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Hilary Eppley, DePauw University
Last seen: 2 days 8 hours ago
Joined: 11/17/2007 - 11:03am

Anyone know the source of this quote

I ran across this quote by Ira Remsen on the internet and found it very amusing. Anyone out there know the full reference?

While reading a text book of chemistry, I came upon the statement, "nitric acid acts upon copper." I was getting tired of reading such absurd stuff and I determined to see what this meant. Copper was more or less familiar to me, for copper cents were then in use. I had seen a bottle marked "nitric acid" on a table in the doctors office where I was then 'doing time'! I did not know its peculiarities, but I was getting on and likely to learn. The spirit of adventure was upon me. Having nitric acid and copper, I had only to learn what the words "act upon" meant. Then the statement "nitric acid acts upon copper", would be something more than mere words. All was still. In the interest of knowledge I was even willing to sacrifice one of the few copper cents then in my possession. I put one of them on the table; opened the bottle marked "nitric acid"; poured some of the liquid on the copper; and prepared to make an observation. But what was this wonderful thing which I beheld? The cent was already changed, and it was no small change either. A greenish blue liquid foamed and fumed over the cent and over the table. The air in the neighborhood of the performance became colored dark red. A great cloud arose: This was disagreeable and suffocating--how should I stop this? I tried to get rid of the objectionable mess by picking it up and throwing it out the window, which I had meanwhile opened. I learned another fact--nitric acid not only acts upon copper but it acts upon fingers. The pain led to another unpremeditated experiment. I drew my fingers across my trousers and another fact was discovered. Nitric acid acts upon trousers. Taking everything into consideration, that was the most impressive experiment, and, relatively, probably the most costly experiment I have ever performed. I tell of it even now with interest. It was a revelation to me. It resulted in a desire on my part to learn more about that remarkable kind of action. Plainly the only way to learn about it was to see its results, to experiment, to work in a laboratory. -- Ira Remsen (1846-1927)
Joanne Stewart, Hope College
Last seen: 2 days 10 hours ago
Joined: 11/17/2007 - 11:05am
It might be from "The Periodic Table" by Primo Levi, but I don't have my copy here so I'm not sure. I always read that passage in class before I drop a penny into a big graduated cylinder with concentrated nitric acid in the bottom.
Adam R. Johnson, Harvey Mudd College
Last seen: 1 week 6 days ago
Joined: 11/17/2007 - 10:55am
I am almost certain it can be found in the chemical demonstration series of books by Bassam Shakshiri. I think the introduction to volume one.  Maybe it is better described there?
William F Coleman, Wellesley College
William F Coleman, Wellesley College's picture
Last seen: 9 months 5 days ago
Joined: 11/03/2008 - 9:11am

The quote is from Ira Remsen's notebooks and is found in "The Life of Ira Remsen" by Frederick H Getman, published by the Journal of Chemical Education in 1940.  It is a marvelous little book of 170 pages and is an excellent description of Remsen, the founding of Johns Hopkins and the growth of the research university in the US.  It is no longer in print but as of 3/8/09 there are a few copies at Alibris.



William F. Coleman Professor of Chemistry Wellesley College Wellesley MA 02481 www.wellesley.edu/Chemistry/colemanw.html Editor, JCE WebWare and JCE Featured Molecules http://www.jce.divched.org/JCEDLib/WebWare/ http://jchemed.chem.wisc.edu/JC