Humble Beginnings 4/10/22

Science with Richard Bleil

Sometimes it’s fun to think about the humble beginnings of science and technology.  In chemistry, for example, we distinguish between organic chemistry (the chemistry of carbon compounds) and inorganic chemistry (everything else).  Carbon is a fascinating element, forming four bonds per atom, and, unique to carbon, a single bond between two carbon elements is about as strong as a single bond between carbon and other elements.  Most elements form very weak single bonds with atoms of their own kind (if at all), making any compounds with these single bonds highly unstable.  Take, for example, oxygen, where the single bond between two oxygen atoms is called a “peroxide”.  Hydrogen peroxide is extremely reactive because of how weak this bond is, but most other peroxides are so unstable that they are usually explosive.  This stable carbon-carbon single bond makes carbon kind of like the Lego’s of the chemistry world, capable of forming extremely long chains, complex ring structures and pretty much anything else you can imagine.

However, the name “organic” comes about because of an old (and now discarded) belief called the “vitalism theorem”.  Vitalism was the belief that it is impossible to form any organic compounds from inorganic compounds or elements without the action of some living organism, like bacteria.  They could convert one organic compound into another, but not create an organic compound from inorganic.  Adolph von Bayer accidentally disproved this by creating an organic compound from carbon dioxide (inorganic because it has no hydrogen) and ammonia.  Expecting another inorganic compound, on analysis of the final product, he discovered that he had created an organic compound.  And what was this breakthrough compound?  What was it that shattered vitalism and turned chemistry on its ear?  What was the compound that opened the door to uncountable new organic compounds?  It was urea.

Yep, the principal component of urine was the breakthrough compound, shattering our beliefs of what was and was not possible in chemistry. 

One of my favorite examples of humble beginnings, and one that will tickle my computer friends who don’t already know the story, is the first live streaming video.  Often, technology breakthroughs are driven by pornography, such as the web, a graphical interface to the internet that made written dirty stories obsolete in favor of photos and videos.  But the first live streaming video was extremely practical, and very innocent.

The story begins with a large computer and software engineering firm.  The software engineers, as it turns out, were several floors above the only coffee maker in the building.  Why they didn’t just get a coffee maker for their floor I’ll never know, but frequently they would traverse the stairs to the coffee maker only to discover that it was empty.  Tired of this rather inane exercise, they hatched a plan to hook up a camera, live on the internet, of the coffee pot.  Before leaving their desks, they could simply activate the camera to see, real time, if there was coffee in the pot or not. 

The odd thing about this coffee pot cam was that, once word of its existence spread, it developed something of a cult following.  People would log in who were not in the building, the city, the state or even the country just to see if coffee was brewing.  They discontinued the coffee pot cam at one point, but the angry fallout from frantic fans forced them to turn it back on.  Eventually, the cost of keeping it running fell to bean counters and it was finally discontinued permanently just a few years ago, but if you look it up you’ll find a small clip in commemoration of the beloved coffee pot cam.

The Rutherford experiment is a beautiful example of an incredible leap in the understanding of science from a failed experiment.  By the late nineteenth century, the electron had been discovered and experimentation on the new particle abounded.  Most of the time, these fell into two categories.  In one category, they were shooting beams of electrons through objects (keys, paper, bricks and so on) to determine what would block the beam, and what wouldn’t.  The other passed the electrons through plates with charges that could be varied to ascertain the strength of the electron charge and its mass.  In both sets of experiments, they were performed in vacuum tubes (to avoid collision with air molecules and elements), and the beam was aimed at a phosphorous screen which would glow when struck with the electrons.  For my readers who remember cathode ray tube televisions and computer monitors (two of which are facing me right now), these are the same setup developed prior to 1900.  A beam of electrons (in the CRT via an “electron gun”) in a vacuum tube passed between charged plates (to create a sweeping pattern) at a phosphorous screen (to show the picture) is all it really is. 

Anyway, Rutherford did something very different.  He was shooting the beam of electrons through a thin gold foil target which, according to the structure of atoms that Rutherford, and then-modern science, held as correct should not have blocked the beam at all.  But he did something a little bit different.  Instead of putting the phosphorous screen only at one end of the CRT, he surrounded the entire apparatus with a phosphorous screen.  The experiment failed because instead of having just one bright spot at the other side of the beam, the entire screen glowed.  He did have that bright spot, but to have glowing throughout the screen meant that some of the electrons (and only a very small fraction) were being reflected in all directions, including straight back towards the source.  He said it was as if he had shot a cannonball at a piece of tissue paper, and the cannonball bounced straight back towards him.

From his failed experiment, he deduced that there must be some kind of highly dense core in the center of the atom that he called the “nucleus”.  This gave rise to the model of the atom that we still use today.  All because his experiment failed.

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