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The helium in Caesar’s last breath

Rohit Gupta | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on June 02, 2017
Let there be fire: The structure of a flame from Edward L Youman’s Chemical Atlas (1854)

Let there be fire: The structure of a flame from Edward L Youman’s Chemical Atlas (1854)

On the social life of chemicals, and history as an ongoing chemical reaction

Chemistry is the interface through which life interacts with life. Only when we look at chemistry as molecular commerce do we realise that the great carbon cycle is akin to a gargantuan Silk Road of the biosphere. It was through chemistry that we discovered electricity and its myriad natural phenomenon from Volta to Maxwell. It is through chemistry that we took the first photographs, and learnt how to preserve memory; or how to preserve food with gunpowder for voyages to exotic lands, meet foreign cultures (and with the same ambivalent salt, blow them up).

“...you know about chemistry, and things of that kind . . . Destroy the thing that is upstairs . . . destroy it so that not a vestige of it will be left,” remarks Dorian Gray, the protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s classic Victorian novel (1890). He is referring to a portrait, which has begun to reflect his hideous soul — a betrayal of his ageless, handsome persona. The idea that a painting could chemically transform into something else was hardly new, since all pigments rot and corrode in air.

Perhaps the novel was inspired instead by Wilde’s experience in France, where a certain type of metamorphic painting had been in vogue since the 1700s.

In her book Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies: the Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to al-Qaeda (2014), historian Kristie Macrakis mentions this peculiar innovation by Jean Hellot (1685-1766), a chemist. His chemical paintings transformed themselves in the presence of heat, and were sold as fire screens for hearths. “In 18th century Paris, changeable landscape fire-screens for fireplaces became all the rage. A barren winter landscape with tree trunks and branches was painted on a fire-screen with ordinary India ink. The artist then painted a solution of cobalt chloride on the screen to create lush shrubs and greenery. The cobalt was invisible initially, but as soon as the heat from the fire reached the screen, the barren winter landscape magically turned into a verdant green landscape. When the heat source is removed, the landscape becomes barren winter again.” A bit like animated GIFs on the present-day internet, these paintings were suggestive of how chemistry animates the natural world.

The atoms of planet Earth have seen not just chemical transformation, but migrations on pathways astronomically larger than the carbon cycle or caravans on Silk Roads. Nobel laureate physicist Arthur H Compton spoke on radio in 1931 thusly: “In a small thimble filled with helium at atmospheric pressure, the number of atoms is about one with 19 ciphers after it. Perhaps that doesn’t mean much to you. Let me put it this way. Two thousand years ago Julius Caesar gave a dying gasp, “Et tu, Brute?” In the intervening millennia the molecules of air that he breathed out with that cry have been blown around the world in ocean storms, washed with rains, warmed by the sunshine, and dispersed to the ends of the Earth. Of course only a very small fraction of these molecules are now in this room; but at your next breath each of you will probably inhale half a dozen or so of the molecules of Caesar’s last breath.”

Could it be that human history, in many ways, resembles an ongoing chemical reaction? The shifting, contorting boundaries of nation-States are like membranes, through which matter and the human masses are strained like yoghurt through a sieve. In fact, the modern rise of electronic commerce suggests a strong analogue to chemistry, which, too, is the study of different ways in which atoms exchange electrons.

Corporations and governments with their hierarchical strata resemble vertical distillation columns, and political borders are filtration devices too. The internet itself resembles a prebiotic soup on the verge of some pre-Cambrian abiogenesis with its social networks — loosely connected chemical bonds of individuals like atoms. Of particular interest is the rise of virtual cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, whose blockchains copy the same data (much like DNA) across vast networks. The blockchain itself is like a large polymer. It is perhaps no coincidence that a company which makes a physical bitcoin wallet based on actual polymers is called Polymerbit.

With high-frequency trading and “smart contracts” (such as Ethereum), the mutual bonds of these individual atomic pools now form and break at astonishing velocity. The very dynamics of human commerce are on the verge of something both mysterious and colossal.

The drama of chemistry plays out on larger cosmic scales too, where atoms do not resemble miniature solar systems, but the other way round. An ambassador comet arrives like an electron from some other atomic star on a diplomatic mission every hundreds, thousands or millions of years, bringing and taking with it information and matter to some distant Oort cloud, some cluster in the womb of which a beehive of monoliths orbit each other, whispering codes like in a fish market, or an intergalactic data server.

Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah; @fadesingh

Published on June 02, 2017
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