Calendar marks chemistry milestones

Find science trivia related to notable days in molecular history.

January 1, 2011, ushers in the International Year of Chemistry. The American Chemical Society has compiled on online calendar that points to landmark events and trivia to celebrate on roughly 250 days, if you’re so inclined.

It begins with the January 1 establishment of Chemical Abstracts, 104 years ago. Chem Abstracts, which maintains a registry of all publicly disclosed chemicals, has become the definitive one-stop spot for tracking down any and every known compound — more than 50 million, to date — including the names for each (as some compounds have as many as 1,000 monikers), a compound’s structure and any general characteristics (such as melting point). This was truly a landmark event.

January 2’s entry, by contrast, is a stretch. The calendar identifies this as a Swiss holiday that honors Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen; he founded Bern, what would become the capital city. Why put St. Berchtold’s Day on a chemical calendar? It turns out walnuts are a traditional celebratory observance of the holiday, and research reported at ACS meetings — including its spring 2010 national event in San Francisco — has shown in rodents that walnut consumption slows the development of prostate cancer.

On January 3, we celebrate the 1871 issuance of a patent for margarine. The next day is the 120th anniversary of Henry Dow’s initial production of bromine from natural brine. January 4 marks the death, 68 years ago, of the original Mr. Peanut: George Washington Carver. Six years ago, the ACS designated Carver’s agricultural research — the inventor created more than 325 different products from peanuts — to be a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

And so the year in chemistry progresses.

You’re supposed to be able to plug in a number and find out the event for that day, but the system appears to still be in test mode and glitchy. When I plugged in 100, the system called up day 83, which was marking the 1988 report in Nature of the ability of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to describe the three-dimensional structure of proteins. When I put in day 200, I actually got day 167: the June 16 isolation of vanadium in 1867.

Still, it’s a fun spot to pick up some scientific trivia. Visit the calendar here. And for less trivial chemical news, check out Rachel Ehrenberg’s piece on new refinements of the periodic table of the elements.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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