Bernard Courtois and his beautiful violet vapor

It’s chemistry time again, folks… Today we celebrate the birthday of Bernard Courtois (8 Feb 1777 – 27 Sep 1838), the French chemist from Dijon who discovered iodine.

Iodine, courtesy of Bernard Courtois.(© All Rights Reserved)
Iodine, courtesy of Bernard Courtois.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Courtois’ father worked as a saltpeter manufacturer, and instilled in his son an interest in chemistry and pharmacy. He studied pharmacy and, while working with Armand Seguin at the Ecole Polytechnique, he investigated opium. During this period, Courtois and Seguin managed to isolate pure morphine, the first known alkaloid, from opium.

His greatest contribution, however, came after he returned to Dijon to assist in his father’s saltpeter business. Traditionally, wood ash was used as the source of potassium nitrate for the saltpeter, but due to a wood ash shortage they turned to using seaweed as an alternative source. In 1811, while extracting sodium and potassium extracts from seaweed ash, Courtois accidentally stumbled upon a new element – adding sulfuric acid to the ash resulted in the appearance of a beautiful violet vapor that condensed into deep violet crystals resembling graphite.

Iodine has since proved an important trace element in human and animal biology. It is a key constituent of the thyroid hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine. The thyroid gland requires about 70 µg/day to synthesize these hormones, but additional iodine (RDA 150 µg/day for adults) is necessary to support the function of a range of biological systems in the body. Since iodine is scarce in nature (it is mainly available, as Courtois discovered 200 years ago, in ocean-based sources such as seaweed) it is often included as an additive in iodised salt, for example, to ensure that we get a sufficient daily dose.

Even though Courtois did not, at the time, realise that he had discovered a new element, he was subsequently acknowledged as the true discoverer of iodine. In 1831 he received the Montyon Prize from the L’Academie royale des sciences for his work. He never gained any financial benefit from his discovery, though, and his obituary in the Journal de chimie médicale strikes quite a sad note:

“Bernard Courtois, the discoverer of iodine, died at Paris the 27th of September, 1838, leaving his widow without fortune. If, on making this discovery, Courtois had taken out a certificate of invention, he would have realized a large estate.”

Maria Montessori and the promotion of education through discovery

On this day in 1907, Maria Montessori opened her first school in Rome, called the Casa dei Bambini, or ‘Children’s House’. Based on an educational system promoting and emphasising independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological development, the Montessori approach has been adopted widely over the past century. It is currently practiced in approximately 20 thousand schools worldwide.

While the Montessori principles have been applied for children from birth to the age of 18, the most popular age group for this approach is the 3-6 year old category. This age, when children are at their most naturally inquisitive, and the world is one great place of wonder, learning and exploration, is particularly suited to the Montessori philosophy. Learning is not differentiated from playing, as this is an age where we very much learn through play.

Learning and playing - all part of the voyage of discovery according to Maria Montessori.(© All Rights Reserved)
Learning and playing – all part of the voyage of discovery according to Maria Montessori.
(© All Rights Reserved)

According to the American Montessori Society (AMS), the teaching approach holds numerous benefits. Quoting the AMS website, “Given the freedom and support to question, to probe deeply, and to make connections, Montessori students become confident, enthusiastic, self-directed learners. They are able to think critically, work collaboratively, and act boldly—a skill set for the 21st century.”

Thinking about it, I wish more people retained this probing, enthusiastic and inquisitive mindset further into their adult lives, instead of becoming closed-minded and stuck in their ways as soon as they enter adult life.

Maria Montessori firmly believed that responsible education was the basis for peace, saying “Preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education” (1963). For her contribution to education and peaceful development, she has received no less than 6 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sweets for my sweet, saccharin for my honey

Our birthday star for today is Constantin Fahlberg (22 Dec 1850 – 15 Aug 1910), the Russian chemist who, in 1878, discovered the surprisingly sweet taste of anhydroorthosulphaminebenzoic acid (better known to those of us without PhD’s in chemistry as saccharin), while working on coal tar compounds at the John Hopkins University.

What made him decide to taste the compound he created is not clear to me – he seems to have been quite a daring chemist to taste the stuff he concocted in the lab – but the bottom line is it must have been a thrilling taste-sensation, given that saccharin is said to be 220 times sweeter than cane sugar. Fahlberg dubbed the compound ‘saccharin’ after the Latin name for sugar.

Saccharin - one of the 'big three' most widely used artificial sweeteners around the world (together with aspartame and sucralose).(© All Rights Reserved
Saccharin – one of the ‘big three’ most widely used artificial sweeteners around the world (together with aspartame and sucralose).
(© All Rights Reserved

Realising the potential of his discovery, he took out all the necessary patents and set up a saccharin factory in 1896 with his uncle, Dr Adoplh List. Churning out saccharin by the ton-load, Fahlberg soon became a very wealthy man – unlike some other inventors, he was lucky enough to reap the sweet rewards (pardon the pun) of his invention.

Over the years, saccharin became the subject of various controversies – from being considered an illegal substitute for sugar in certain foods, to being accused of being carcinogenic in the 1960s and 70s. No conclusive proof has however been found linking saccharine to cancer in humans, and today it is still one of the most widely used artificial sweeteners, together with sucralose and aspartame.

Celebrating the birthday of Captain James Cook, explorer extraordinaire

Today is the birthday of James Cook, British explorer and navigator, born this day in 1728. While of Scottish descent, his shadow looms so large over the history of New Zealand (and Australia) that he may as well have been an honorary citizen of the region.

A man of skill and courage, Cook made three great voyages of discovery to the Pacific Ocean, and it was during the first of these that, among other things, he became the first European to reach the eastern coastline of Australia, and the first person to do a circumnavigation of New Zealand. He was the second European to reach New Zealand, 127 years after Abel Tasman. His mapping of the coastline of New Zealand was amazingly accurate and detailed, and he named many of the landmarks he discovered, including Cook Strait, the section of ocean separating New Zealand’s North and South Islands.

A painting of James Cook, by New Zealand artist Julia B Lynch, on display in the James Cook Hotel in Wellington.

An interesting tale about his first Pacific voyage is that he was initially engaged by the Royal Society to travel to Tahiti from where he was to observe and record the 1769 Transit of Venus. Unfortunately the separate measurements taken by Cook, astronomer Charles Green and Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, differed significantly, making the results from the measurements less conclusive than was hoped.

All was not lost, however, as there was a secret second part to his voyage – he had sealed orders from the Admiralty containing details of the second part of his voyage – he was to search the south Pacific ocean for the fabled rich continent of Terra Australis. These orders were kept secret to give the British the best chance of discovering Australia under the guise of an innocent scientific expedition to perform astronomical measurements.

Cook apparently had doubts about the existence of Australia, but thanks to the help of a Tahitian called Tupaia, who was an expert in the geography of the Pacific region, the second part of his journey proved highly successful. Cook first reached New Zealand in October 1769, mapping it in its entirety over a period of 6 months, before voyaging further west to reach the south-eastern coast of Australia.

Upon reaching New Zealand, Cook made the following entry in his journal on 8 October 1769: “The land on the Sea Coast is high, with Steep Cliffs; and back inland are very high Mountains. The face of the Country is of a hilly surface, and appears to be cloathed with wood and Verdure.”

A hilly, forest-covered country – quite a succinct description for New Zealand, and probably not all that different to my first impression of the country as I gazed out of the airplane window when I first arrived here almost 240 years after Captain Cook.

So here’s to Captain James Cook, from the hills of New Zealand. 🙂