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Science: At Ithaca

5 minute read

Importance makes faces grave; work makes them lean; gazing at mysteries gives them a sober cast. At Cornell University, Ithaca, a group of men gathered. Their faces were grave, lean, sober; they were the members of the American Chemical Society, assembled for their 68th Annual Convention. Two qualities they all had in common. One was a profound concern with the wonders that beset men’s comings and goings, traffics and discoveries, on the earth. The other was renown. They deliberated, debated, uttered paragraphs of chemical formulae that were, when understood, criticism, gasconade and prophecy. Sometimes the summer lightning of plain speech lit the cloudy thunders of their discourse . . . “$62,000,000,000.” . . . “The most amazing development in History.” . . . “How to cure rickets.” . . .

Among the renowned were: Sir Robert Robertson, chief Government chemist of Great Britain; Livingston Farrand, President of Cornell; Sir Max Muspratt, onetime Lord Mayor of Liverpool, foremost British indus- trial engineer; Dr. J. S. McHargue, head of the Kentucky Agricultural Station; T. A. Boyd of the General Motors Corporation; Professor H. Steenbock, chemical research head of the University of Wisconsin; Professor E. C. C. Baly, famed savant of the University of Liverpool. In the chair was Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland, President of the Society, a man who invents. He has discovered processes for the separation of copper and cadmium, for the impregnation of wood, for the making of Velox paper, thus winning heavy honors, including several pounds of medals. But first among his achievements is the invention of a certain substance.

“Bakelite.” Superficially, it is a composition, born of fire and mys- tery, having the rigor and brilliance of glass, the lustre of amber from the Isles. Poetically, it is a resin formed from equal parts of phenol and formaldehyde, in the presence of a ‘base, by the application of heat. It will not burn. It will not melt. It is used in pipe stems, fountain pens, billiard balls, telephone fixtures, cas- tanets, radiator caps, etc. In liquid form, it is a varnish. Jellied, it is a glue. Those familiar with its possibilities claim that in a few years it will be embodied in every mechanical facility of modern civilization. From the time that a man brushes his teeth in the morning with a Bakelite-handled brush, until the moment when he removes his last cigarette from a Bakelite holder, extinguishes it in a Bakelite ashtray, and falls back upon a Bakelite ‘bed, all that he touches, sees, uses, will be made of this material of a thousand purposes. Books and papers will be set up in Bakelite type. People will read Bakeliterature, Bakelitigate their cases, offer Bakeliturgies for their dead, bring young into the world in Bakelitters. Dr. Baekeland is a man in middle years, erect, rugged, taciturn, with the sensitive mouth of a field marshal and the cold eyes of a philanthropist. Of medium height, courtly, dignified, he adopts the old-world manner, shuns personal publicity, wants to be known only in connection with his scientific work, makes many addresses before scientific societies. In addressing the Society last week, he spoke of Science as an enemy of War, making the point that as modern discoveries made War fearful, further inventions have made it feared. When fighting means certain, agonizing death, no man will fight; and since Science has become, like Death, all-efficient, it is, like Fear, a deterrant to destruction. Sir Max Muspratt spoke. His was a gasconade: “Through Chemistry, man is now on the eve of the most amazing civilizing development in History. Witness phosphates. In days of ignorance, every dead cat was an engine of nitrogen production, every field had its own fertilizer hanging over it, and men of science knew it, but could not use their knowledge. Now we get nitrogen out of the air. This method, evolved in the War, may solve the problem of feeding the world.” The report of Dr. E. C. C. Baly contained a criticism. The butt was Nature—she takes too long to make sugar. He, the discoverer of synthetic sugar, has a receipt: Make a little formaldehyde out of carbon dioxide and water, expose it to intensely active ultraviolet light, and you have sugar. Genuine glucose has been made ‘by this process, but before such can become a breakfast-table commodity the proper wavelength of the violet ray must be ascertained. It is roughly gauged at from 200 to 220 millimicrons.— If all the land were bread and cheese, and all the sea were ink, what would we do for gasoline? This was the general proposition discussed by T. A. Boyd and C. M. Larson, Manhattan scientist. “Petroleum,” prophesied the former, “will be obtained in the future by cracking cruder grades of oil. The continuance of automobile transportation depends upon the perfection of cheap and efficient methods for doing this.” Said Mr. Larson: “Oil waste must stop. Motorists who now drain good oil out of their crank cases will be provided with simple devices by which the oil will be tested, its viscosity ascertained, waste eliminated.”

Prof. H. Steenbock gave the details of his cure for rickets. He has succeeded in effecting this cure in rats by exposing the animals to violet rays from a quartz mercury lamp. He has, it is also believed, discovered a new vitamin in olive oil, helpful to those who have diabetes.

The Society pledged its aid to the Chemical Warfare Service; made plans for an endowment to finance scientific publications in the U. S. It passed in review the progress of chemical industries, stating that their activity, which involves over $62,000,000,000, is firmer than it has been since the War.

—A millimicron is one millionth of a millimetre (.03937 of an inch).

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