Polish Contribution to Science and Technology

I proudly announce that in the last days of December an important book has been released. It will be available for purchase in January:

Polski wkład w przyrodoznawstwo i technikę. Słownik polskich i związanych z Polską odkrywców, wynalazców oraz pionierów nauk matematyczno-przyrodniczych i techniki (Polish Contribution to Science and TechnologyThe Dictionary of Polish and Poland-related Discoverers, Inventors, and Pioneers in Science and Technology – 4 volumes), edited by prof. Bolesław Orłowski.

The joint work of more than 100 authors, among others professors: Leszek Kuźnicki, one of the former presidents of the Polish Academy of Sciences, and Andrzej Kajetan Wróblewski, one of the former rectors of the University of Warsaw. I`m the author of 80 biographies of Polish chemists (co-author of 4).

Hardcover edition. The dictionary was published by Instytut Historii Nauki PAN (Institute for the History of Science, Polish Academy of Sciences) and Instytut Pamięci Narodowej (The Institute of National Remembrance), Warszawa 2015.

[Edited] On 16th February prof. Orłowski gave a short presentation of the dictionary to Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland (at the Presidential Palace).

 

Słownik

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Marburg, The Brothers Grimm, and Ludwik Bruner

Photo taken from this site

I`ve just returned from a conference in Germany. The event took place at the Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe, located in the picturesque, mediæval town of Marburg (*).

All presentations were on a high level, certainly not only because of the fact that the institute is located high over the town, just beside the castle, on a steep hill. I had an excellent opportunity to learn more about the entangled, intricate network of international scientific contacts throughout many centuries in which people from Germany and Poland played a vital role. This net formed the very basis for the “fabric” – I mean the intellectual and spiritual culture – on which the contemporary western civilization has been “embroidered”.

I made a short presentation about life and work of Ludwik Bruner (1871-1913) – one of the pioneers of physicochemical studies within the Polish territories, a professor of chemistry at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. Bruner was not only a scientist, but also a poet, prosaist, and renowned literary critic (he used pen name: Jan Sten). Once he gave a great, ironic characteristics of a “mad” scientist:

“the whole life spent on one thought, devoted to the discovery of one law, one explanation, the whole work of the brain feverished by the blood flow, of the eyes, sparkling with the hope of a discovery – [the work] enchanted in long rows of digits […] which would be later read by a similar maniac, only to call the laws of the former – errors, his calculations – false, his expectations – delusion. And after a few years the powerfully pressing roller of time will run over both of them; perhaps someone would even recall them, but for him there would not be any life in their works. A few more years will pass, and their names will be overgrow with the eternal oblivion, just like a path which is not traveled any more. This is the fate of the one who appeared to be illuminated by the ray of immortality.” (**)

I had also enough time for an evening stroll through the streets of the town:

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 The Castle of Landgrafs

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The author

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The building on the right was called the witches` tower (Hexenturm).

Photo by prof. Michał Kokowski.

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This famous building type is known as Fachwerkhaus

The Brothers Grimm: Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859), studied in Marburg. They were depicted on the 1000 Mark banknote:

Source: Wikimedia Commons

No wonder then that in my hotel room I found an envelope containing one of their fairy tales, namely Sweet Porridge.

This is a story about a poor girl who once met a witch. The old woman gave her a self-cooking pot which produced sweet porridge. Henceforth the girl and her mother could eat whenever they wanted. This freely given happiness didn`t last long… One day the girl was not at home, and her mother didn`t know how to stop the pot, so eventually the enchanted porridge filled her house, and then almost the whole town drowned in it. Maybe the witch was wicked, and she desired to take revenge on the people from the town. One never knows. Fortunately, the girl managed to return and just gave an order: “little pot, stop”. And it worked. Nonetheless, people eager to visit the town had to eat all their way throught the streams of porridge.

(*) Entangled Science? Relocating German-Polish Scientific Relations. 

International Conference of the Cooperation Initiative of the Leibniz Association and the Polish Academy of Sciences: “Cross-border Scientific Dialogue. Potentials and Challenges for the Human and the Social Sciences”,

in cooperation with Ludwik and Alexander Birkenmajer Institute for the History of Science.

(**) J. Sten, Hamlet, p. 71–72 [in:] Jeden miesiąc życia. Utwory prozą, Kraków 1900. The translation from Polish is mine.

History of Chemistry and Chlorine Underwear

Photo taken from this site (illustrations from the Maxfield Parrish`s notebook).

Jean-Baptiste Dumas (1800-1884), a French chemist, announced in the 1830s his law of substitution. According to him, atoms of one element could be replaced in chemical compounds in some cases by atoms of other elements, e.g., hydrogen by chlorine in acetic acid, nevertheless, chemical properties of products would be similar to that of substrates.

His law was fiercely attacked by some of his contemporaries, because many scientists thought that electronegative elements, such as chlorine or oxygen, would not substitute electropositive hydrogen. They supposed that such compounds could not be stable, according to the conclusions drawn from electrochemical dualism – the theory proposed by Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848), a Swedish naturalist who acted almost as a chemical “dictator” during the first half ot the 19th century. Berzelius believed that molecules consist of positively and negatively charged fragments (atoms and groups of atoms) in a state of equillibrium.

Friedrich Wöhler (1800-1882), a German chemist, mocked the law of Dumas in one of the most famous scientific journals: Liebig’s Annalen der Chemie und Pharmacie (33, 308, 1840):

“I am eager to communicate to you one of the most striking facts of organic chemistry. […] I passed a stream of chlorine through a solution of manganese acetate […] I found that it [the final product] was formed of 24 atoms of chlorine and one of water. Thus there was complete substitution of all the elements of manganese acetate. The formula of the substance should be expressed as: Cl2Cl2 + Cl8Cl6Cl6 + aq. For all I know, in the decolorizing action of chlorine, hydrogen is replaced by chlorine, and the cloth, which is now being bleached in England, preserves its type according to the substitution laws (*).

S. C. H. Windler [swindler]

(*) I have just learned that there is already in the London shops a cloth of chlorine thread, which is very much sought after and preferred above all others for night caps, underwear, etc.”

Source:

https://classes.yale.edu/02-03/chem125a/125/history99/4RadicalsTypes/Schwindler.html

Talking About History of Chemistry in the Land of Azulejo

Photo taken from this site.

I attended 10th International Conference on the History of Chemistry 2015 in Portugal (9-12 September, The University of Aveiro). I had a wonderful time there. It was a great opportunity to meet colleagues from all over the world, a very refreshing and intelectually inspiring event. The conference theme was: biographies as an important genre in the history of chemistry.

I presented a paper entitled Ludwik Werstenstein (1887-1945) as Chemist and Physical Chemist in the Light of His Memoirs.

L. Wertenstein, born in Warszawa, was an asistant to Maria Skłodowska-Curie (1867-1934), and later the on-site manager of the Mirosław Kernbaum Radiological Laboratory, established in Warszawa in 1913. Maria Skłodowska-Curie was the formal director of this institution.

Wertenstein was a Polish man of Jewish descent, so in 1944 he fled from the occupied country to Hungary. Prof. Wertenstein died accidentally due to a mine explosion on 18 January 1945, during the battle for Budapest.

The Radiological Laboratory was almost totally destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Only the radium remained safe, secured by prof. Wertenstein in 1941 in a lead brick, and hidden in a wall of the basement in the house of a physicist Wacław Werner in Brwinów near Warsaw. Wertenstein informed about this fact only his wife. What is also interesting about the story, L. Werner was of German descent, but he refused to sign the Volksliste. In 1947 Werner returned this valuable object to the Warsaw Scientific Society. The story is like from the James Bond series.

Some impressions from the journey: Portuguese are very hospitable and friendly, and not so laud as many people in the other countries of southern Europe. A striking feature of many Portuguese is a subtle form of melancholy which found its artistic expresion i.a. in the Fado music.

I was suprised by the similarity of Portuguese pronunciation to that of Polish. I had the feeling that I heard Polish all around. It was peculiar, because Portuguese is a romance language, and Polish is a slavic one.

Only one thing frustrated me in the elegant town of Aveiro. The names of streets was so sparsely given that it would be easier to find money on a street that the name of it.

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Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean.

The famous ceramic tiles, Azulejo, often blue, could be found almost everywhere: on the churches, homes, railroad stations etc., often also inside them. They beautifully reflect sun rays and are pretty easy to clean. I was astonished by the fact that those fragile elements remained complete in most cases, and usually are in a pretty good shape.

Due to location of the country, far from the center of Europe, Portuguese people had for centuries an extraordinary luck to participate in many turmoils of the European and World history mainly to the extent they had chosen themselves. The country was occupied for the last time by the Napoleon`s army.

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The author in front of the Art Nouveau Museum in Aveiro.

And a reflection at the end: while I observed an ocean of clouds below me out of the window of a plane, I thought that such a view could inspire Stanisław Lem (1921-2006) to develop the concept of the conscious ocean (in his novel Solaris), with fantastic, complicated structures lasting for days or even weeks.