Flash bangs the Cambridge way

Last nights lecture here in Cambridge was given by the redoubtable Peter Wothers, a superb talker & experimentalist, Its title was “Gods, Devils and Alcohol – Their Influence in Chemical Nomenclature” a sub title might be “With reference to shampoo ingredients accompanied with assorted explosions and fiery happenings”.

The lecture theatre was totally packed, Peter gets rave reviews as a lecturer, you can see why if you do a search for him on YouTube

He got into his stride with the fascinating history of The seven metals (and how embarrasing it was for the later folks when it was discovered there were more than 7). Plus how Newton was so obsessed with 7 that the rainbow was made to have 7 colours.

Each metal in the ancient world had an associated planet and symbol.

Metals of Antiquity with their planets and signs.

We then moved on to the unfortunate monks who were fed Antimony, anti (against) mony (monks). Then all the confusion from the area of Greece that gave us Magnesium and the lode stones Magnes. Then Lavoisier’s mistake when discovering Hydrogen (Hydro – gen – producer of water) and Oxygen which was mistakenly thought to be the acid producer. Cobalt (Kobold – mine spirits), The Nile giving as Nitre, Ammonia from sal-ammoniac – salt of Ammon-where the camels urine was collected from which it was made. Alcohol (Al- kohl Kohl is a powder which somehow gets converted to spirit ), Methyl same root as Mead.

Plus the unfortunate tale of Hamburg where Phosphorous was discovered (1669) only to be bombed with 200 tons of the stuff in 1943.

Selenium is interesting named after Selene the sister of Eos (whose lover got eternal life but not youth see my post). Interestingly Selenes lover Endymion did get eternal youth. However, he was always asleep! but still sired a good few children 🙂

We were then treated to his demonstration of a hydrogen balloon being ignited – an almighty bang! a river of flame from allowing Ether fumes to descend along a metal channel, almighty flashes from Sodium in water and his signature flash bang of a nitro cellouse coated devil being ignited – all with warning to the students on how to do them in classrooms once they graduate.

Hydrogen filled balloon about to explode

A trail of Ether vapour burning

A fantastic evening and I must say a brilliant clear lecturer. Chemistry students in Cambridge are lucky to have him!


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