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April 21, 2008
Volume 86, Number 16
p. 64

Priestley Medalist Namesakes, Pondering Cremation

Priestley Medalist Namesakes

Image Title Heelys
Size 22: Adams rolls with Shaquille O'Neal's shoe.

In keeping with C&EN's April 7 issue featuring 85 years of Priestley Medal winners and, specifically, C&EN Online's vignettes of now-deceased past winners, here's a peek at the notable accomplishments of some people who just happen to be NAMESAKES of medalists. Perhaps most consequential among this namesakes club is Roger Adams, the 50-something inventor of Heelys. You've probably seen them in action. Heelys are those sneakers with a wheel implanted in each heel that give wearers the ability to move forward by gliding, rather than by the usual one-foot-after-another tactic.

Among others in the namesakes club is Edgar Smith, an actor who has had roles in "Ishtar," "The Love Letter," and "Inside the Locket." One namesake of Samuel Lind's (the "father of modern radiation chemistry") is an exceptional painter and sculptor from Puerto Rico; another is a 21-year-old B.Sc. chemistry student in New Zealand. And Charles Thomas is currently a candidate for the North Carolina House of Representatives.

Pondering Cremation

Apologies to readers who find the next item morbid, but Newscripts wondered if CREMATION is better than burial, environmentally. After all, burial is a source of contaminants from, for example, embalming fluids. Older formulations contained mercury and arsenic, and the newer ones are based on formaldehyde. Coffins also can wield environmental insults. Wood coffins contain varnishes, sealers, and preservatives; steel ones can leach lead, zinc, and copper (Water, Air, Soil Pollut. 2000, 117, 313).

Candace Hinton/Shutterstock
Recycling: Cremation gives back.

It's actually a long-time concern, although for reasons you might not expect. A short paper, "The Chemistry of Cremation," that was published 134 years ago and signed only R. M. (Nature 1874, 11, 33) warns that a wholesale move away from traditional in-the-ground burial and toward cremation could have unintended environmental consequences. "To effect complete combustion we must have a temperature such that the destruction is final, nothing remaining but carbonic acid, water, nitrogen, and ash; for which purpose a complicated apparatus consuming large quantities of fuel will be necessary," R. M. notes. "The gases produced can only be destroyed by being passed through red-hot tubes to which excess of atmospheric air can gain access.

"On comparing the substances produced by such a total decomposition of the body with those produced in the ordinary course of subterranean decay, it will be seen that one compound is totally lost by burning—the ammonia which results from the decomposition of the nitrogenous tissues. This ammonia, escaping into the air or being washed into the soil, is ultimately assimilated by plants—goes to the formation of nitrogenous materials, and thus again becomes available for animals. In the ordinary course of nature a continuous circulation of ammonia between the animal and vegetable kingdoms is thus kept up: if we stop one source of supply of this substance, we destroy the equilibrium—we draw upon the ammoniacal capital of the globe, and in the course of time this loss cannot but react upon animal life, a smaller amount of which will then be possible. There is no compensating process going on in nature as is the case with the removal of atmospheric oxygen by breathing animals—we deduct from a finite quantity, and the descendants of present races will, in time to come, have to bear the sin of our shortsightedness, just as we have had to suffer through the shortsightedness of our ancestors, who destroyed ruthlessly vast tracts of forests, thereby incurring drought in some regions and causing destructive inundations in others."

In this case, technology saved the day. Several decades after R. M. floated this warning, the German chemist Fritz Haber found a way of fixing atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia on industrial scales, perhaps removing the environmental and moral conundrum about cremation that R. M. had raised.

This week's column was written by Arlene Goldberg-Gist. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.