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It Started with a Mystery

“You are what you eat” is a time honoured truism. After all, food is the only raw material that enters our body, so we are literally made of what we eat. That of course includes our brain. But what do we fill that brain with? Here I would propose another maxim: “You are what you read.” That comes to mind because I was recently asked about how I originally got interested in what I do.

“You are what you eat” is a time honoured truism. After all, food is the only raw material that enters our body, so we are literally made of what we eat. That of course includes our brain. But what do we fill that brain with? Here I would propose another maxim: “You are what you read.” That comes to mind because I was recently asked about how I originally got interested in what I do. That meant I first had to think about what it is that I do. Of course I know what I spend my time on. I teach, I write, I blog, I answer email questions, I’m active on Facebook, radio and TV, always with an emphasis on science. But what is at the heart of what I really try to do? Simply put, I think I try to demystify science and dispel myths by sticking to facts. My views and approach have evolved over the years, by there was a germinating factor.

I grew up in Hungary before the internet, before computers. We didn’t even have a telephone. I didn’t know that television existed until I came to Canada. We did have radio, and I actually remember hearing the announcement of Stalin’s death, and listening to the 1954 world cup final between Germany and Hungary. The Germans got lucky because Puskas was injured.

So what did I do in the evenings? I read books. And some I think played a significant role in formulating my future interests. I was absolutely captivated by the first novel I ever read, Jules Verne’s “The Mysterious Island.” It told the story of how a group of northerners captured by the Confederates during the Civil War escaped by hijacking a balloon and became marooned on a deserted island somewhere in the South Pacific. Stranded there, they are forced to establish a colony by making use of their wits. One of the castaways, Cyrus Smith, is an engineer who turns out to be sort of a forerunner of MacGyver, the TV hero whose encyclopedic knowledge of science helped him solve problems by making use of whatever ordinary materials were available. Guided by Smith’s profound practical knowledge of botany, geology, physics and chemistry the colonists fabricate cooking pots, bricks, manage to smelt iron and even design a primitive telegraph system on the island.

Much to their surprise, as they run into problems, mysterious solutions appear. A box filled with weapons and tools inexplicably materializes, tablets of quinine magically turn up when malaria strikes, and a horde of invading pirates end up dead without any apparent wounds. With no logical explanation apparent, it seems that some benevolent deity is looking out for the colonists’ welfare. But in the end, the mystery is solved. The island turns out to be the hideout of Captain Nemo, a scientific genius, who lives in a grotto aboard his submarine, the Nautilus. It was he who had been the settlers’ mysterious benefactor. All of the events that had been so puzzling now turn out to have a down-to earth explanation. At that young age I didn’t understand all of the scientific details described in the book, but a couple of points struck home. Scientific ingenuity can solve a lot of problems, and phenomena that at first seem paranormal can turn out to be quite mundane as facts come to light.

One of the problems the colonists faced was to find a source of water. With his knowledge of geology, the engineer locates an underground lake. Unfortunately it is inaccessible and an explosive would be needed to blast apart the rocks blocking the path to the water. Smith has an idea. Make some nitroglycerin! And that, I think was my first exposure to chemistry! Although I didn’t follow Verne’s description of the process of making nitroglycerin, I do know that subsequently my interest perked every time I ran across the term. When I heard that “The Wages of Fear,” an adventure film about the difficulty of transporting the compound, would be playing in our local cinema I begged my parents to take me. (Yes, we did have movies). Later, I would often write about nitroglycerin, an excellent example of how a chemical can be used either to the benefit or detriment of mankind.

Recently I reread The Mysterious Island. With my current understanding of chemistry I now marvel at Jules Verne’s classic more than ever. His description of Smith’s production of nitroglycerin is brilliant and scientifically plausible. The key chemicals needed are glycerin and nitric acid and Smith manages to make both.

The colonists ‘dog is attacked by a dugong, a manatee-like marine creature and an underwater struggle ensues with the dog being saved by a mysterious hand (Captain Nemo’s as we later learn) that kills the dugong. The fatty animal is just what is needed to make glycerin. Any fat treated with soda (sodium carbonate) yields glycerin and soap, one of the oldest known chemical processes. But where to get sodium carbonate? It can be extracted from the ashes left when seaweed burns, which is just what Smith did. Then he needed nitric acid. That can be made by treating potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, with sulphuric acid. There was plenty of bird poop on the island, a good source of saltpeter, and fool’s gold, or iron sulphide, was also abundant. Heating the sulphide converted it into iron sulphate, a solution of which when distilled yielded sulphuric acid. When it came to making a still, Smith’s knowledge of pottery came in handy. The clever engineer then reacted the glycerin with nitric acid and produced the required nitroglycerin!

It turns out that the book that first stimulated my interest in science and sparked my passion for solving mysteries is more drenched in chemistry than I ever realized.

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