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The Chemistry Book

From Gunpowder to Graphene, 250 Milestones in the History of Chemistry

By Derek B Lowe
22-minute read
Audio available
The Chemistry Book by Derek B Lowe

The Chemistry Book (2016) takes us on a tour through the history of chemistry from the first Bronze Age advancements to a possible future where clean, renewable energy is an everyday reality. Learn about the events and discoveries that have changed the world.

  • Anyone curious about how the world works
  • Students of chemistry and biology
  • People who enjoy stories about inventions and discoveries

Derek B Lowe is a medicinal chemist who has worked for such companies as Bayer, Vertex, and Novartis. He’s also considered one of the first science bloggers. His blog In the Pipeline has provided readers with insight into the business, legal, and scientific matters with which people in his field have to deal. He is also a regular columnist for Chemistry World.

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The Chemistry Book

From Gunpowder to Graphene, 250 Milestones in the History of Chemistry

By Derek B Lowe
  • Read in 22 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 14 key ideas
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The Chemistry Book by Derek B Lowe
Synopsis

The Chemistry Book (2016) takes us on a tour through the history of chemistry from the first Bronze Age advancements to a possible future where clean, renewable energy is an everyday reality. Learn about the events and discoveries that have changed the world.

Key idea 1 of 14

Human achievements in chemistry started in the Bronze Age. 

Our planet has always been home to amazing chemical processes. Take the two-story-tall crystals that pack caves in Mexico – the Cueva de Los Cristales. These gigantic pillars are a mind-boggling example of what happens when the common mineral gypsum is submerged in water that’s being heated up by magma, and then spends centuries cooling down during an ice age. The caves look like something out of a bizarre sci-fi movie. But they’re real, stunning, larger-than-life examples of chemical reactions that needed no human involvement.

It’s hard to say what the first human chemical discovery was. Was it the first man-made fire? Or the first time someone used a plant to help heal a wound?

The key message here is: Human achievements in chemistry started in the Bronze Age. 

While copper was already being used for some basic tools, around 3300 BCE, we found a better, stronger, and more durable material in bronze.

Essentially, bronze is what happens when tin is added to copper. And what made this combination possible was travel and trade. Around 2000 BCE, tin from Cornwall, in southwestern England, began to show up in the Mediterranean. Eventually, some of the more daring metal workers in Mesopotamia began to experiment with the materials they had, including lead, nickel, silver – and copper. Eventually, bronze was born.

Over time, the Greeks would add more lead to the mixture to make bronze easier to work with, and then zinc would be added to make brass. Despite the changes throughout history, bronze has always been the metal of choice for bells, and it can still be found in the cymbals on your standard drum kit.

Around 1300 BCE, the Bronze Age transitioned into the Iron Age. But this wasn’t because iron was seen as a superior metal. Bronze is, in fact, harder and far less prone to corrosion. Really, what iron had going for it was availability.

Early iron technology involved heating charcoal and iron ore, producing a lump of crude smelted iron in the bottom of the furnace. Impurities were then, quite literally, hammered out. This has always been a labor-intensive process and one that requires a lot of forced air to keep furnaces burning at high temperatures. To get such conditions, it’s believed that some smelting operations were seasonal, in order to take advantage of recurring monsoon-like conditions.

But despite all this, iron smelting capabilities quickly spread, though it’s possible that locations as far removed as India and sub-Saharan Africa developed the technology independently from each other.

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