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The Birth of Chemistry
Posted: 25 August 2007 09:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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Then proceed as you will.  I wish you luck.

Occam

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Posted: 25 August 2007 09:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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I think he had already decided this as shown by his subsequent post, Cory, and I think it’s admirable that you are taking ownership of your own learning and exploring the subject from the perspective and learning style that best suits you.

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Posted: 25 August 2007 10:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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dougsmith - 25 August 2007 12:07 PM

Well, I imagine Cory is asking a historical question ... how was it first done. I’d suggest once again starting with wikipedia ... they have a good historical page on how the first substances were discovered. This is the question of the history of the molecule.

NB: from the wikipedia page,

James Clerk Maxwell published his famous thirteen page article ‘Molecules’ in the September issue of Nature. In the opening section to this article, Maxwell clearly states: “An atom is a body which cannot be cut in two; a molecule is the smallest possible portion of a particular substance.”


I don’t really want to start with molecules, because it wasn’t until 1926 that they were confirmed with actual observational techniques.  What I want to find out, is how the first chemical substances were distinguished. 

I found an excerpt in wikipedia that caught my attention:

Will Durant wrote in, The Story of Civilization IV: The Age of Faith:

“Chemistry as a science was almost created by the Muslims (largely during the 9th century) for in this field, where the Greeks (so far as we know) were confined to vague hypothesis, the Muslims introduced precise observation, controlled experiment, and careful records. They invented and named the alembic, chemically analyzed innumerable substances, composed lapidaries, distinguished alkalis and acids, investigated their affinities, studied and manufactured hundreds of drugs.


So I’m left with the impression that getting a good handle on the function of the alembic is a key to understanding how chemical substances were first distinguished apart from merely the Greek notion of there being just earth, water, air and fire.

I’m looking to bridge the gap between the Aristotelian assumption and the actual hands on discovery of finer substances, that seemed to begin with the Muslims (but maybe it was earlier).  And then I want to understand the logic behind the creation of the table of elements.  I’m not as much interested in the theorizing, but rather, I’m more interested in the actual observations which supported the theorizing.


PS: Interesting how the Muslims appear as if they might have played a fairly pivotal role in the birth of science…

[ Edited: 25 August 2007 10:14 PM by CoryDuchesne ]
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Posted: 25 August 2007 10:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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To each his own. If you do some further drilling down on sites like Wikipedia (and the links there), you’ll eventually find the stuff you’re interested in. May involve going to the library ... but I’d still recommend taking a course to fill it out.

And the Moslem world played an absolutely crucial role between the fall of Rome and the late Middle Ages—10th-11th Century Spain and France. Virtually all the crucial Greek texts on science and math were preserved in the Moslem world, with lucid commentaries. Alchemy, alcohol, alembic, algebra, algorithm are all words of arabic derivation. (“Al” is the definite article “the” in arabic).

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Posted: 25 August 2007 11:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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dougsmith - 25 August 2007 10:10 PM

the Moslem world played an absolutely crucial role between the fall of Rome and the late Middle Ages—10th-11th Century Spain and France. Virtually all the crucial Greek texts on science and math were preserved in the Moslem world, with lucid commentaries. Alchemy, alcohol, alembic, algebra, algorithm are all words of arabic derivation. (“Al” is the definite article “the” in arabic).

I really enjoyed learning about how Darwin was so influenced by various contemporaries and deceased thinkers, most notably Lamarck and Lyell, and likewise, how Galileo was influenced by people like Copernicus and Kepler, and how Aristotle had been such a powerful influence on creating the soil for scientific thought to begin with, etc.
And since I enjoy that kind of learning, I’m a bit displeased that we don’t hear much about how the knowledge of the Muslim culture was transmitted over to the western culture, serving as a vital influence to particular western individuals.

For instance, wiki mentions how the most influential Muslim individual in chemistry was 9th century chemist Geber, who is considered by some to be the “father of chemistry”

But we never hear about how this ‘father of chemistry’ impacted the significant early western figures like Paracelsus and Boyle.

The information given on Paracelsus interests me quite a bit:

Paracelsus (1493-1541), for example, rejected the 4-elemental theory and with only a vague understanding of his chemicals and medicines, formed a hybrid of alchemy and science in what was to be called iatrochemistry. Paracelsus was not perfect in making his experiments truly scientific. For example, as an extension of his theory that new compounds could be made by combining mercury with sulfur, he once made what he thought was “oil of sulfur”. This was actually dimethyl ether, which had neither mercury nor sulfur

After reading this, my first question is, 1) What were Paracelsus’s chemicals and medicines?

2) When Paracelsus theorized that new compounds could be made, how did he define a compound? 

3)  Was his creation of dimethyl ether, the creation of a new compound?


Anyhow, lots of reading to do.  Hopefully these questions will seem silly in the near future.

[ Edited: 25 August 2007 11:16 PM by CoryDuchesne ]
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Posted: 25 August 2007 11:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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Occam - 25 August 2007 05:52 PM

Well, there are all sorts of naturally or close to naturally occurring pretty pure substances.  Some examples that come to mind are rain water, salt crystals, sucrose (sugar) crystals, quartz crystals, soot, any mineral crystal, and gold.  I’m sure if we were to spend a few minutes we could come up with quite a few more.  So, it wouldn’t be necessary for the early chemists to purify everything.  Since they liked to tinker, something as simple as heating cinnabar (mercuric sulfide) breaks it down and pure mercury droplets form on the inside of the vessel.

Occam

Ah, just got around to reading this now.  I Should have read it earlier.  Thanks Occam.  I might have some questions on it soon, but you might not care to answer, but I’ll ask them anyway.

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Posted: 26 August 2007 04:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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In the middle ages, the arab empire was a much more advanced civillisation than the christian west - not just in science but in ethics and social administration policy.  However they did begin the slave trade from Africa (the Koran says that it’s okay to take a kaffir (a non-moslem) as a slave.

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Posted: 26 August 2007 05:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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CoryDuchesne - 25 August 2007 11:14 PM

For instance, wiki mentions how the most influential Muslim individual in chemistry was 9th century chemist Geber, who is considered by some to be the “father of chemistry”

But we never hear about how this ‘father of chemistry’ impacted the significant early western figures like Paracelsus and Boyle.

OK, here’s a bit of delving into my limited library. From the book Science & Civilization in Islam, 2nd ed., by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Harvard U. Press, 1968):

Apparently Geber is his latinized name. His real name was Jabir ibn Hayyan. However, many of the texts attributed to him may be by later authors; particularly in the Latin tradition there are texts that do not exist in earlier Arabic versions and may be interpolations. He clearly did do some chemical experiments, as he has a clear description of how to turn mercury and sulfur into cinnabar. There is a chapter on the alchemical tradition in Islam, and a section on Jabir himself, if you are interested.

Nasr claims that the earliest Latin text about alchemy is the Turba Philosophorum, translated from Arabic. This influenced Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, Arnold of Villanova, Raymond Lully and Nicholas Flamel. This appears to be a translation of the Book of the Controversies and Conferences of Philosophers by the ninth century Egyptian alchemist Uthman ibn al-Suwaid (p. 244, 283-4).

CoryDuchesne - 25 August 2007 11:14 PM

After reading this, my first question is, 1) What were Paracelsus’s chemicals and medicines?

2) When Paracelsus theorized that new compounds could be made, how did he define a compound? 

3)  Was his creation of dimethyl ether, the creation of a new compound?

Good questions, although you should not think of Paracelsus and these other alchemists as doing anything very much like traditional experimental science. According to Man and Nature in the Renaissance by Allen Debus (Cambridge U. Press, 1978), much of the aim of Paracelsus and his followers was to replace Aristotelian philosophy with a “Christian, neo-Platonic and Hermetic philosophy, one that would account for all natural phenomena.” (p. 21). Obviously they didn’t come anywhere near achieving this, but the point is rather that they had outsized ambitions and weren’t simply looking to do basic research into chemistry. They wanted to construct a theory of the cosmos.

As for Paracelsus’s actual experimental results, you should probably do some library research on him. I am sure there are several good biographies about him and his work. But do look for ones written by competent historical researchers—given his area of work (alchemy), there will be a lot of junk written about him as well.

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Posted: 26 August 2007 10:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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Thanks for the leads and advice, Doug.

I’m actually going to switch gears here for a moment, and ask something related to the evolution of the modern day periodic table of elements

Reportedly, the current standard table contains 117 confirmed elements.

The current table’s origin is generally credited to the table invented by Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, however, it is said that earlier precursors of the periodic table existed, before Mendeleev’s.

That being said, does anyone here have any idea how many elements Mendeleev knew about back in 1869?  How many elements had been discovered by then?

Also, at what point did the meaning of the word ‘element’ change? For instance, I know Aristotle regarded ‘water’ as an element. But at what point was water no longer considered an element, instead being regarded as a substance comprised of elements?

Occam mentioned how substances like rain water, salt crystals, sucrose (sugar) crystals, quartz crystals, soot, any mineral crystal and gold were fundamental, vital objects of contemplation in regards to the development of chemistry as a science (at least, I think that was what he was implying)

However, I want to know how substances like rain water, salt crystals, sucrose (sugar) crystals, quartz crystals, soot, mineral crystal, and gold had come to be regarded as things comprised of smaller elements. 

So does anyone know the individuals responsible for changing the meaning of the word element, allowing for substances like water and sugar to be regarded as comprised of elements, as well as allowing for the periodic table, as we know it, to develop?

[ Edited: 27 August 2007 12:40 AM by CoryDuchesne ]
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Posted: 27 August 2007 12:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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CoryDuchesne - 25 August 2007 09:24 PM

No, I refuse to simply fill up my mind with ‘what’ 

I want to start by asking *how*  I want to see what techniques were originally used to isolate the first chemicals. 

I agree with Richard Feynman when he said, “science is not about what things are - it’s about how things are.”

Do you see any significance in making such a distinction, between knowing what and knowing how?


as a chemist myself, i just wanted to give my two cents here…

i agree with learning the basics of a general chemistry course (and the intro course you mentioned in your initial post is a great idea, i think, as you will get more hands-on and face to face discussions), and once you understand the basics, it really will make more sense as you delve into the minute details that our chemist ancestors spent their lives studying. i agree it helps to have the “big picture” (and i hope you’re lucky enough to get a professor who helps with the big picture!) but seriously—folks spent their entire lives studying something that we learn in one 2-hour lecture now. general chemistry sums up tens of decades of collective work, and that can’t just be disregarded when delving into chemistry as a new student.

as far as isolating the first chemicals… think about all the things that are pure in everyday life: we can find quartz crystals, gold pieces, iron ore, carbon/soot… WATER! and an “experiment” does not have to be terribly elaborate to discover a substance’s properties. the unfortunate soul who lights a fire too close to a methane-bubbling swamp, for example? evaporating sea water generally leaves a residue—of salt, which can be analyzed further.

the basics of science are the physical properties: color, shape, state (solid/liquid/gas), mass, volume, smell (taste! our chemist forefathers did some unfortunate things back then), density… these are all things you or i can observe. and from there—we try to be more specific. rulers, balances, etc. then my favorite—chemical properties… i’m sure it was only a matter of time before someone discovered the coolness of lighting things on fire. and so on.

you are asking the right questions. i second the suggestions with reading up on the history of the scientific method, and even the history of the periodic table (which is a great story, I think, for someone to have had the understanding and forethought to have it nearly designed for us in 2007 as more elements are being “discovered”—or made).

you will be a fabulous asset to the scientific community, if you choose to pursue a career in the sciences—you’ve got the right mindset to not want to accept blind facts and regurgitate them on an exam. my advice is to have a little more patience (which will be very handy in analytical chemistry!)—and keep your brain as spongey as it is now!

best,
ghost

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Posted: 27 August 2007 01:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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Ok, so I found some interesting leads, ones which have refined my inquiry a bit:

Phlogiston Theory

From Wikipedia:

“Traditionally, alchemists considered that there were four classical elements: fire, water, air, and earth. In his book, Johann Becher postulated the phlogiston theory, eliminating fire and air from the classical element model, replacing them with three forms of earth: terra lapida, terra mercurialis, and terra pinguis.”

^ This interests me because it kind of represents the nascent creature of modern chemistry, struggling to peck it’s way out of the egg.  (the egg representing the greek conception of the four elements, which served as the foundation of chemistry up until that point)


And then:

Antoine Lavoisier

From Wikipedia:

“Lavoisier disproved the phlogiston theory, due largely to recognizing and naming oxygen (1778) and hydrogen (1783)”

^ How did he recognize oxygen and hydrogen?

Ok course, I will seek an answer for this, and when I find it I will evolve this thread a bit further, but if you think you can help along my inquiries, then by all means.

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Posted: 27 August 2007 01:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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Ghost, 

It’s time for bed for me, but tomorrow I will go over your post again, as you’ve said some things that I’d like to question you on.

Thank you for your input, and maybe we’ll have an interesting exchange in the near future.

Regards,

Cory

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Posted: 27 August 2007 08:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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Most of the elements of the poeriodic table were known when dmitri did his thing they were presently grouped in a modified version of Newlands’ octaves, but were further arranged according to their mass numbers.  What dmitri did was to organise them according to their properties and one or two e.g Iodine were actually put out of their originally sequence as a result.  He also left gaps and in them, he predicted the existence of unknown elements e.g. Germanium.  He even very accurately predicted the properties such as melting point, appearance, affinities for other elements, and whether the oxides/chlorides would be acidic or basic.  when these elements were discovered, this was seen as confirmation for his periodic table.  It was also found that as you go across a period, atomic numbers (number of protons) increase in 1’s.  The reason Iodine was out of place prior to Mendeleev was that it’s mass number was lower than that of the element that should have come before it in the period.  It was later found that its atomic number is 1 higher than that element.

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Posted: 29 August 2007 03:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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It would behoooove one to keep in one’s library updated issues of the Tocris. Neurochemicals, radioligands, signal transduction agents, peptides, pharmagalogical probes and biochemicals.
I have a fair understanding of how to actually open physically the books’ cover, reading the copy laws, turning pages. Nonetheless, in order to keep abreast of the latest discoveries, and newly-utilized agents that affect us each nanosecond, it is a text that will certainly enhance your ability to be informed. My father is a biochemist. I am an idiot, but the Tocris is my ammo when he grills my head over the flames. And he does. I cannot speak on the telephone, in person (even with an appointment) with him without his sauteeing me concerning CGP 12177 hydrochloride, partial agonist and adrenoceptors.
One of these days he’s going to die. One of these days…..and then he’ll be sorry he didn’t watch cartoons with me, even though I was 45. One of these days. WAAAAHHHH!!!!!

Bee

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Posted: 29 August 2007 10:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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Hey again Ghost,

ghost - 27 August 2007 12:49 AM


as far as isolating the first chemicals… think about all the things that are pure in everyday life: we can find quartz crystals, gold pieces, iron ore, carbon/soot… WATER! and an “experiment” does not have to be terribly elaborate to discover a substance’s properties. the unfortunate soul who lights a fire too close to a methane-bubbling swamp, for example?

But still, that example doesn’t shed any light on why the period table of elements was organized the way that it was. 

evaporating sea water generally leaves a residue—of salt, which can be analyzed further.

Well, since salt isn’t an element on the periodic table of elements, the question begs to be asked, how exactly can you analyze salt further?  How did they determine that salt (NaCl) was comprised of two elements: Sodium and Chloride? 


(if anyone else would like to answer these questions, then by all means…)

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