“Color is part of a spectrum, so you can’t discover a color,” says Professor Mas Subramanian, a solid-state chemist at Oregon State University. “You can only discover a material that is a particular color”—or, more precisely, a material that reflects light in such a way that we perceive it as a color. Scientific modesty aside, Subramanian actually has been credited with discovering a color—the first inorganic shade of blue in 200 years.
Named “YInMn blue” —and affectionately called “MasBlue” at Oregon State—the pigment’s unwieldy name derives from its chemical makeup of yttrium, indium, and manganese oxides, which together “absorbed red and green wavelengths and reflected blue wavelengths in such a way that it came off looking a very bright blue,” Gabriel Rosenberg notes at NPR. It is a blue, in fact, never before seen, since it is not a naturally occurring pigment, but one literally cooked in a laboratory, and by accident at that.
The discovery, if we can use the word, should justly be credited to Subramanian’s grad student Andrew E. Smith who, during a 2009 attempt to “manufacture new materials that could be used in electronics,” heated the particular mix of chemicals to over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Smith noticed “it had turned a surprising, bright blue color [and] Subramanian knew immediately it was a big deal.” Why? Because the color blue is a big deal.
In an important sense, color is something humans discovered over long periods of time in which we learned to see the world in shades and hues our ancestors could not perceive. “Some scientists believe that the earliest humans were actually colorblind,” Emma Taggart writes at My Modern Met, “and could only recognize black, white, red, and only later yellow and green.” Blue, that is to say, didn’t exist for early humans. “With no concept of the color blue,” Taggart writes, “they simply had no words to describe it. This is even reflected in ancient literature, such as Homer’s Odyssey,” with its “wine-dark sea.”
Photo via Oregon State University
Sea and sky only begin to assume their current colors some 6,000 years ago when ancient Egyptians began to produce blue pigment. The first known color to be synthetically produced is thus called Egyptian blue, created using “ground limestone mixed with sand and a copper-containing mineral, such as azurite or malachite.” Blue holds a special place in our color lexicography. It is the last color word that develops across cultures and one of the most difficult colors to manufacture. “People have been looking for a good, durable blue color for a couple of centuries,” Subramanian told NPR.
The new blue solves a number of problems with other blue pigments. It is nontoxic and not prone to fading, since it “reflects heat and absorbs UV radiation.” YInMn blue is “extremely stable, a property long sought in a blue pigment,” says Subramanian. It also fills “a gap in the range of colors,” says art supply manufacturer Georg Kremer, adding, “The pureness of YInBlue is really perfect.”
Since their first, accidental color discovery, “Subramanian and his team have expanded their research and have made a range of new pigments to include almost every color, from bright oranges to shades of purple, turquoise and green,” notes the Oregon State University Department of Chemistry. None have yet had the impact of the new blue. Learn much more about the unique chemical properties of YInMn blue here and see Professor Subramanian discuss its discovery in his TED talk further up.
The book’s full title is an indication of its mysterious author’s ambitions for the new country’s culinary future:
American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life.
As Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald write in an essay for What It Means to Be an American, a “national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Arizona State University,” American Cookery managed to straddle the refined tastes of Federalist elites and the Jeffersonians who believed “rustic simplicity would inoculate their fledgling country against the corrupting influence of the luxury to which Britain had succumbed”:
The recipe for “Queen’s Cake” was pure social aspiration, in the British mode, with its butter whipped to a cream, pound of sugar, pound and a quarter of flour, 10 eggs, glass of wine, half-teacup of delicate-flavored rosewater, and spices. And “Plumb Cake” offered the striving housewife a huge 21-egg showstopper, full of expensive dried and candied fruit, nuts, spices, wine, and cream.
Then—mere pages away—sat johnnycake, federal pan cake, buckwheat cake, and Indian slapjack, made of familiar ingredients like cornmeal, flour, milk, water, and a bit of fat, and prepared “before the fire” or on a hot griddle. They symbolized the plain, but well-run and bountiful, American home. A dialogue on how to balance the sumptuous with the simple in American life had begun.
This cornerstone in American cookery is the first cookbook of American authorship to be printed in the United States. Numerous recipes adapting traditional dishes by substituting native American ingredients, such as corn, squash and pumpkin, are printed here for the first time. Simmons’ “Pompkin Pudding,” baked in a crust, is the basis for the classic American pumpkin pie. Recipes for cake-like gingerbread are the first known to recommend the use of pearl ash, the forerunner of baking powder.
Students of Women’s History will find much to chew on in the second edition of American Cookery as well, though they may find a few spoonfuls of pearl ash dissolved in water necessary to settle upset stomachs after reading Simmons’ introduction.
Stavely and Fitzgerald observe how “she thanks the fashionable ladies,” or “respectable characters,” as she calls them, who have patronized her work, before returning to her main theme: the “egregious blunders” of the first edition, “which were occasioned either by the ignorance, or evil intention of the transcriber for the press.”
Ultimately, all of her problems stem from her unfortunate condition; she is without “an education sufficient to prepare the work for the press.” In an attempt to sidestep any criticism that the second edition might come in for, she writes: “remember, that it is the performance of, and effected under all those disadvantages, which usually attend, an Orphan.”
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
Or you could, just like Minneapolis-based artist K. Woodman-Maynard adapt the work into a beautiful graphic novel, pages of which you can glimpse here. Her version is all light and pastel watercolors, with a liberal use of the original text alongside more fantastic surreal imagery, making visual some of Fitzgerald’s word play. At 240 pages, there’s a lot of work here and, as if it needs repeating, no graphic novel is a substitute for the original, just…a jazz riff, if you were.
But Woodman-Maynard was one of many waiting for Gatsby to enter the public domain, which apart from Disney property, will happen to most recorded and written works over time. Many authors have been waiting for the chance to riff on the novel and its characters without worrying about a cease and desist letter. Already you can find The Gay Gatsby, B.A. Baker’s slash fiction reinterpretation of all the suppressed longing in the original novel; The Great Gatsby Undead, a zombie version; and Michael Farris Smith’s Nick, a prequel that follows Nick Carraway through World War I and out the other side. And there are plenty more to come.
Copyright law stipulates that any work after 95 years will enter the public domain. (Up until 1998, this used to be 75 years, but some lawyers talked to some congresscritters).
The New Negro – Alain Locke (the first major compendium of Harlem Renaissance writers)
An American Tragedy – Theodore Dreiser (adapted into the 1951 film A Place in the Sun)
The Secret of Chimneys – Agatha Christie
Arrowsmith – Sinclair Lewis
Those Barren Leaves – Aldous Huxley
The Painted Veil – W. Somerset Maugham
Now, the thing about The Great Gatsby is that it is both loved by readers and hard to adapt into other mediums by its fans. It has been adapted five times for the screen (the Baz Luhrmann-Leonardo DiCaprio version is the most recent from 2013) and they have all dealt with the central paradox: Fitzgerald gives us so little about Gatsby. The author is intentionally hoping the reader to create this “great man” in our heads, and there he must stay. The novel is very much about the “idea” of a man, much like the idea of the “American Dream.” But film must cast somebody and Hollywood absolutely has to cast a star like Leonardo DiCaprio or Robert Redford. A graphic novel, however, does not have those concessions to the market. Woodman-Maynard’s version is not even the first graphic novel based on Fitzgerald’s book—-Scribner published a version adapted by Fred Fordham and illustrated by Aya Morton last year—-and it certainly will not be the last. Get ready for a bumper decade celebrating/critiquing the Roaring ‘20s, while we still figure out what to call our own era.
When we think of American masters, we don’t think of David Bowie, who despite being a master was also the most English rock star ever to live. But an interview with Bowie, never before seen in full, nonetheless appears in the newly opened American Masters archive, having been shot for the long-running PBS series’ 1997 documentary on Lou Reed — if not the most American rock star ever to live, then surely the most New York one. “For me, New York was always James Dean walking out in the middle of the road, and it was always the Fugs, the Village Fugs. It was the Beats and it was SoHo. It was that kind of bohemian intellectual extravagance that made it so vibrant for someone like me, growing up in quite a gray, suburban, tenement-filled South London environment.”
As with any society or culture, it takes an outsider to see things most clearly, or at any rate most vividly. But then, certain American-born Americans also have pretty vivid impressions of their own. No less a New York icon than Patti Smith, for instance, also sat for an interview about Lou Reed — as well as Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, the Chelsea Hotel, poetry, labels, improvisation, John Coltrane, Jackson Pollock, CBGB, and much else besides.
Do you think you would recognize a coffee plant if you came across one in the wild? Not that it’s likely outside the so-called “coffee belt,” the region of the world most rich in soil, shade, mild temperatures, and copious rainfall. Farmed coffee plants “are pruned short to conserve their energy,” the National Coffee Association notes, but they “can grow to more than 30 feet (9 meters) high. Each tree is covered with green, waxy leaves growing opposite each other in pairs. Coffee cherries grow along the branches. Because it grows in a continuous cycle, it’s not unusual to see [white] flowers, green fruit and ripe [red] fruit simultaneously on a single tree.”
That’s a festive image to call to mind when you brew—or a barista brews—your coffee beverage of choice. After watching the TED-Ed video above, you’ll also have a sense of the “globe-spanning process” between the coffee plant and that first cup of the morning. “How many people does it take to make a cup of coffee?” the lesson asks. Far more than the one it takes to push the brew button…. The journey begins in Colombia: forests are clear-cut for neat rows of shrub-like coffee trees. These were first domesticated in Ethiopia and are still grown across sub-Saharan Africa as well as South America and Southeast Asia, where low-wage workers harvest the coffee cherries by hand.
The cherries are then processed by machine, sorted, and fermented. The resulting coffee beans require more human labor, at least in the example above, to fully dry them over a period of three weeks. Further machine sorting and processing takes place before the beans reach a panel of experts who determine their quality and give them a grade. More hands load the coffee beans onto container ships, unload them, transport them around the country (the U.S. imports more coffee than any other nation in the world), and so on and so forth. “All in all, it takes hundreds of people to get coffee to its intended destination, and that’s not counting the people maintaining the infrastructure that makes the journey possible.”
Many of the people in that vast supply chain are paid very little, the video points out. Some are paid nothing at all. The history of coffee, like the histories of other addictive commodities like sugar and tobacco, is filled with stories of exploitation and social and political upheaval. And like the supply chains of every other contemporary staple, the story of how coffee gets to us, from plant to cup, involves the stories of hundreds of thousands of people connected by a global chain of commerce, and by our constant need for more caffeine.
Even the grittiest, hardest-hitting TV dramas require willing suspension of disbelief to enjoy. This is especially true if you, the viewer, happen to be an expert on such subjects as emergency medicine, police procedures, criminal law, FBI profiling, crime scene investigation, etcetera. Those of us who don’t know anything about these fields may have an easier time of it, provided the writers do their diligence and make the actors sound convincing. I never much questioned the science of Breaking Bad, for example. Surely, the hit show accurately depicted how a desperate high school chemistry teacher would build a meth lab in the desert? How should I know otherwise?
I might watch the show with a chemist, for one thing, like Professor Donna Nelson or the University of Nottingham’s Sir Martyn Poliakoff, who had himself refused to watch Breaking Bad until “one day when I’m old.” That day has come at last: he finally sat down with the pilot and discussed his impressions on YouTube channel Periodic Videos. Poliakoff approached the experiment with almost no preconceptions. He knew the show was about a chemistry teacher who made “some sort of drug, I didn’t know which one,” and that “there were a lot of episodes.”
He also knew that “at some point, HF, hydrogen fluoride, played a part.” But before the chemistry critique begins, Poliakoff notices that Walter White’s pants floating through the desert air in the pilot’s iconic opening are a physical impossibility given their origination. Bummer. He loved the opening sequence spelling out the show’s title with elements from the periodic table, and even imagined how his own name (including “Sir”) might be spelled the same way.
As you might expect, Poliakoff has some nits to pick with the lesson White gives his students in the first few minutes. For one, White—who shows himself to be very safety-conscious, if not risk-averse, later in the episode—wears no safety gear while spraying chemicals into an open flame. The director can be forgiven for not wanting to obscure Bryan Cranston’s expressive face in this crucial scene of character development. But what of the lesson itself? Overall, he says, it’s “quite good.” He likes White’s definition of chemistry as “the study of change,” but thinks it should more fully be “the way that matter changes.”
The discussion prompts Poliakoff to reflect that no one’s ever asked him to define chemistry before. (When asked to define “inorganic chemistry” in high school, his son answered, “it’s what my dad does.”) We quickly begin to see the benefits of watching a well-crafted show like Breaking Bad with an expert. The drama of the show, and its unusual approach to what we normally consider a dry subject, draws out our chemist’s enthusiasm and helps us make connections we might not otherwise make, such as Walter White’s resemblance to well-known British scientist and science communicator Robert Winston.
Hearing Poliakoff discuss the Breaking Bad pilot turns out to be so entertaining that TV executives should take note—this could become a new, easy-to-produce genre when we finally run out of shows, provided there are enough eminent professors willing to offer commentary on hit series of the past. But as we can surmise from Professor Poliakoff’s general lack of interest in TV, and from his thriving career as a chemistry professor, he’s probably busy. He’s already done more than enough to make chemistry interesting to us layfolk by contributing to Periodic Videos for over a decade now.
Further up, see a fun demonstration of exploding hydrogen bubbles (“the title pretty much says it”). Just above and below, see Professor Poliakoff enlighten us on the properties of elements 35 and 56, Bromine and Barium, and watch Periodic Videos full series on the periodic table here.
Your hosts Mark Linsemayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are joined by Tamler from the Very Bad Wizards podcast to consider the plaudits and complaints heaped on this morality-tale-turned-organized-crime-drama that began with the 1006 film and has continued through a 4-season TV show. We delve into its elaborate style, “tundra western” setting, dry humor (including “Minnesota nice”), speechifying, gender issues, stunt casting, and the role of chance in its plotting. Did the show go downhill in its later seasons, and is there altogether too much rehash involved? Yes, there are spoilers, but no, it barely matters.
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