The Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia

Question: Did you know that there are National Historic Chemical Landmarks?

Answer: Yes, there are.

Question: What did the American Chemical Society declare to be its first National Historic Chemical Landmark, and where can you find it?

Answer: "Old Faithful", a Bakelizer or steam pressure vessel, vintage 1909. Phenol and formaldehyde were hardened at 150 C and 100 psi and voila! commercial quantities of Bakelite were the product. You can find it at the museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.

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I spent several delightful hours there yesterday afternoon and could easily have whiled away the entire day. Amazingly, this geekster's paradise is free to the public.

The Bakelite exhibit, along with one on semiconductors and another on medical lab equipment, led me to ponder how what we call "chemistry" involves an awful lot of physics, engineering, biology, and medicine. How we guard our disciplinary boundaries in the academy, when in real life they all mix promiscuously! But hey, I'm a biomedical engineer, what do I know.

Here's an overview of the museum interior, from the second level catwalk:

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That spiffy tall media screen in the center of the photo is seriously delicious. In the shot above, it's projecting images of items from various exhibits in the museum. But the really cool purpose of that media tower is to let you experience the Periodic Table in the most geekalicious manner ever. It begins with a bunch of tiny little images at the top of the tower, that together form a pixilated image of Mendeleev's head. Then they all float one by one down to the bottom of the tower, where they assemble themselves into the Periodic Table - each cell swallowing up several of the images that float down from above. Once the table is assembled, then the element cells begin to shoot up the media tower again and assemble themselves thus:

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Once the tower is filled, the next elements layer overtop the ones already there, rendering a new composite picture every few seconds:

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The images are not static; they are videos, alive, flickering, intriguing, with taglines across the bottom. The most cool thing of all is that on the back side there is a touch screen where you can call up any element you want and watch a brief video with some cool facts about the element. Watch fluorine gas burn all kinds of crap! Some guy with a lake on his property built a contraption that floats on the water and allows him to remotely drop chunks of sodium into buckets of water on the raft - kablooie! Dysprosium - it's right there in your compact disc! The touchscreen has other options for exploration beyond the Periodic table, including intriguing looking art objects and archeological artifacts you can select and then learn what odd and fascinating sorts of chemical principles they illustrate. Time just slides on by while you're happily tapping away at the touch screen. If only every kid in the U.S. could have this as an application on their school computer (if only every kid in the U.S. had a school computer...), just imagine how many chemists we'd generate. And furthermore, how many non-scientists enamored of science we'd likely produce.

If you can't travel to Philly to see the museum, it's worth exploring the CHF website. Take a look at the page on the history of chemistry sets.

By the mid-1950s--the height of chemistry sets' popularity--there was hardly a child in the United States who did not own or want one. Later, female faces would sometimes grace the covers, and there were even pink kits made especially for girls, though, as CHF's traveling exhibit Her Lab in Your Life reminds us, some were labeled for "lab technicians."

Ouch. When you are at the museum and you look at the exhibit, and you see box cover after box cover plastered with smiling young boys, you can't help but think of all the women who had to fight their way into chemistry education and labs and careers. Well, you can't help but think that if you're me. There's a little plaque next to one photo of a young boy on Christmas morning standing proudly next to his fabulous new chemistry set that briefly tells the story of a woman who, as a young girl, was given a doll for Christmas while her brother got the chemistry set. She was jealous and coveted the set; eventually she just took it over, and later grew up to be a chemist. No photo of her, though.

It's nice to see that the museum acknowledges how chemistry was so strongly and wrongly gendered male through the marketing of these toy sets, but conspicuously absent is any mention of the fact that chemistry had a race as well as a gender, and the race was quite clearly white. White girls could at least aspire to be pinkified lab technicians but there was no marketing to anyone who was not white. I realize that there's only so much display space, but by limiting the bulk of the discussion of gender issues to the website and not the museum, and not addressing race at all, a visitor to the museum could well be left with the impression that the CHF unambiguously celebrates the history of chemistry sets' near exclusive marketing to young white boys and how great it was for their career development. Yay for them Too bad for everyone else.

Another section of the museum is called "Conversations and Demonstrations".

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Here you find some old chemistry texts including this delightfully titled late 19th century tome. There was not much information given as to who it might have been written for or why, though this book listing on amazon has an excerpt which gives some insight. If you are in need of a laugh, follow that link, scroll down, and read the book excerpt.

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I was absolutely thrilled to encounter not one, but several, editions of Jane Marcet's "Conversations on Chemistry".

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Surprisingly, the Wikipedia entry on Jane Marcet gives much more information than the CHF's skimpy piece, including the information that her "Conversations" were a summary of Humphrey Davy's work, and were an inspiration to Michael Faraday. Why don't we ever learn anything interesting like this in school? No, those male scientists just spring from the earth fully formed, certainly there weren't any women helping them along the way.

Written in 1806, it is dialogue between the fictional characters Mrs. B and her students Caroline and Emily. It was adopted as an introductory chemistry textbook, went through twenty-three printings, and was, we are told, the most successful chemistry textbook of its period. What the exhibit does not tell you is that "Conversations on Chemistry" is itself descended from Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, first published in 1686. Conversations is a dialogue in which a philosopher (scientist) carries out the intellectual seduction of a (scientifically) naive marquise. It was written explicitly for women and inspired numerous imitators and successors, of which Marcet's book is one. It's a charming work, and a recent translation from the original French is now available. I have written previously at greater length about Fontenelle's work and what it meant for women.

In that same post I talked some about gardening and plants, which brings me full circle, since the main reason I originally went to the CHF was to see its sLowlife exhibit.

Slow down, watch carefully, and see eager sprouts dance to greet the dawn at sLowlife, a dynamic multimedia exhibition that presents plants as complex, living beings.

This mesmerizing exhibit features time-lapse movies which show plants as they sense and respond to their environment. The gallery-style presentation includes photographs of remarkable plants, original sound compositions based on plant movements, concise text, and live plant material.

This exhibit was sensual and stunning. I had read a newspaper review of the exhibit that talked about the dancing tulips video but I was completely unprepared for it. This is how you encounter it:

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(Sorry about the photo quality - no flash allowed and it was low light.) The center picture is a framed still life. The "pictures" on either side are actually framed video screens, each showing a time lapse video of a vase of tulips. The videos, of course, belie the stillness of those flowers in the still life. To see what I mean, go to the exhibit page here, and click on the video link to see the video of the red tulips. I have been thinking about the movement of plants over the last few days as my blue-eyed grass has just started blooming. Every morning the flowers open to the sun; every evening they close back up for the night.

The other really notable video in the exhibit is a time-lapse of Arabidopsis thaliana from first growth to death, against a backdrop of color-coded data showing the gene activation at the given moment in the plant's growth and development. One feels a sense of awe, both at the awareness of all that genetic decoding and translating going on, and of the shear amount of human labor it took to produce the information necessary to make that video.

The sLowlife exhibit runs till the end of this year, so maybe you'll have a chance to make your way to Philly and see it. The other stuff is more or less permanent. Remember, it's all FREE! Go get your geek on at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Tell 'em Zuska sent you.

P.S. The CHF has a Flickr site, including this site of Chemistry for Children. This photo gives another great example of the way science has worked overtime to gender itself male. One is left to wonder how glassblowing for girls would differ from that for boys. Oh, that's right - for girls, the instructions go like this: watch the boys.


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Z, I can't wait to come up and see this museum. I just learned that an old mentor, Dr. Tom Tritton, just took over as head of CHF last year. Tom was a great cancer researcher at Vermont and is best known as former president of Haverford College. Tom's lab trained a couple of my most valued women colleagues and I hope that his leadership will provide a better documentation of women in chemistry. For example, he and I both share a hero in the late Gertrude (Trudy) Elion, 1988 Nobel laureate in Medicine. There is a whole story about WWII giving women in science a chance out of pure necessity.

Across the highway from where Trudy Elion completed her career, I had the honor of working with Drs. Monroe Wall and Mansukh Wani, co-discoverers of the anticancer drugs Taxol and camptothecin, and participating in their nomination and receipt of an ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark designation for that work.

Thanks for such a great summary of this superb resource and organization - thanks!

By David Kroll (not verified) on 22 May 2009 #permalink

Ahhh! I must go! Thank you for this!

I love the photos of the tall media screen for the periodic table; the images representing the elements look amazing.

The still life in the center of your sLowlife photo reminds me of the Dutch Golden Age artists and their vanitas paintings of flowers, food, insects, molluscs, and other small creatures or everyday objects. Such paintings symbolized the transience and brevity of life, and often included representations of decaying fruit, wilted flowers, candle stubs, and blemished leaves. There were a few female artists in this group, and one of them, Rachel Ruysch, had what appears to be a scientific eye for detail in her depictions of flowers and insects. Judith Leyster, from Haarlem, was another of the still life painters of the era; she's perhaps better known for painting domestic scenes.

Neat blog! Great post! My son and I were there last June for the You Be the Chemist challenge. We had a great time, but the exhibit area was under renovation. I'm glad it turned out so beautifully!