Monthly Archives: September 2014

Chemical Calligraphy

Chemical notation from ciphers to calligraphy

What should you do when your King, gold crown and all, gets devoured by a wolf?

According to the 15th Century monk Basil Valentine, the right course of action is to light a bonfire and throw the wolf on the top. Once the wolf has been burned to a crisp, says Valentine, then the King will be brought back to life good as new.

This ludicrous story sounds as though it’s been plucked out of a fairy tale, but is in reality a nearly 600-year-old chemical equation.

The example, vividly brought to life in the engraving below, was used to illustrate the first of The Twelve Keys, a text now thought to have been written by several authors who used the name Basil Valentine as a pseudonym. Let’s face it, it’s a pretty unlikely name for anyone who isn’t an LA detective in a procedural cop show from the 80s.

The First Key of Basil Valentine

The First Key of Basil Valentine

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The Kilogram turns 125

We all know what a kilogram is, right? It’s the mass of a bag of sugar. Thank goodness for the bag of sugar. Without it we’d be forced to imagine 1/7000th of an African bull elephant or 1/14560th of a double decker bus or God only knows what fraction of the weight of Wales.

Having a clear visualisation of the kilogram is important for all sorts of reasons, not least because it’s one of the seven SI units, the fundamental alphabet of symbols which can be combined in a variety of ways to express any physical quantity. Speed, for instance, is measured in metres per second, whereas force can be expressed in terms of kilogram metres per second squared.

The kilogram was accepted into this metrological pantheon alongside the metre 125 years ago today, when the value of both units was defined at the first General Conference on Weights and Measures organised by the BIPM. As a consequence of that meeting, three identical kilograms were cast by the firm Johnson Matthey out of a mass of platinum-iridium alloy. This alloy was chosen because of its density and chemical stability, meaning that the kilograms would be both small and resistant to rust. One of the kilograms was kept at the BIPM offices in Sevres, and two were sent for safekeeping in America. Rumours that a further three were subsequently distributed to the elven-kings under the sky have no foundation in truth.

One kilo to rule them all

One kilo to rule them all

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NYTblue

Nobody ever said dyeing was easy

As anyone who has ever attempted to buy wallpaper with a loved one will know, colours are notoriously difficult to define. One man’s Burgundy is close enough to another woman’s Maroon for Red to be a dangerously ambiguous catch-all term.

But what if more were at stake when choosing colours than marital happiness. What if the choice of one particular shade of blue over another constituted a religious sin. And – as if that weren’t bad enough – what if nobody had actually set eyes on the colour in question since the days of Ancient Rome.

This chromatic grey area is not a hypothetical situation. The disappearance of the colour t’khelet (pronounced with a properly phlegm-filled ‘kh’, if you please) was a pressing question in Jewish theology for well over a millennium. It took generations of rabbis, dye-makers and chemists to bring the dye back from the dead, and in the process explain just how it was that the Jews first got the blues.

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In the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers (chapter 15, verse 38), the Lord tells Moses to instruct the Children of Israel to “make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and affix a thread of t’khelet on the fringe of each corner.”

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Edward Drinker Cope

The largest dinosaur ever found – and subsequently lost again

What’s the largest animal ever to live on planet Earth? Whether you’re measuring in double decker buses, swimming pools or African elephants, any budding naturalist will be able to tell you that the answer is the blue whale. At 31 metres long and weighing 146 tonnes, this enormous cetacean easily exceeds the paltry dimensions of such pretenders as diplodocus and Tyrannosaurus rex. In London’s Natural History Museum, one of the rare institutions where life-sized models of both animals exist side-by-side, the blue whale has a good three metres on Dippy the beloved Diplodocus.

The blue whale has had to fend off another challenger this week, in the form of Dreadnaughtus schrani, a behemoth from 77 million years ago thought to measure 26m from tip to tip. Dreadnaughtus has made headlines as the most complete sauropod skeleton ever discovered, a body of evidence which provides ample confirmation of its titanic size.

But the absence of such complete remains has never stood in the way of scientists looking to predict an animal’s length and height. The dimensions of the largest dinosaurs have often been extrapolated from just a few fragments of their enormous skeletons. In one notable case, the discovery of a single vertebra led to the prediction of an entirely new species of dinosaur, larger than any that had come before or since. A dinosaur that would make the blue whale look like small fry: Amphicoelias fragillimus.

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Hex Codes featured image

What the hex?

Chances are, the screen you’re currently looking at is capable of displaying over 16 million different and uniquely identifiable colours. As those of you who’ve done digital design work will probably know, each of these colours can be represented by a Hex code – a six-character string of letters and numbers.

But where do these odd symbols come from? And what do they mean? And – most interestingly of all – is it possible to work backwards from the Hex code to correctly identify the colour?

Following on from Matt’s phenomenally successful liquid nitrogen bucket challenge, I’ve decided to undertake a challenge of my own – the paint bucket challenge. Don’t worry though – none of you has been nominated!

Gilead Amit is a big consumer of colour, and particularly enjoys a nice glass of red. He tweets at @gileadamit