Wednesday, August 26, 2009

ACS tales

Posted by on 08/26 at 02:41 PM

You will be glad to hear that I survived ACS, in spite of Arctic Airconditioning, windowless conference rooms and a curious shortage of food. The Bolton Society’s panel on the language of chemistry certainly made up for the dire conditions. It covered chemical and alchemical nomenclature in all its fascinating facets. Do I hear scoffing?

In lieu of a lengthy report and paraphrase of the papers, I’ll give you just two nuggets that made me smile. One of the speakers explained how many names for chemical products are, necessarily, inventions of the genius behind them. The reasons for naming a particular thing in a particular way are as manifold as the experiences of the chemist who bestows the name. Let some time pass, and some eager historian/chemist will try to rationalize the origins of these names. And here is much scope for hilarity.

Example 1: Pyrex. This wonderful glass product which withstands heat so well could indeed be called a king of fire (not to be confused with that catchy ring of fire). Therefore, an urban myth developed that its name is a composite of ‘pyr-’ (Greek for ‘fire’) and ‘rex’, the Latin term for ‘king’. Alas, the history of the word is much more mundane. What do you make in the archetypal Pyrex form? Pie! Yes, it is a fancy spelling of ‘pie’ with a snazzy but meaningless ending.

Example 2: Barbiturates. Saint Nicholas Day, 1864. German researcher Adolf von Baeyer discovers barbituric acid. Now, what made him name this famous depressant (an antecedent of mother’s little helper) ‘barbiturates’? Speculations abound: it could be in honor of St. Barbara, whose feast day is around that time. –ish. Well, it’s in December. But lo and behold, the story is much sweeter: young Adolf was in love with a girl called Barbara, and found this new substance so beautiful he named it after her – in amalgamation with ‘urea’, one of the components of the substance. (If you are cringing now, you know what I’m referring to). Anyhow, it’s the intention that counts, right?

Taken together, these examples make for a good smile, and the revelation that chemistry and language are inseparable, irresistible thought provokers.

Do you have similar stories or urban myths about chemical language to share? Leave a comment!

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