The Sceptical Chymist | A bygone age

Published in Chemistry

Have you ever considered how far chemistry has come in such a short space of time? As a News & Views editor, I get to look through the really old issues of Nature, searching for interesting snippets that can go into our ‘100 Years Ago’ section. It’s a real eye-opener to see how little we knew in 1907, and it sometimes makes me nostalgic for a more innocent age. So, I thought I might indulge myself (and hopefully you too) by picking out some choice chemistry from the February 21, 1907 issue of Nature.

In the ‘Letters’ section, there was the latest correspondence in a long running debate about the conditions required to rust iron. There seemed to be a consensus that oxygen and water were required, but more controversially some people thought that carbonic acid was also necessary. And how could it be explained that iron immersed in potassium dichromate solution doesn’t corrode?

Chemists were still very interested in explaining the properties of materials such as leather or wood, so it comes as no surprise to find a letter describing a chemical test for the strength of wheat flour. To be precise, the author was trying to find a physical parameter to explain why different flours give different sized loaves from the same quantity of flour. The answer depends on the amount of carbon dioxide liberated upon the addition of yeast; this in turn depends upon the amount of sugar in the flour — another mystery is solved!

Medicinal chemists and those of a pharmaceutical bent may be interested to hear that a plant growing on the plains around Kuala Lumpur had apparently been identified as a cure for ‘the opium habit’. Quite sensibly, however, the author comments that “it would be premature to express a definite opinion until a larger quantity of the material is available for chemical analysis”. It’s hard to imagine how they could have successfully analysed it in 1907, but you’ve got to give them full marks for enthusiasm.

So, what to conclude from all this? One thing that strikes me is that people back then seemed much more willing to debate issues in the open — the arguments about rust had been rumbling on for weeks, with many disagreements and new revelations appearing all the time. Somehow, that doesn’t seem to happen so much now. Have scientists become more secretive, or polite? Or is research nowadays more competitive, so that people are less inclined to disclose their results freely?

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