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    Story time. Hennig Brand was a German alchemist in the mid 1600s. I’m not saying he was a gold digger — but he did marry first one rich lady, and then, after her death, a second rich lady. And he used their money to literally try to make gold.

    Back then, a lot of people thought you could change worthless materials into precious metals. And Brand was convinced he could distill gold from a golden substance that he encountered every day: human urine.

    He used his wife’s money to build a basement laboratory, and employed his stepson as a lab assistant. Then, he started collecting.

    Accounts from the time don’t go into detail about where Brand got his raw material, or what his basement smelled like, or what the stepson thought of his new dad. But they do suggest that Brand stockpiled something like 1,500 gallons of urine. Then he set to work. One of the surviving accounts of the process begins:

    Take a good large Quantity of New-made Urine of Beer-drinkers and evaporate it gently to the consistency of honey.

    I’ll spare you the rest — it involved lots of boiling and cooking and waiting.

    In the end, Brand’s persistence paid off. He didn’t make gold, but he did end up with a white, waxy substance that glowed in the dark. He had stumbled upon the element phosphorus. The name, appropriately, starts with “p.”

    Phosphorus, it turns out, is an incredibly powerful element. It has been used in deadly explosives (including a few bombs that destroyed Brand’s Hamburg neighborhood in 1943) and in the synthetic fertilizers that help feed the world.

    Throughout history, curious minds have turned mistakes, coincidences and surprises like the discovery of phosphorus into important scientific insights.

    Now Skunk Bear is looking for modern examples. We’d like you to send us your stories of happy accidents in the lab and in the field that led to interesting discoveries. Or maybe such stories from your friends or professors or students or colleagues — or just modern cases of scientific luck you’ve heard about. They don’t have to be earth-shattering — serendipity can work in tiny ways.

    Our favorite stories will be honored in an awards show later this month, and one twice-lucky scientist will receive a trophy I carved myself — The Golden Mole Award For Accidental Brilliance.

    SUBMIT HERE:  npr.org/goldenmole

    CSI: Gowanus - Cleaning up the Canal from ChemHeritage on Vimeo.

    I’m Rigoberto Hernandez, the assistant multimedia producer for Distillations podcasts and videos. My most recent assignment was to make “CSI: Gowanus,” a video about the complex history of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York. Here are three things I never thought I would do while making the video:

    1) I got a canoe.

    One of the most important elements of making a film about the Gowanus Canal was getting shots from the canal itself. This was a challenge because the canal is a Superfund site, and generally people want to stay away from toxic chemicals. Luckily I found a group of adventurers: The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club. One of their members gave me the keys to unlock canoes stationed by the canal. I now have access to their canoes year-round if I ever feel like boating in Brooklyn.

    2) I chose my own adventure.

    Another necessary element of making a film about the Gowanus canal was getting up high to get a sense of place. I climbed three floors of stairs on a fire escape on the side of a building to get a shot from above—and on the way back down I discovered a sign explicitly forbidding that climb.

    3) I visited the Statue of Liberty.

    On the last day of shooting in the canoe we ran into a pontoon boat full of bearded 30-somethings and they invited us to join them. I figured that their boat would give us access to parts of the canal that I couldn’t get to with a canoe, so we got on board. They decided to take us to the Statue of Liberty, which turned into a highlight of the filming.


    Munsell color notation!  What is it?  Who developed it?  Let me tell you…

    Albert H. Munsell was an artist who wanted to describe colors rationally based on perception of hue, value and chroma.  Huh? What?

    1. Hue – color such as red, orange, yellow, etc.
    2. Value – lightness or darkness of a color
    3. Chroma – saturation or brilliance of a color

    Munsell created a decimal notation system based on perceived equidistance. He began working on his concept around 1898 and finally published the color notation in 1905.  His decimal color system is still used today – a system not designed by an exact science – devised by intuition!

    So the EYES have it!  

    Bet you know what the Munsell color system is now and when you use it – right! a.k.a HEX Color Codes

    The Othmer Library has the 2nd revised edition of Munsell’s Color Notation (1907).

    Image: Compound Interest

    @compoundchem explains how bees make honey and why honey never seems to go bad.

    Read more about sweeteners in Jacob Roberts’ story in the Winter Issue of Distillations.


    Image credit: Fisher Price

    [h/t: Mental Floss]

    Science play isn’t all chemistry sets, rockets and explosions. Today’s science play can incorporate things like programming and coding– even for the youngest kids! Check out the amazing Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar, debuted this January by Fisher-Price. It’s got some of our museum staffers wishing they could have a second childhood right now. The Code-a-Pillar delivers the basics of coding (like sequencing and commands) through hands-on play. Kids can arrange the individual units of the Code-a-Pillar in specific patterns to generate different types of movement, light, or sound. Pretty nifty!

    This blog often explores the science kits and toys of the past, but we are equally excited about science play’s future. We think it’s very bright! We want to know: what science toys and games are you or your family enjoying right now? Things you wish had existed when you were a kid? Share your favorites! What toys do you think offer kids a fun challenge? And what new science toys have you wishing you could get back into the playroom? 

    We love anything that makes learning about science more engaging. This code-a-pillar is top on our list.


    It’s #ColorOurCollections week! We’re joining with a host of libraries, museums and archives (hi Othermeralia!) to show off the playful side of image collections. All this week, we’ll be sharing cool images from the CHF “Science at Play” vaults for you to choose and color. Outside the lines, inside the lines… all around the lines, whatever makes you happy! Coloring isn’t just for kids: studies suggest it can help adults relax, de-stress, and get in touch with their creative side. Give it a try and let us know what you think!

    We invite you to pick your favorites, print them out, and make your own masterpiece. When you’re done, show off your coloring style with the hashtags #ScienceAtPlay and #ColorOurCollections. Tag us @scienceatplay and we’ll share your creations!

    It turns out CHF’s collections are the perfect fodder for coloring books. Check out @othmeralia for more coloring pages, and head to the CHF website for Coloring Chemistry.

    Science is not my strong point. This is a challenge because I am the first person to greet museum visitors when they arrive at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Visitors have questions– everything from, “What exactly does a ‘museum of chemistry involve,” to inquiries about the exhibit featured in “The Invention of Mauve” episode on the Travel Channel’s “Mysteries in the Museum.” They explain that they have middle school aged children, or didn’t do well in chemistry themselves, and ask if the museum will hold their interest. I tell them that the interactive periodic table is a favorite of kids and adults alike.

    I came to CHF two years ago with a background in hospitality and health. Any basic knowledge of chemistry I’d picked up from my undergraduate courses was long gone.

    When I arrived, I got my own personal tour of the museum, courtesy of Ann Elizabeth Wiener, who oversees group and private tours. She guided me through the exhibits, explaining how each display illustrated a way in which chemistry has become an integral part of our everyday lives. She showed me the “mauve” display, which illustrates the use of chemistry in dyes and fabrics, the evolution of medical equipment, and chemistry’s role in predictions of pollutions.

    I will never be as knowledgeable as the museum team about the history of science, but now I feel more comfortable with basic science. Every day, when listening to and interacting with my coworkers, I learn something new. Once, a visitor asked about a piece of her spandex clothing that had melted. She was curious about the chemistry behind it. I enlisted the help of our resident chemist, who explained why synthetic fabrics melt. While melting clothes is something I hope to never need to deal with myself, experiences like this allow me to connect to the chemistry around me.

    By Maya Northen

    Image: Compound Interest

    Who doesn’t love the smell of freshly baked bread? Here’s the science of that aroma.


    Since October, northeastern Brazil has been devastated by a wave of microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with abnormally small heads and damaged brains. At this moment, all signs point to the mosquito-borne Zika, a little-studied virus normally associated only with rashes, fever, and other mild symptoms. In the months since Brazil sounded the alarm, Zika cases have been popped up in a dozen other countries, and health authorities predict the virus will spread across the Americas. Infectious disease specialist Michael Osterolm explains what’s known about Zika, and what we can expect as this outbreak unfolds.

    On Puzzle Day, we present a typographical puzzle straight from the Othmer Library of Chemical History.

    Rare books curator Jim Voelkel writes that Ripley Reviv’d (1678) by Eirenaeus Philalethes includes the early modern long s, commonly used in the middle of words, as well as several exceptions to the rule. Can you figure out why those exceptions were made? Jim explains the answer here.

    Image: June 1747 issue of The Univerſal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleaſure.

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