Saturday, 27 November 2010

Ringing In The Future Of Alchemy

Cambridge and London. That's where I was while not posting last week. And what a wonderful trip it was! Two of my very favourite people took me change ringing in Cambridge: a joyful combination of all my favourite things! Gentle exercise and extending the spine (move over, Pilates); observing mechanical technicalities of bells ringing in the lofty heights of the belfry; an imminent understanding why that poor character in Dorothy L. Sayers' Nine Tailors did not survive those nights in the bell tower; amazement at the mathematical musicality of the changes; general intrigued-ness that has prompted me to find change ringers in Glasgow (first session next week - stay tuned!); chocolate; and pubs. Huzzah!
Readily available for instant Christmas cheer

The occasion that had taken me to London was a celebration, retrospective and pointing future-wards, of the history of alchemy and chemistry: SHAC (the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry) celebrated its 75th anniversary, complete with a lecture by the always informative-and-entertaining phenomenon, or rather personality, that is Prof. Simon Schaffer. (Seriously, if you want to know why I was jealous of the undergraduates who could attend this lectures while I was sweating blood over my thesis, check out his BBC series The Light Fantastic).

Other celebrities in history of alchemy/chemistry circles left me with a lasting ponder and slightly wistful feeling. In a panel entitled "The good old days", three living legends talked about their careers as historians of chemistry, and the twists and turns fate had subjected them to to make them the researchers, teachers and people they are. Professor Maurice Crosland, who has written the hitherto only comprehensive study of alchemical language, managed to write his excellent PhD part-time while teaching at UCL, then joined the University of Leeds as faculty member to teach many students in the history of science and allow them to discover their interest in a field they had never heard of before.

This enthusiasm that seems to come naturally with the history of chemistry (and, oh, it does hit hard, I can tell from experience!) was recalled by David Knight, emeritus professor at Durham: when he first started historical investigations, after reading chemistry at Oxford, he once got so excited about a book he picked up in the library that he (and I quote from memory) "had to take a walk around the park to calm down and continue my studies." Finally, Professor Colin Russell told about his early days at Open University, and the exciting experiments he was allowed to perform on camera, at a time when TV was a new medium for teaching. Many of the experiments would be prohibited by health and safety these days - but I could tell how much fun they were (for him as a chemist and a teacher) by the way they still light up his face, decades later.

Simon Schaffer, photo for The Light Fantastic/BBC

What all three historians emphasised was simple but effective: they could not have proceeded in their career without the support of and collaboration with their colleagues; that they had a lot of luck that opportunities arose at the right time; and that they are very thankful to both fate and colleagues, that magical mixture that makes for a good career.

These days, none of us has a crystal ball; but here's to the future of the history of alchemy and chemistry. May it receive the luck and support it deserves. I know that I am not the only one who would be incredibly thankful for that.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


Poisons have been following me around this week - luckily just in the historical, literary and anecdotal sense. I therefore proudly present, in sequence of coming to my attention:

The Cabinet of Poison

1. Waiter, there's something in my coffee

With a big thank-you to Carin Berkowitz, I giggle to share a photo of Cafe Arsenik in Montreal. Cake, anyone?

2. Literature with a bitter twist
Roald Dahl's "The Landlady" may well be one of the nicest-yet-creepiest short stories I read as an impressionable young adult. It features a B&B, a guest of the same, the landlady, a dog (of sorts), and a cup of coffee with a hint of bitter almond about it... Intrigued? Your fireside reading has just been sorted. You're welcome.

3. History of Arsenic
Just a couple of years ago, I was happily munching my lunch while listening to a talk about the history of arsenic. It sure made for a good story: arsenic, if I remember correctly, was the first poison that could not be detected even in thorough investigation of a murder victim (with the methods of the time). We're talking early nineteenth century here, and the world was becoming more and more afraid of chemicals. Was I happy I had made that sandwich myself, though!

As David Caudill, lawyer at Villanova and an intriguing storyteller, outlined, new occupations popped up in the court room of the nineteenth century as a result of a few high profile cases of arsenic poisoning. Meet the physician as an expert in court - I might as well say a fish out of water. Indeed, physicians had not been involved in murder trials to that extent before, and they had to figure out what to say and how to say it very quickly to avoid confusions that could end up very nasty for the accused.

What surprised me the most at first, and then not at all in hindsight, is that an increasing number of wives were accused of trying to poison their husbands soon after the first cases were tried - an explanation that tells us more about the nature of Victorian husbands and their trust in their sweet wives than an actual poisonous sophistication on behalf of the latter. I wish I could remember more details - but luckily, David wrote an article about the prehistory of the Arsenic Wars in connection with abovementioned Brown Bag Lunch lecture. Enjoy the read!

4. Astrology, alchemy and a body
The most curious news of the day: Tycho Brahe, the 16th-century Danish astronomer of widespread fame, even wider spread infamy and metal nose, has been exhumed again. Yes, you read correctly: given a generous trace of mercury in his locks, the mystery of his death is picked up again.
Tycho Brahe
Image from the Galileo Project

Theories abound: "Brahe was also an alchemist and some have suggested that he would have handled mercury and may have administered it to himself as medicine. Others have suggested he was poisoned."
Read all about it on the BBC website (whence this quote originates). I, for one, can't wait to hear more! 

Monday, 8 November 2010

To All The Scones I've Loved Before

Drama. Scream-out-loud outrage. Desperate sobbing. No, I did not lose my choo-choo toy, but it certainly feels like that: Kember & Jones, who I praised so sincerely just a few posts ago, decided to raise the price of their scones from 95p to (whisper it) ((with Parseltongue-like disgust)) One Pound And Twenty-Five-Pence-You-Must-Be-Kidding-Me! I, for one, am boycotting this sconeflation. Bye-bye, buttery buns of bliss! That'll learn them!

Meanwhile, does anyone have a good scone recipe (I am not fond of Delia's --they are too baking-powdery-- and have not dared try any other)? Please help. Please post a comment.
With a scone like that, leftovers are rather likely in my house...

I Can't Believe It's Not Better not only the title of a segment in the hilarious Graham Norton Show on BBC Radio 2, but also a reaction I had to scones and many other food items in the USA. Scones, indeed, are a different type of baked good over there, whose manufacture involves a good dollop of cream and more sugar - perfectly delectable as a cake item; rather surprising as a breakfast item.

Oh, the culinary differences between the United K and the Ditto S of A could fill screens and screens of be-blogposted monitors. To give but one example, I've heard many a story about Europeans' first lips-on experience of 'cider' in the US = fizzy apple juice sans alcoholic zing. Yet no one warns you up front! Be that as it may, even familiar food items can make for surprising tastage in a different country.

I was recently reminded of this while reading Colm Toibin's remarkable novel Brooklyn: a tale of a young Irish woman who emigrates to that part of New York City in the early 1950s. With a wonderfully clean style, Toibin describes that confusion that enters every cell of a traveller's body in food situations: the tongue and brain expect one thing but sense another. One pithy paragraph has Eilis, the Irish woman, mention that even the butter does not taste like the real thing in Brooklyn. In a way, she can't believe it is butter! And I still remember my first sip of organic milk after coming back to the British Isles, wondering how I could have forgotten how satisfyingly deep the taste milk can be.

I do miss Trader Joe's frozen cherries and proper bagels, though. Especially in this scone-deprived recent world of mine. Woe is me. Please send chocolate (but not Hershey's or Cadbury's, if you don't mind).