Friday, March 31, 2017

Element of the Month: Zinc!

March's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 65.38 amu
Melting Point: 419.53 °C
Boiling Point: 907 °C

Paracelsus, the great sixteenth century Swiss doctor, was full of really great ideas about health and healing! For example, he advanced the idea that it was better to clean wounds than to pack them with animal excrement! He felt that different diseases should be diagnosed and treated differently, rather than relying on a single treatment for "whatever ails ya!" He even thought that diseases might somehow be outside entities that affected the human body, rather than an imbalance within the body! So, he definitely sounds like the doctor you would ask for if you were a wounded Venetian soldier in 1522. Although, full disclosure, along with the stuff that has turned out to be key insights in the development of medical science, he also had plenty of beliefs that sound batshit crazy these days. We'll ignore those.

Another thing about Paracelsus: he was, as Wikipedia plagiarizes from Ervin Reffner's 2015 The Esoteric Codex: The Alchemists, or perhaps vice versa, "one of the first medical professors to recognize that physicians required a solid academic knowledge in the natural sciences, especially chemistry." This is how he set the stage for our modern cutthroat Organic Chemistry classes in any college with a pre-med major. He also did some dabbling in the alchemical lab himself, which is how he came to name our Element of the Month. He called it Zinke (in German) or maybe Zinkum (in Latin); we in the English-speaking world call it... wait for it... Zinc!

Now, it must have been called something before it was called Zinc. It had already been used for at least 4000 years, alloyed with copper to make brass, so it must have had plenty of names. I don't know them, though. Nor do I know whether much happened on the study-of-Zinc front until the immortal Andreas Sigismund Marggraf isolated pure Zinc in 1746 -- or at least that's what they WANT you to think! In fact, William Champian was isolating Zinc on a commercial scale in England by 1738. Heck, Champian was isolating Zinc so well, through his patented Zinc-isolating process for heaven's sake, that he dramatically lowered the price of Zinc, brass, and many metal goods, thus creating powerful commercial enemies who would ultimately crush his enterprise and make sure he died in poverty, in the benign spirit of good old-fashioned laissez-faire capitalism. Meanwhile, the prominent Swedish geologist and chemist Anton von Swab isolated Zinc in a scientific setting in 1742. Everyone seems to know all this, but Marggraf is always mentioned first. Apparently this is because he kept especially good notes. I applaud Herr Marggraf his systematic approach, but can see where the Champian and von Swab partisans might be kind of pissed off by the whole business. I mean, isn't enough that Marggraf laid the scientific foundation for the entire sugar beet industry? Can't anybody else get a little credit for anything? Just saying.

The Centerfold!

But I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "Hey, Michael5000, is it true that large doses of Zinc compounds can cure me from, or prevent me from catching, the common cold?" The medical literature is cautious in its approach to this perennial question. A 2012 review of studies in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggested that people taking Zinc supplements might have a shorter duration of cold symptoms, by as much as a day and a half. The real answer, however, is less encouraging. It is: "of course not, what, for crying out loud, were you born yesterday? Take all the Zinc and Vitamin C you want if it makes you feel better, and you'll be fine in a while, there's not really much you can do about a cold."

The famous brainy Italian scientists Galvani and Volta messed about with Zinc. It is commonly been used in batteries (Volts!), and applying a thin coating of Zinc is a way of providing other metals with a protective surface to prevent corrosion (galvinization, although Galvani didn't really have a bit to do with it). It is still, after all these millennia, alloyed with copper to make brass. It is what a Copper penny is made out of, mostly. And, well, it's a common material that has been known throughout history.  As you would expect, it has a zillion household uses.

You have a couple of grams of Zinc in your body, roughly the mass of two paperclips (the satisfying "jumbo" paperclips, not the annoying smaller ones. I frankly have no use for those.). That's not a huge proportion of your body -- although, you are looking pretty slim lately, have you been working out? -- but it's not two paperclips you would want to do without. Zinc molecules are a key working component of many enzymes, and are part of the mechanism by which proteins recognizes DNA sequences. In layman's terms, this means that -- well, I have no idea really, but obviously it would be pretty damn dire if your enzymes and proteins crapped out on you. To summarize a number of long lists, I think it's fair to say that a major dietary source of Zinc is food. If you are getting enough food, and assuming that you are not a complete idiot about what you are eating, you should be just fine.

Some Zinc compounds are important pigments in a painter's arsenal, as for example Zinc White.  This
1959 piece by the American painter Franz Kline is called
Zinc Yellow, and that, in a sense, is
what it is about.

1 comment:

Morgan said...

Good post! Time to go eat some food, as suggested.