Saturday, January 16, 2010

The sort of science you don't see much these days

One of the marvels of the Internet age is the variety of public domain works that are available online. For instance, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the second oldest scientific journal in the world (and the oldest in English) has put their entire archives online. Looking at these articles, one finds some interesting things. For instance, here you can find the article from 1800 where Edward Howard describes the discovery of an interesting new chemical compound. Some of his observations probably would not have been made today:
Upon evaporating a portion of the saturated sulphuric liquor, I found nothing but sulphate of potash; nor had it any metallic taste. (p. 218/p. 16 of the PDF)

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The muriatic acid digested with the mercurial powder, dissolves a portion of it, without extricating any notable quantity of gas. The dissolution evaporated to a dry salt, tastes like corrosive sublimate; and the portion which the acid does not take up, is left in the state of an uninflammable oxalate. (p. 222/20 of the PDF)
Now I don't know about you, but if I was working with mercury compounds, I sure as heck wouldn't be tasting the stuff willy-nilly. (Incidentally, "corrosive sublimate" is an archaic term for mercuric chloride, one of the nastier mercury compounds). Of course, back in those days the concept of bioaccumulation may not have been known... which may be part of the reason so many chemists died young in those days. Howard, for instance, died in 1816 at the ripe old age of 42.

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