History: On the Human Side

"The systems that confront the intelligence remain basically unchanged through the ages, although they assume different forms...There is nothing so disastrous in science as the arrogant dogmatism that despises the past and admires nothing but the present." Hoffer.

Chemistry has its beginnings in the early civilizations of Egypt, India, and China. However, the basis for the developments that took place in European nations can be found in Aristotle's works from 350 B.C. In his Theory of the four elements, Aristotle connected earth, air, fire, and water with the physical qualities of cold, wet, hot, and dry.

Hovering behind these four elements was a shadowy and poorly defined fifth element, that would later be known as the `philosopher's stone,' or quinta essentia, held to be the reason or driving power behind chemical reactions. The theory of four elements also tried to explain chemical reactions as the changing, or transmuting of one element into another. For example, water, the cold-wet element, can be transmuted into air through the application of heat. This theory of transmutation was soon extended to metals, leading to the centuries-long fruitless search for a method of converting common metals, such as lead, into gold.

The attempts to convert other metals or even organic substances, such as eggs, into gold are far too numerous to list. The actual attempts are documented in cryptic forms, since the alchemists guarded their research carefully and coded the findings, often in the form of secretive poetry:

"Dissolve the Fixt, and make the Fixed fly,

The Flying Fix, and then live happily."

Other methods for preparing gold are described somewhat more directly. Many alchemists were successful at tricking and cheating their customers; the actual products of their chemistry were not gold, but gold-colored metals.

The concept of transmutation relied on a theory that all forms of matter are one in origin and have subsequently been transmuted. The alchemists were searching for methods to change the very form of matter. The elusive philosopher's stone can be compared to modern catalysts that stimulate chemical reactions without themselves being permanently changed. Despite the apparent failure to change common metals into gold, the alchemists, through research and experimentation on metals and organic substances, formed the foundation for the scientific revolution and the development of modern scientific theory in the 17th century.

However, despite the changes for which Galileo and Newton provided the impetus in the 17th century, chemistry remained rather unchanged. Despite the new scientific concepts of the world as a macrocosm, subject to describable laws of motion, and new studies of the living organism, the Aristotelian elements retained their hold on chemistry. Not until the chemical interactions of elements and their composition were better understood, could chemistry change drastically. The action of combustion and the nature of the so-called elements air and water were not accurately described until Lavoisier isolated oxygen and gained an understanding of combustion in the 1770s. The challenges faced by chemists to explain chemical phenomena from the 18th century to the present continues.

Humor: On the Fun Side

  1. Message on a T-shirt: Looking for a reaction? Try me-I'm a chemist.
  2. THE H 2 OF AN O

    One thing I would like to do
    Is draw a character sketch of CO 2 ...
    Meet an angry LiH perhaps,
    Or talk to a placid He gas...
    Find an NaH that likes to play
    And picnic on a sunny day,
    Or an NO 3 that moaned and cried
    When his kindly mother, HNO 3 , died.
    The world could hold

    Satisfied Ne's
    Capitalist Rb's
    Socialist Pb's.

    But then of course, on cloudy days
    The H 2 's would go off to war
    And cruelly spread their acid horror
    Among the lowly SO 4 .

    Yes, good is mixed with evil:
    That is the way of life.
    And if we're to have friendly O's
    We must have H 2 strife. Au bless us, every mole.

    CHEM 13 NEWS, April 1969, p. 41

  3. CHEMISTRY ROCK Chemistry, Chemistry, Chemistry Rock
    We're so scientific, the work never stops
    We balance equations around the clock
    That's the Chemistry Rock!

    Seventh bell time 1 is a swell time
    To rock the lab away
    Computations, calculations
    Well, Mr. Evans 2 might give you an "A"
    So listen here, lend an ear and we'll tell you why
    It's chemistry at the top
    It'll keep your mind working overtime
    That's the Chemistry Rock!
    1 Put in your own time.
    2 Put in your teacher's name.

    CHEM 13 NEWS, February 1982, p. 12


  1. Doing Chemistry videodiscs are devoted to demonstrating chemical reactions. The wide variety and extensive list of chemical reactions make this an important teacher resource. "Reactions in a Bag," Experiment D45, provides an excellent introduction to the whole topic. Available from American Chemical Society, 1155 Sixteenth Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

  2. The World of Chemistry videotapes. World of Chemistry Videocassettes. Annenberg/CPB Project, P.O. Box 1922, Santa Barbara, CA 93116-1922; (800) 532-7637; World of Chemistry Series, Atlantic Video, 150 South Gordon Street, Alexandria, VA 22304; (703) 823-2800 or QUEUE Educational Video, 338 Commerce Drive, Fairfield, CT 06430; (800) 232-2224. A secondary school version of this series is available from WINGS for Learning/ SUNBURST, 101 Castleton Street, Pleasantville, NY 10570; (914) 747-3310; (800) 321-7511; (914) 747-4109 (FAX).

  3. Software published by JCE: Software, a publication of the Journal of Chemical Education, Department of Chemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1101 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706-1396: (608) 262-5153 (voice) or (608) 262-0381 (FAX).

    a. KC? Discoverer with Knowledgeable Counselor, by Daniel Cabrol, John W. Moore and Robert C. Rittenhouse. Special Issue 2, for IBM PS/2, PC compatible computers.

    b. KC? Discoverer: Exploring the Properties of the Chemical Elements, by Aw Feng and John W. Moore. Vol. I B, No. 1, for IBM PS/2, PC compatible computers.

    c. KC? Discoverer?, by Michael Liebl, Vol. IV A, No. 2, for all Apple II computers.

    d. The Periodic Table Stack, by Michael Farris. Vol. I C, No. 1, for the Apple Macintosh.

    e. The Periodic Table (Toolbook), by Paul F. Schatz, John C. Kotz and John W. Moore, in press. For Windows running on IBM PS/2 and PC-compatible computers.

    f. REDOX: A Tutorial on REDuction /OXidation Equations, by Derek Davenport, Paul Groves and Dale Jensen. Vol. III A, No. 1, for the Apple II computer.

    g. PIRExS: Predicting Inorganic Reactivity Expert System, by Jame P. Birk. Vol. III B, No. 1, for IBM PS/2 PC-compatible computers.

  4. Videodiscs published by JCE: Software, a publication of the Journal of Chemical Education, Department of Chemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1101 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706-1396: (608) 262-5153 (voice) or (608) 262-0381 (FAX).

    a. "Nitrogen Triiodide Decomposed" and "Thermite Reaction," two chapters on The World of Chemistry: Selected Demonstrations and Animations: Disc II (double sided, 60 min.), Special Issue 4.

    b. "Similarities and Trends in Groups I - Noble Gases" and "Similarities and Trends in Groups II - Alkali Metals," "An Exothermic Reaction" and "An Endothermic Reaction," four chapters on The World of Chemistry: Selected Demonstrations and Animations: Disc I (double sided, 60 min.), Special Issue 3.

    c. The Periodic Table Videodisc (single side, 30 min.), Special Issue 1.

    d. Demonstrations in Organic Chemistry (double sided, 60 min.). Special Issue 6.

  5. Redox, by Helen Brooks and David Brooks. Distributed by Project SERAPHIM, Department of Chemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1101 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706-1396: (608) 262-2387 (voice) or (608) 262-0381 (FAX). Order Number VID 002.

  6. Closeup on Chemistry, videodisc available from the American Chemical Society, 1155-16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036.

  7. Concepts in General Chemistry Series, Chemical Reactions and Reactions in Aqueous Solution. Trinity Software, P.O. Box 960, Campton, NH 03223; (800) 352-1282.1.