Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Summertime, ACS and ice cream

Posted by on 08/12 at 11:53 AM Many of us (historians of chemistry, that is) will be heading to Washington D.C. to attend the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in a couple of days. There, you will find anything that makes a chemist’s heart beat faster… and a couple of panels on the history of chemistry. The jury is still out on the palpitation factor of these.

No, seriously, it can’t hurt anyone at the ACS meeting to learn a little more about the history of chemistry. And in Sunday’s session on the language of chemistry, anyone can find out more about the origins and uses of those funny formulae, projections and visualizations that are the daily bread of chemists today; about alchemical symbols as a different system of understanding nature; and the elements and chemical nomenclature.

Why should anyone care? Well, the language of modern chemistry is as much a tool for thinking about invisible attributes of things as alchemical symbols are: they are a system, a representation, and thus to a certain degree arbitrary – like your own name. You may identify yourself as John or Lisa and associate specific qualities with your name and existence. But taken out of context and on close inspection, ‘John’ and ‘Lisa’ do not mean anything. The program for the day may be found here: and here:

If this thought makes you dizzy, try the symposium in honor of Arnold Thackray, the founder and, until recently, president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, showing how the work of aforementioned Englishman has had a ripple effect on the history of chemistry in many different ways. Find details on the day here: and here:

Of course, if you want to combine summer and chemistry without a conference, you might just have some ice cream. Where’s the chemistry? Well, even without artificial flavors and stabilizers, the structure of ice cream crystals will make any chemistry anorak happy. Again, the ACS helps those of us who need some help in the chemistry department, in this enjoyable and informative article on ice cream:

On that note, I’ll get a scoop and had better start writing my paper for Sunday…

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