN

A Lavoisier Painting’s Path

Lavoisier and His Wife, painting by Jacques-Louis David, photo by Drahl/C&EN

It’s a painting that most chemists would recognize instantly. Antoine Lavoisier, French nobleman and giant in early modern chemistry, sits, quill in hand, at a velvet-cloaked table topped with scattered instruments. Behind him, in a position perhaps symbolic of her role in Lavoisier’s legacy (if the play Oxygen is to be believed), is Madame Lavoisier.

I’ve visited the painting before– it hangs in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But before that, as I learned on my travels on Tuesday, its home was Rockefeller University. The painting arrived in New York via descendants of Lavoisier himself. John D. Rockefeller purchased the painting from them through a dealer and gifted it to the university. In 1977, the university sold the painting to the Met for about $4 million, which funded professorships and graduate fellowships.

So how’d I get a picture of the painting this week while I was at Rockefeller rather than the Met? As Jeanne Garbarino, a postdoc in Jan Breslow’s lab, explained to me, when Sir Paul Nurse stepped down from Rockefeller’s presidency to head up the Royal Society, he had a high-quality reproduction made for the university as a gift.

Smelling The Moon

Press me! Press me!- the button's siren song. Drahl/C&EN

Many a space-obsessed kid has dreamed of rocketing off to the moon, seeing Earth from the moon, perhaps even touching the lunar surface. But smelling the moon? That’s less likely to be on the to-do list. Still, the folks who designed the American Museum of Natural History’s “Beyond Planet Earth” exhibit are betting that moon fans will at least be curious.

The exhibit hall is dimly lit, perhaps for dramatic effect. A walk through it leads to a simple slab display labeled “Smell the Moon,” placed amid a Soviet space helmet and a Sputnik replica. A button on the display glows temptingly as a recording of John F. Kennedy’s historic moon speech crackles in the background. “Push and sniff to smell the Moon,” the button beckons. They should’ve made it red.

After giving in to temptation and pressing the button, I was rewarded with a puff of “moon air.” Apollo astronauts who tracked moondust inside their cabins have said the stuff smells like gunpowder. Never having handled a firearm, I can’t confirm this. But as Gizmodo’s reporter noted, the experience left a distinctly metallic taste in my mouth.

According to this NASA article on moon aroma, gunpowder and moondust are chemically quite distinct. Today’s gunpowder is made from small organic molecules– nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. But the moon’s surface is made of compounds all sharing the common thread of silicon, including silicon dioxide and silicate minerals like olivine and pyroxene. As for why the common scent, that’s still something for researchers to figure out.

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Jyllian Kemsley and Lauren Wolf.

Colin Purrington studied how various inks hang tough in the lab. Credit: Colin Purrington

Which ink should you use in your lab notebook? This guy has thought a lot about it. [ColinPurrington.com]

Researchers cure mice of peanut allergies. Speedy Gonzales raids Reese’s plant. ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba! [Northwestern]

Alzheimer’s could be contagious, say scientists who injected brain material from patients into mice. Now if we could just get Alzheimer’s patients to stop injecting others with their brain bits. [Discovery News]

The Big Picture: Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition. Neurons, microchips, and water fleas–oh my! [Boston.com]

LEGOs + cell phone = new sensor for watching cells grow in real time. [Gizmodo]

Want to slow down an already slow commute? Ban the single-driver hybrid vehicles from the carpool lane, transportation engineers say. [Berkeley]

 

In Hand-drawn Structures, A Piece of Personality-UPDATED

UPDATED 1/16/2013:
Thanks to Tony (@myarlak) for his strychnine drawing!

UPDATED 12/11/2012:
This entry has been sadly untended for a year now. I’m very late in posting this entry from @EnoNeal13 out in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Stationery is always a nice touch.

UPDATED 9/22: A couple of new additions from professors- blogger extraordinaire Sciencegeist (Matt Hartings of American U.) and Greg Ferrence of Illinois State University. Ferrence, who teaches gen. chem., made sure to depict resonance forms.

UPDATED: You readers (and Twitter followers) rock. You really do. I didn’t expect such a great response in one day, but your lovingly hand-drawn structures are pouring in. Keep ‘em coming. I’ll be away the week of the 5th and expect a full inbox when I return.

Special super-awesome bonus points go to Azmanam of Chemistry blog- he sent a video of himself drawing his structures.


Chemjobber had an unexpectedly sweet shout-out to my recent Haystack post about anesthetics– but CJ’s focus was on the hand-drawn structures that I typically make to accompany blog posts:

A chemist’s structures, while adhering to the “1996 ACS” Chemdraw style (or whatever it’s called) cannot help but be a signature of sorts. I’ve written up Carmen’s structures to show the differences (hers are a lot neater and some of my bond angles are funny.)

Drawing structures is one of the few things I do that connects my current job to my last (which would be organic chemistry grad student). I think CJ’s right– structure drawings carry an echo of personality.

Just compare my own drawings to CJ’s– and to the ones submitted by SeeArrOh (via blog) and STEM_Wonk (via Twitter).

If you agree– if you think your renderings of molecules carry a little piece of you along with them, I would love to add your drawings to this little collection, to create a photo gallery akin to our chemistry t-shirt extravaganza or the incomparable Carl Zimmer’s science tattoo emporium. Ideally, it’d be cool to see folks draw the same molecules for comparison. But I won’t turn down drawings of other molecules if the muse particularly strikes you. I’ve posted a request to the Chemistry Reddit group. Send structures to me via Twitter, post a comment here in the blog, or email me .

In Hand-drawn Structures, A Piece of Personality-UPDATED

UPDATED 9/22: A couple of new additions from professors- blogger extraordinaire Sciencegeist (Matt Hartings of American U.) and Greg Ferrence of Illinois State University. Ferrence, who teaches gen. chem., made sure to depict resonance forms.

UPDATED: You readers (and Twitter followers) rock. You really do. I didn’t expect such a great response in one day, but your lovingly hand-drawn structures are pouring in. Keep ‘em coming. I’ll be away the week of the 5th and expect a full inbox when I return.

Special super-awesome bonus points go to Azmanam of Chemistry blog- he sent a video of himself drawing his structures.


Chemjobber had an unexpectedly sweet shout-out to my recent Haystack post about anesthetics– but CJ’s focus was on the hand-drawn structures that I typically make to accompany blog posts:

A chemist’s structures, while adhering to the “1996 ACS” Chemdraw style (or whatever it’s called) cannot help but be a signature of sorts. I’ve written up Carmen’s structures to show the differences (hers are a lot neater and some of my bond angles are funny.)

Drawing structures is one of the few things I do that connects my current job to my last (which would be organic chemistry grad student). I think CJ’s right– structure drawings carry an echo of personality.

Just compare my own drawings to CJ’s– and to the ones submitted by SeeArrOh (via blog) and STEM_Wonk (via Twitter).

If you agree– if you think your renderings of molecules carry a little piece of you along with them, I would love to add your drawings to this little collection, to create a photo gallery akin to our chemistry t-shirt extravaganza or the incomparable Carl Zimmer’s science tattoo emporium. Ideally, it’d be cool to see folks draw the same molecules for comparison. But I won’t turn down drawings of other molecules if the muse particularly strikes you. I’ve posted a request to the Chemistry Reddit group. Send structures to me via Twitter, post a comment here in the blog, or email me .

Special Delivery For A Synthesis Victory #ACSDenver

Courtesy of John Wood


When John Wood read about the first total synthesis of N-methylwelwitindolinone C isothiocyanate, he was impressed. After all, the densely functionalized welwitindolinone family of alkaloids has been in synthetic chemists’ crosshairs for the better part of two decades. Fifteen different labs, including Wood’s own at Colorado State, have published over 20 “progress toward” papers on one subset of welwitindolinones alone. And this particular natural product, with intriguing bioactivity on drug-resistant tumor cells, has proven to be among the most desirable targets.
Once he really studied the synthesis (J. Am. Chem. Soc., DOI: 10.1021/ja206538k), presented today at ACS Denver by UCLA’s Neil Garg and his grad students Alex Huters, Kyle Quasdorf, and Evan Styduhar, he decided the work merited more than just the customary “Nice job” email that floats between professors as a means of congratulation. Fortunately, he knew just what would fit the bill.
“A few years ago as part of a woodworking project I was doing I learned how to sandblast images onto glass,” Wood says. “I was so taken with Garg’s synthesis that after I read it I went home and sandblasted the image of his retrosynthetic scheme onto four beer glasses,” one for each team member. He then shipped the package to California, where an unsuspecting Garg received it in his office.
“I called the students in before I opened the box,” Garg says. When he pulled the package open, it contained the four glasses, carefully decorated with the team’s names and their chemistry. But the box held something more. “There was a nice card and a $20 bill in there,” he recounts. In the card, Wood advised Garg to use the $20 to take his students out for a beer as they deserved it on account of their fine work.
“This is a really competitive field, so it’s been great to have support” from the community, Garg says. He notes that his own Ph.D. adviser, Caltech’s Brian Stoltz, worked on this same natural product family as a graduate student with Wood.
The $20 was spent as instructed, Garg reports. “But nobody wants to use the glasses because they’re really cool.”

Reconstructing Alchemical Experiments

In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote a profile of Larry Principe, a professor of organic chemistry and the history of science at Johns Hopkins University. Principe studies alchemy with the goal of understanding the evolution of modern-day chemistry.

Alchemists sometimes depicted their experiments with coded images like this one. Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation

But he doesn’t just study alchemy. He also carries out his own alchemical experiments to get a handle on the thought processes of those experimentalists who tried to make gold from cheaper materials. One school of alchemists that Principe got particularly interested in is a group who focused on making gold by starting with mercury.

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, Principe says, “there was a lot of disagreement about what material to start with—what you actually go to your apothecary and get 20 lb of to start trying to” transmute base metals and chemicals into gold. Some alchemists thought copper sulfate or potassium nitrate would work. Others—those that Principe calls the mercurialists—focused on mercury, hoping to use the liquid metal to make the philosopher’s stone.

For those who have lived under a rock for the past decade and haven’t read any of the “Harry Potter” books, or even heard of them really, the philosopher’s stone is a substance thought to be able to convert base metals into gold. And, as mentioned in the first book of the “Harry Potter” series, the philosopher’s stone was also thought to be a universal medicine capable of prolonging life.

To make the philosopher’s stone, Principe says, the mercurialists believed that “you needed to awaken a seed that’s within gold to cause it to grow—just like when a farmer takes seeds and puts them in the ground and waters them, he gets more seeds back in the harvest.” This group of alchemists therefore used a lot of agricultural metaphors and imagery in their writings and drawings.

One of these alchemists, a Harvard-educated man named George Starkey, wrote a number of public works on the subject under the pen name Eirenaeus Philalethes as well as some private letters—most famously to “father of modern chemistry” Robert Boyle.

The tree that Principe made out of philosophical mercury and a seed of gold. Credit: Larry Principe

Putting together some of these public and private writings, Principe came up with a reasonable idea of what Starkey was doing in the lab. “The idea was that you take common mercury, and you turn it into ‘philosophical mercury’ by distilling it from various mixtures of metals,” Principe says. “Somehow this makes it a fit liquid for nurturing the seed of gold.”

Principe undertook the laborious process of grinding mercury with various substances, heating it, boiling it, and distilling it seven times. After a month of work, he says, he got something that should have been, according to Starkey, philosophical mercury. He then mixed it with a small bit of gold, put it in a small sealed flask with a long neck, and heated it.

But here was the tricky part: Starkey didn’t have thermometers back in the day, so it was difficult for Principe to gauge what temperature the alchemist had used. The Johns Hopkins professor fiddled with temperature settings for three weeks until he came into the lab one morning and realized he must have found the correct, albeit narrow, range.

There in the flask was a beautiful treelike structure of mercury and gold. “It surprised the heck out of me,” Principe says. “I didn’t expect anything quite like that.” But once he saw the result, Principe says, it is easy to understand why Starkey thought he was on the right path toward the philosopher’s stone: He had succeeded in making the seed of gold sprout. And it’s also easy to understand why he, and then Boyle, continued to practice alchemy after successfully producing the small, crystalline structure.

“When you’re working for months and months on a process, and you just can’t get anything close to the results that are described” by the alchemists, Principe says, “and then you finally make the right change and it works beautifully,” it is so satisfying. “And you realize that at that moment, you are looking at the same phenomenon that your author writing in 1600 saw himself. For me, that is such a powerful thing—it explains so much more.”

The story of the tree was originally published here:

Lawrence M. Principe, “Apparatus and Reproducibility in Alchemy,” pp. 55-74 in Instruments and Experimentation in the History of Chemistry, eds. Frederic L. Holmes and Trevor Levere, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).