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Chemistry is the study of matter - stuff, and how it interacts with other stuff. Even though chemistry doesn't make a lot of news these days, chemists are making discoveries that change lives all the time. If Hank had to narrow down all of chemistry's flashes of brilliance into the most awesome experiments in history, he would narrow it down to these three.

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Chemistry is the study of matter, stuff and how it interacts with other stuff, and without chemistry, you can't even do physics or biology or geology or anything else.

Even though chemistry doesn't make a lot of news these days, chemists are making discoveries that change lives all the time. But if I had to narrow down all of chemistry's flashes of brilliance into the very most awesome experiments in history, it'd be these three.

[Intro music plays]

 3. Discovery of Oxygen (00:27)


Number 3: The Discovery of Oxygen. In 1774, English clergyman Joseph Priestley discovered a little something that I'm thankful for every day. He called it dephlogisticated air. We call it oxygen.

Priestley figured out how to isolate this and other gases seemingly from nowhere by using a pneumatic trough, which is basically an upside-down jar suspended in a trough of water. He basically just filled a bottle with water and inverted it into a trough which was also full of water, and from that first bottle, he ran a tube into another bottle in which he put various compounds he wanted to study, and then he heated them up. The gases released from the heating then bubbled up through the tube, displacing the water inside the first bottle, filling it with gas.

Priestley heated all kinds of stuff with his pneumatic trough, and in this way, he discovered nitric oxide, hydrogen chloride, ammonia, sulphur dioxide, and nitrous oxide, among others, but his most important discovery was oxygen, which he isolated by focusing a beam of sunlight on mercuric oxide.

Being a true hands-on scientist, he took the bottle from his trough and huffed it. He said later, "I fancied that my breast felt particularly light and easy for some time afterwards."

Though, of course, he had no idea that he'd created the gas that we all need to, like, exist. He just thought that he'd removed the element of fire, or phlogiston, from the air. Yeah, he was still operating under the idea that fire was an element. But doing great chemistry nonetheless.

 2. Discovery of Ions (01:51)


Number 2: The discovery of ions. Michael Faraday, a 19th-century English scientist, has been called the greatest experimenter of all time. Albert Einstein had a picture of Faraday on his wall. Dude was big-time.

And though he wasn't just a chemist -- he basically discovered electromagnetic fields and invented the first Bunsen burner and laid the groundwork for us to have electricity -- he did discover ions: atoms with an electric charge.

Faraday discovered ions as part of his obsession with electricity. In 1834, while he was messing around with electric current in water, he discovered that certain substances that were dissolved in water conducted a current. He didn't know precisely what was doing it, but he knew that some kinds of particles must be relaying the charge through the water from one electrode to the other.

Now, Faraday was great at discovering stuff, but he was terrible at naming the things that he discovered, so he wrote to a friend and mentor, William Whewell, who had coined quite a few excellent terms in his time, including the word "scientist." Whewell wrote back suggesting the name ions from the Greek word "to go," which today we know are the things that swap electrons to create a current.

Amazingly enough, all of this was done before electrons had even been discovered. Faraday was even able to classify ions into anions, or negative ions that were attracted to the anode, and cations, which were drawn to the positive electrode, or the cathode.

All those words, by the way, coined by Whewell.

 1. Drugs (03:07)


And finally our number one experiment: the first synthesized drug.

These days, scientists are constantly creating chemicals to cure what ails us. Our bodies are, after all, just a bunch of chemical reactions all happening at once, and when some chemical reaction makes us feel cruddy or breaks down and doesn't function properly, we figured out ways of setting things straight.

And although humans have been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years with natural chemicals, it wasn't until 1853 that French chemist Charles Gerhardt synthesized acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin. He did it by mixing acetyl chloride with a salt of salicylic acid to create the same compound that you find in the bark of the white willow tree. He was able to determine what compounds were in the willow bark and then create them in the lab.

It's hard to underestimate the importance of this. Gerhardt's synthesis of aspirin and the Bayer Corporation's later improvement of that synthesis has probably altered the course of human history more than any other chemical reaction ever. Not because it helped our aches and pains, though that's a nice side effect, but because it showed that it's possible to use chemistry to cure people. This is something that no one fully understood at the time but would lead to a huge increase in the quality and length of human life.

Not bad, Mr. Gerhardt.

 Outro and credits (04:15)


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