Smithsonian: “Alchemy May Not Have Been the Pseudoscience We All Thought It Was”

From back in 2014, here’s this look at the process of alchemy, and some of the things it did for contemporary chemistry and materials science:

…in the 1980s, some revisionist scholars began arguing that alchemists actually made significant contributions to the development of science. Historians of science began deciphering alchemical texts—which wasn’t easy. The alchemists, obsessed with secrecy, deliberately described their experiments in metaphorical terms laden with obscure references to mythology and history. For instance, text that describes a “cold dragon” who “creeps in and out of the caves” was code for saltpeter (potassium nitrate)—a crystalline substance found on cave walls that tastes cool on the tongue.

This painstaking process of decoding allowed researchers, for the first time, to attempt ambitious alchemical experiments. Lawrence Principe, a chemist and science historian at Johns Hopkins University, cobbled together obscure texts and scraps of 17th-century laboratory notebooks to reconstruct a recipe to grow a “Philosophers’ Tree” from a seed of gold. Supposedly this tree was a precursor to the more celebrated and elusive Philosopher’s Stone, which would be able to transmute metals into gold. The use of gold to make more gold would have seemed entirely logical to alchemists, Principe explains, like using germs of wheat to grow an entire field of wheat.

Principe mixed specially prepared mercury and gold into a buttery lump at the bottom of a flask. Then he buried the sealed flask in a heated sand bath in his laboratory.

One morning, Principe came into the lab to discover to his “utter disbelief” that the flask was filled with “a glittering and fully formed tree” of gold. The mixture of metals had grown upward into a structure resembling coral or the branching canopy of a tree minus the leaves.

Though best not to discount the usefulness of dreams in the advancement of science, as the Principe does later.  Francis Crick, Friedrich August Kekulé (whose dream, oddly enough, was of snakes of fire devouring their own tails), and Carl Jung (a proponent of Alchemy’s psychological efficacy) would all take umbrage.

Read the full article here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/alchemy-may-not-been-pseudoscience-we-thought-it-was-180949430/

A New Theory of Everything

Technology Review covers Stuart Kauffman‘s work to find a mathematical model for autocatalytic sets, the process by which life may emerge from molecules:

What makes the approach so powerful is that the mathematics does not depend on the nature of chemistry–it is substrate independent. So the building blocks in an autocatalytic set need not be molecules at all but any units that can manipulate other units in the required way.

These units can be complex entities in themselves. “Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to think, for example, of the collection of bacterial species in your gut (several hundreds of them) as one big autocatalytic set,” say Kauffman and co.

And they go even further. They point out that the economy is essentially the process of transforming raw materials into products such as hammers and spades that themselves facilitate further transformation of raw materials and so on. “Perhaps we can also view the economy as an (emergent) autocatalytic set, exhibiting some sort of functional closure,” they speculate.

Could it be that the same idea–the general theory of autocatalytic sets–can help explain the origin of life, the nature of emergence and provide a mathematical foundation for organisation in economics?

Full Story: MIT Technology Review: The Single Theory That Could Explain Emergence, Organisation And The Origin of Life

(via Social Physicist)

I find this very interesting, but don’t get too excited. These sorts of grand unification theories are extremely elusive. I’m also skeptical of these sorts of models which try to find universal rules for all types of systems.

See also:

Social Physics with Kyle Findlay

Guest Post: Some resources for thinking about systems

Scientists Want to Make a Lysergic Acid Factory from Microbes

Lysergic acid

The headline for The Guardian article about this says the scientists want to make LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), but the article itself says they want to make lysergic acid (with no diethylamide), a precursor to LSD with other uses.

They said developing biofuels was a terrible business strategy, because fuel was so cheap. Why not make expensive compounds, like pharmaceuticals, instead?

The advice got Wintermute thinking. What was the most valuable compound they could make with the toolkit of synthetic biology? Some research came up with a few candidates including a few very sophisticated cancer drugs. But another compound was up there in monetary terms: LSD. The value by weight was astronomical.

Wintermute and his colleagues had a good laugh about that. But the more they looked into it, the more interesting – and viable – the drug looked. Around 20 tonnes of lysergic acid, a precursor of LSD, are made each year and turned into real medicines, such as nicergoline, a treatment for dementia. The drug is purified from big vats of fungus (which make the compound naturally) using technology developed decades ago.

The Guardian: Harvard scientists to make LSD factory from microbes

(via DrBenway23)

Arsenic-Based Life Possible, But Not Certain

Mono Lake

Boing Boing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker adds a quick dose of realism and clarity to this morning’s NASA announcement:

Not everybody agrees that this research proves the bacteria are capable of replacing phosphate with arsenic. You can read more about that debate in the really nicely done article at Nature News that I’m quoting above.

Also, even if this is proof that phosphate isn’t necessary for life, we still don’t know whether the bacteria in question actually replace their phosphate in the wild. Right now, this is something humans are convincing it to do in a petri dish. That’s why it’s not entirely fair to say that weird life has been discovered—all this paper does (if it stands up to the coming onslaught of scrutiny) is show that weird life is, in fact, possible.

But that’s still a pretty big deal. However you slice it, this is an extremely interesting little bacterium. It isn’t alien. It still has the same basic DNA structure we all know and love. It just might be able to use different chemicals to build that old, familiar structure. And that’s pretty cool on its own.

Also, Mono Lake sounds pretty cool:

A couple of years ago, scientists found bacteria in California’s Mono Lake that used arsenic compounds, rather than water, as an ingredient of photosynthesis. In fact, there’s been a lot of weird life research centered around Mono Lake. Hot, salty, low in oxygen, and high in lots of other useful chemicals, the Lake has been described as a here-and-now model of the old primordial soup.

Boing Boing: Weird life found on Earth—kind of, maybe

Photo by Chris Streeter

NASA Discovers New Life on Earth: Bacteria with Arsenic-Based DNA


Update: Please see this update on how, although this research is significant, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that there is arsenic-based bacteria in the wild.

Evidence that the toxic element arsenic can replace the essential nutrient phosphorus in biomolecules of a naturally occurring bacterium expands the scope of the search for life beyond Earth, according to Arizona State University scientists who are part of a NASA-funded research team reporting findings in the Dec. 2 online Science Express.

It is well established that all known life requires phosphorus, usually in the form of inorganic phosphate. In recent years, however, astrobiologists, including Arizona State University professors Ariel Anbar and Paul Davies, have stepped up conversations about alternative forms of life. […]

Davies has previously speculated that forms of life different from our own, dubbed “weird life,” might even exist side-by-side with known life on Earth, in a sort of “shadow biosphere.” The particular idea that arsenic, which lies directly below phosphorous on the periodic table, might substitute for phosphorus in life on Earth, was proposed by Wolfe-Simon and developed into a collaboration with Davies and Anbar. Their hypothesis was published in January 2009, in a paper titled “Did nature also choose arsenic?” in the International Journal of Astrobiology.

PhysOrg: Deadly arsenic breathes life into organisms

Science of love – new study on love and hormones


Couples should not worry when the first flush of passion dims – scientists have identified the hormone changes which cause the switch from lust to cuddles.

A team from the University of Pisa in Italy found the bodily chemistry which makes people sexually attractive to new partners lasts, at most, two years.

When couples move into a “stable relationship” phase, other hormones take over, Chemistry World reports.

But one psychologist warned the hormone shift is wrongly seen as negative.

Dr Petra Boynton, of the British Psychological Society, said there was a danger people might feel they should take hormone supplements to make them feel the initial rush of lust once more.

BBC: Sex chemistry ‘lasts two years’

(Thanks Paul!)

See also the work of Helen Fisher.

Acidic Droplet Solves Maze

Acidic Droplet Solves Maze

A team led by Northwestern University chemistry professor Bartosz A. Grzybowski has shown that an acidic droplet can successfully navigate a complex maze.

“I personally find most exciting that such a simple system can exhibit apparently ‘intelligent’ behavior,” Louisiana State University chemistry professor John A. Pojman comments. “This approach may be useful as a pumping method for microfluidics or a way to convert chemical energy to mechanical motion in small devices. I am eager to see if they can generalize it to other types of gradients,” he says.

Chemical and Engineering News: Acidic Droplet Solves Maze

(via Fadereu)

Chemistry as Art – the work of Cheryl Safren

Habitation 5300 by Cheryl Safren

Habitation 1450 by Cheryl Safren

With Chemistry as Art, Safren uses chemical reactions on metal surfaces to create dynamic images. With these works, Safren brings to the fore the chemical materiality of painting and the intimacy of individual artist with their materials. Safren’s ‘paintings’ interact with their viewers through the refractive and reflective nature of the chemicals applied to their surfaces.

Cheryl Safren

(via Fadereu)

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