Monday, February 22, 2010

The Random Crap Which Infects My Brain

Amongst my myriad* of quirks are these: in my head (and thank Crom, only in my head**), no conversation is ever finished, no experience is too trivial for periodic re-examination, everything is subject to repeated investigation. To wit...

The other day I was moving stuff around in my apartment (I don't clean; I rearrange) and came across my copy of Organic Chemistry by Morrison & Boyd, all 1258 pages of it, which brought back sweet (sic) memories of my sophomore year of college ('74-'75): lugging around a book that weighed more than your average Sumo wrestler, memorizing page after page (after page) of reaction mechanisms, slogging through dense, dry text, struggling with the convoluted IUPAC rules, solving (sometimes) the long problem sets at the end of each chapter, wondering if immersing myself in Grignard reagent would make this all go away.

And this--Chapter Nine, p. 309:

Figure 9.13. Evidence of early (1944) research on methylene, CH2, by D. Duck. (As unearthed by Professors P. P. Gaspar and G. S. Hammond of the California Institute of Technology)

At the time, nothing--nothing--prepared me for the sudden appearance of Donald Duck in a chapter on alicyclic hydrocarbons and I had to wonder how such a thing came to be.

Thirty-five years later, in one of those purely serendipitous moments that seem to characterize my life, I'm cruisin' Comic Books Urban Legends Revealed***and run across this:

COMIC URBAN LEGEND: Donald Duck discovered methylene.
STATUS: True, in a manner of speaking

And here's the story,

"In 1963, the Disney Studio learned just how wide and faithful a readership (Carl) Barks had. A letter arrived from Joseph B. Lambert of the California Institute of Technology, pointing out a curious reference in 'The Spin States of Carbenes,' a technical article soon to be published by P.P. Gaspar and G.S. Hammond (in Carbene Chemistry, edited by Wolfgang Kirmse, New York: Academic Press, 1964). 'Despite the recent extensive interest in methylene chemistry,' read the article's last paragraph, 'much additional study is required.... Among experiments which have not, to our knowledge, been carried out as yet is one of a most intriguing nature suggested in the literature of no less than 19 years ago (91).' Footnote 91, in turn, directed readers to issue 44 of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories. It seems Donald's reference to CH2 in panel 2.1 was years ahead of its time: the existence of this elusive chemical intermediate had not been proven in 1944."

"'The inclusion of this footnote in a quite scholarly article,' Lambert explained, 'stemmed from the discovery that Dr. Gaspar ... and I shared a mutual, and independently long-standing esteem for the adventures of Donald Duck. We both had retained copies of some of the classic adventures. It was Dr. Gaspar who rediscovered this early mention of carbene.'"

Other members of the scientific community sought out the reference. A year later, the Studio received a letter from Richard Greenwald, a scientist at Harvard. 'Recent developments in chemistry have focused much attention to species of this sort,' Greenwald commented. 'Without getting technical let me say that carbenes can be made but not isolated; i.e. they cannot be put into a jar and kept on a shell. They can, however, be made to react with other substances. Donald was using carbene in just such a manner, many years before 'real chemists' thought to do so.'"

"The telltale panel has since been used to illustrate an article by Robert A. Moss ('Carbene Chemistry,' Chemical and Engineering News, 16 June 1969) and a textbook by Robert Morrison and Robert Boyd (Organic Chemistry, 3rd Edition, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1973)."

And another take with story synopsis, and the relevant page:

Why, yes, thank you, I AM a geek.

*Grammar Nazis take heed--this usage is not necessarily incorrect.

**Okay, mostly in my head.

***Shut up. Leave me alone.

1 comment:

pwoster said...


This cartoon infects my brain as well. I had a photocopy of the cartoon on my fume hood at three different universities, until it was lost in a recent move. A Google search revealed your blog, and the coveted picture. I also used M&B 3rd edition, and your description of your travails (in the same year as mine) causes me to wax nostalgic. Thanks for helping me find my lost duckpin, and for the memories.

Prof. P. Woster
Charleston, SC