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Monday, October 21, 2019


Ooooh, hello dear English speaking-reading-hearing listener, welcome back to me, @sciencemug, the blog/podcast/twitter&instagram accounts/entity behind the unsuccessful e-shopstuffngo on which tells you science stories while solving advanced equations and therefore ending up telling the equivalent of a ‘70s song played backwards and finding as a result of the equations a portrait of SpongeBob, aaand which talks to you thanks to the voice, kidnapped via a voodoo-wireless trick, from a veeery very very dumb human.
Aaand which does all of this in Eng?ish, a language that is to bad English what Avengers: Endgame is to a nasty bruise on the face of good movies history. 

Today, dear listener, I'm gonna tell you the story of a man, his most famous invention and a prize.

Listen to the podcast episode
on iTunes
(Music: Upbeat Party by Scott Holmes; licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License) 

Today in 1833 Alfred Nobel is born. You may remember him for some witty educational movies of the '50 like: "How to blast a mountain while baking cookies", or "1003 ways to lose your pinky and still count to ten". But what you may be not aware of is that the man files a patent in 1867 for an obscure invention probably only few experts know about: dynamite

Happy B-day Alfred Nobel (by @sciencemug)
Alfred Nobel img is a Public Domain pic source (adapted by @sciencemug)

Now, Alfred, who's called "The Blast" by his friends for being always fun to be around to, is one of the four sons of a Swedish engineer and inventor, he gets top quality private education in natural sciences, languages and literature, and a extra training in chemical engineering. He travels around Europe (Finland, France, Russia, Germany) and the US, and, as a teenager, he is fluent (and can tell jokes that crack) in Swedish, Russian, French, English and German, basically like every average today's teenager who, yet, master also the LoL-Code and the Emoticonish.

Anyway, Alfie's youth is not all flowers and booms as his family goes through tough economical difficulties for quite some time. While father and sons try to fix things up, Alfred's mother, who comes from money, saves the day, thanks to a modest income coming from her running a grocery store where she sells milk and vegetables, till, eventually, the family's finances fully recover

Meanwhile in Paris Alfred has his mind blown up when
he gets to know, in the lab he works in, a young Italian chemist, Ascanio Sobrero, and his 1846 creation: the nitroglycerine (the Italian scientist synthesizes the substance treating glycerol, a simple organic compound, with a mix of sulphuric and nitric acid).

Now, nitroglycerine is a very potent yet highly unstable explosive liquid, it is in fact so unstable that "heat, flames, shock, or ultraviolet radiation may cause explosive or violent reactions"(ref). For this reason NitroG (as it is called in the hip-hop world) is considered way too dangerous and therefore unfit for any practical use even by its own creator, Doctor-then-Professor "scare-face" (after an explosion in the 1840s) Sobrero, who says: "When I think of all the victims killed during nitroglycerine explosions, and the terrible havoc that has been wreaked, which in all probability will continue to occur in the future, I am almost ashamed to admit to be its discoverer" (ref).

Anyway, in spite of the odds and danger, our Alfred sees the potential of NitroG as a hugely useful explosive for constructions.

In 1864 he starts mass production of nitroglycerine, and works hard to find a way to safely handle the compound.
He tries several additives to mix with NiroG to "calm it down", so to speak, and finally comes up with the right one.

Indeed, as mentioned above, in 1867 Alfred files the patent for "Dynamite or Nobel’s gunpowder", that is the result of mixing nitroglycerine with kieselguhr, a form of oxide of silicon (SiO2), that turns the liquid crazy NitroG into a stable paste malleable into the by now very familiar rods.

Well, dear listener, this dumb blog could find nowhere the original Alfred Noble's 1867 "Patent number 102. Dynamite or Nobel’s gunpowder", but me and the gang dug up the 1868 US78317A US Patent (P) for Nobel's "Improved Explosive Compound", so we all can have a better look of what Alfred's stuff is really 'bout.

But first, a commercial break!

Have you always found utterly annoying that kids are taught to demolish buildings with such an unrealistic, rudimentary and ineffective way like the one used by that dumb wolf with those irritating pigs' houses?

"Teach our children how to properly blow up things" poster by @sciencemug
Free img by Sergi Viladesau source Unsplash (adapted by @sciencemug)

Then join the "Teach our children how to properly blow things up campaign for more realistic fables" organized by the PUAFTTWTDTAA (Parents United Against Fables That Teach Ways To Demolish Things That Aren't Accurate).
If you join us along with two other people you get to blow up a watermelon with a scale model of a Star Trek photon torpedo! 

So, Alfred, in the US Patent, writes that he invented "a new and useful Composition of Matter, to wit, an Explosive Powder" and that the "nature of the invention consists in forming [a composition] out of two ingredients long known [...] the explosive substance nitro-glycerine, and an inexplosive porous substance [...] with great absorbent capacity" (P) and that doesn't decompose, damage or destroy nitroglycerine.

This "substance is a certain kind of silicious earth or silicic acid, found in various parts of the globe, known [as] silicious marl, tripoli, rotten-stone, &c [...] [The compound] is homogeneous [and] has [as above mentioned] [...] great absorbent capacity [so much that] [...] it will take up about three times its own weight of nitro-glycerine and still retain its powder form, thus leaving the nitro-glycerine so compact and concentrated as to have very nearly its original explosive power" (P).

The combination of NitroG and this absorbing inert substance creates then "a composition which, without losing the great power of nitro-glycerine, is very much altered as to its explosive and other properties, being far more safe and convenient for transportation, storage, and use, than nitro-glycerine" itself (P).

Now, what's the actual recipe for Nobel's explosive powder? Does it, by chance, imply also, as a secret ingredient, some mysterious pepper scoring more than 3milion on the Scoville scale? Well, again, let's peep into the US Patent.

NitroG and the silicious earth mentioned before, the absorbing addictive, are mixed in the following way: the addictive "dried and pulverized, is placed in a wooden vessel", then nitroglycerine is steadily added in a "stream so small that the two [substances] can be kept thoroughly mixed [by] naked hand, or by any proper wooden instrument used in the hand, or by wooden machinery." (P)

As for the quantities, well, nitroglycerine must be enough to make the final compound able to go ka-boom, but not so much to "change its form of powder to a liquid or pasty consistency." (P) 

Simply put, in Alfred Nobel's words, "sixty parts, by weight, of nitro-glycerine to forty of [addictive] forms the useful minimum, and seventy-eight parts, by weight, of nitro-glycerine to twenty-two of [addictive forms] the useful maximum of explosive powder." (P)  

After the mixing step, Alfred says one has to rub the resulting compound "through a hair, silk or brass-wire sieve" (P) since "iron corrodes" (P), and any possible remaining lump must be "rubbed with a stiff-bristle brush till [it is] reduced and [then it has to go] through the sieva" too (P).

Once done with this process, the "powder is finished and ready for use." (P)

Dynamite (by @sciencemug)
Dynamite img is a Public Domain pic source (adapted by @sciencemug)

But what is the key characteristic of this Nobel’s new explosive powder?

Well it is "its nearly perfect exemption from liability to accidental or involuntary explosion" (P). In other words it blows up only when you want it to blow up, not when the quantum chaos decides that an explosion is the ideal way to scratch the itch from a nearby cockroach left antenna.

To be more precise, Nobel's compound is "far less sensitive than nitro-glycerine to concussion or percussion, and [can be] smashed completely to pieces without any danger of an explosion. [Moreover, unlike] gunpowder, [...] it burns up, when set fire to, without exploding. It can, therefore, be handled, stored, and transported with less danger than ordinary gunpowder." (P)

As for the shape Alfred's explosive stuff comes with, well, our inventor writes that "a very convenient form in which to use the powder is to pack it firmly in cartridges of strong paper" (P) to be put into "a wooden cask or box" (P). 

Finally, Alfie specifies that when "confined in a tight and strong enclosure [his powder] explodes by heat applied in any form when above the temperature of 360° Fahrenheit [182.2 °C] [while under] all other circumstances it may be exploded by some other explosion in it or into it." (P)

And, of course, our dear Swedish chemist, also invents the way to make the rods of its powder go off, that is a detonator (a blasting cap) that can be ignited by lighting a fuse.

Soo, dear listener, to sum up, Alfred Nobel turns a powerful but, given its instability, almost useless and very dangerous explosive (nitroglycerine) into a stable, safe, still very powerful one (dynamite) that can be easily produced, stored, transported and employed. This is a big deal for cutting the costs and therefore promoting the advancement of "blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building canals and many other forms of construction work" (ref). 

Alfie, besides, is an excellent business man, and makes a load of money out of his inventions (in his life he files 355 patents worldwide), founding factories and laboratories in 90 different sites in more than 20 countries.

But the guy is not only fond of science and business, he's into literature too, he writes poems and drama, and he is also involved in social and peace-related questions.

This 360° life envision of his is clearly revealed when Alfred Nobel's will is opened after he dies in San Remo, Italy, the 10th of December 1896.
He takes care of the family, and then gives the following dispositions:

"All of my remaining [...] assets are to be disbursed as follows: the capital [...] is to constitute a fund, the interest on which is to be distributed annually as prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind. The interest is to be divided into five equal parts and distributed as follows: one part to the person who made the most important discovery or invention in the field of physics; one part to the person who made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction; and one part to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses. [...] It is my express wish that when awarding the prizes, no consideration be given to nationality, but that the prize be awarded to the worthiest person, whether or not they are Scandinavian.” (ref

So, this are the words by which the Nobel Foundation and therefore the Nobel Prize come from, folks. And they don't come easily, as Alfred's family opposes to the will and the institutions he chooses for deciding the winners of his prize initially refuse to do it.

Five years have to pass, indeed, before the first Nobel Prizes are awarded. It is 1901.

Up to today, 597 prizes have been awarded to 950 Nobel Laureates.

Sooo dear listener, till this point I told you the story of Alfred Nobel, dynamite and nitroglycerine, with NitroG portrayed only as an explosive unstable liquid.
But for sure, you, dearest smart listener, are now wondering how come nitroglycerine ends up being used also as a medicine.

Eh, good point!

Well, in 1879 the English Medical Doctor Willam Murrell starts publishing a long paper entitled "Nitroglycerin as a remedy for angina pectoris" (by the way, good luck if you want to read it...) which spans 4 numbers (1) of the medical journal The Lancet. In the paper the good doctor, who is "Lecturer on Practical Physiology at Westminster Hospital, and Assistant-Physician to the Royal Hospital for Diseases of the Chest" (1) in London, describes the thorough experimental work he does with nitroglycerine on himself and on 35 of his patients, "12 males and 23 females aged 12 to 58" (1) and finally reports the results on four patients, each of 'em "placed on placebo for a week before the trial of nitroglycerin, which [is] then introduced, the dose being gradually increased. All patients [obtain] great relief, [with] side effects increasing as dosage [is] increased." (1)

In conclusion, dear listener, since the end of the XIXth century nitroglycerine is exploited also to treat heart problems.

The reason why a thing used to blow stuff up be also used to treat a heart condition is linked to the fact that: "[n]itroglycerin is a potent vascular dilator exerting its strongest effect on the venous system [...] and a lesser effect on the arterial circulation [...]" (ref). 

Ooook that's all pals, catch y'all next time! In the meanwhile, if you spare some time and feel like doing it, please subscribe and/or rate this podcast, and/or leave a comment on the blog, and/or take a tour on my stuffngo(sNg) e-shop on so you can see if there’s something you like! 


If you want to see a cool video about notroglycerine, dynamite and other explosives check this out&enjoy!

P - Alfred Nobel (1868). US78317A US Patent: Improved Explosive Compund.
1- Smith, E., and Hart, F.D. (1971). William Murrell, physician and practical therapist. Br Med J 3, 632–633. 

- The Nobel Prize 

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