Modified Matter: Chemical Marvels to Biotech and Beyond

Ever since control of fire some 400,000 years ago, mankind has been modifying matter. From that initial achievement, through the Bronze and Iron Ages, we’ll travel past the 18th century identification of chemicals and the elements of matter into this modern time of chemical advances, synthetics, petrochemicals, pharma and biotech. As we move beyond today’s breakthroughs, we’ll look at the vast potential that modified matter encompasses as well the ethical issues such chemical marvels might raise for the future.

Modified Matter: From Chemical Marvels to Biotech and Beyond

By 125,000 BC, control of fire was widespread, used for warmth and cooking. By about 10,000 years ago fire was used to process metallic ores at dawn of civilization and on through Bronze and Iron Ages. Finally, during the 18th century Age of Enlightenment scientists observed, discovered and explained the chemistry that identified the elements of matter that were being modified.

With this as background, the proposed Modified Matter course begins in the early 1800's alongside the Industrial Revolution and explores the chemical marvels developed to preserve and often sustain life. Coal combustion and then natural gas for lighting was explained by Lavoisier's oxygen experiments. We will assess how that combustion understanding led to the great iron, steel and other metallic alloys that became the building blocks of the industrial and transport revolutions of the 19th century. We will also see how learn how other chemistry advances in that same time led to a new world of fashion through synthetic dyes and new clothes to adorn them, both based on cellulose rather than wool and cotton fibers.

In the 20th century, we will trace the path of cellulose as well as explosives to Bakelite, the first in a century of ever evolving plastics. The path from university labs and lone inventors to great industrial labs will be seen through DuPont's transition from weapons to chemistry after World War I and how Wallace Carothers' research led to synthetic rubber and nylon. At same time DuPont took control of GM and modified matter as they and other companies introduced synthetic paints and other automotive and building coverings.

In the middle sessions, we will cover the great age of petrochemicals that fueled post World War II consumer booms, first in the US and then around the world. We will see how new petrochemical based marvels defined the permanent press clothes we wore and the synthetic detergents like Tide and Cheer we used to keep them clean. And we will tie the rock hard Bakelite to the flexible petrochemical streams that cover all the floors, walls, ceilings and exteriors of our homes, offices, factories and transportation of today. Before we move to our biotech and beyond world of tomorrow, we will also see how petrochemicals and plastics swept the realm of packaging and how all those synthetics affected sustainability as well as our globalized world.

The last two sessions of Modified Matter will start with a local story of the 1976 meeting of Bob Swanson and Herbert Boyer, two young men who many of us knew at the time. We will see how that meeting led to the founding of Genentech and how Boyer's and Stanley Cohen's recombinant DNA work in our Bay Area ensured our prominence in the biotech revolution, just as another local titan Fred Terman had done for Silicon Valley some years earlier. We will answer why most of the interest and funding of biotech since has focused on pharmaceuticals when the vastly greater biotech potentials lie in the other life science fields of food and energy. That is the Beyond part of Modified Matter and encompass the course conclusion, along with the ethical issues it encompasses, just as we concluded chemical marvels with the complex question of sustainability.



Modified Matter: Outline and Syllabus

Modified Matter: Bibliographical Resources

1. Slides and Highlights - Big Bang to Lavoisier and Murdoch

2. Slides and Highlights - Chemicals and Coal Tar

3. Slides and Highlights - Cellulose Plastics and Film to Petrochemicals

4. Slides and Highlights - Petrochemicals

5. Slides and Highlights- Costs and Benefits of 20th Century Marvels

6. Slides and Highlights- Biotech and Beyond - Health and Medical

7. Slides and Highlights- Biotech and Beyond - Food and Energy

Petrochemical History Highlights



Website Links for Background Information on Course Topics

Breakthrough Industry Timelines

Other Industry Timelines

Technology Timelines

Inventors Hall of Fame Summary

Inventors Hall of Fame Detail

US Business Innovators

US Innovators, Builders, Business Hall of Fame

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