University of Pittsburgh
September 16, 1999

STAMPS, SCIENCE AND SILLINESS: Book Takes a Lighthearted Look at Chemical Philately

Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH, September 17 -- Stamps and chemistry go together like a fowl from the Anatidae family to a liquid composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen (that's like a duck to water, for those without Ph.D.s) — at least if you're reading "A Philatelic Ramble Through Chemistry," a new book that examines the way chemistry and other sciences have been commemorated through stamps.

Two chemistry professors, Foil Miller of the University of Pittsburgh and Edgar Heilbronner of the University of Basel, Switzerland, combined their scientific vocations with their collectable avocations in the humorously irreverent, yet informative, book. The two first met in 1958, when Miller was a fellow in Zurich, Switzerland, but it wasn't until they each noticed contributions the other had authored in "Philatelica Chemica et Physica," a periodical devoted to chemistry and physics stamps, that they learned of their shared hobby.

Though the book is organized in a loose chronological order, the authors are careful not to portray it as a review of the history of chemistry. Rather, they've selected more than 1,000 stamps from across the globe that cover people, places and things chemical, reproducing each stamp in full color.

In addition to representing historic discoveries from the pre-science days of alchemy to modern Raman spectroscopy, stamps also commemorate chemistry as depicted in art and literature, including Goethe's "Faust," Dante's "Inferno," and Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." One stamp, picturing police officers escorting an inebriated gentleman, is selected to represent the age-old chemical art of brewing beer.

Make no mistake, though: the book is written with the assumption that the reader has some knowledge of chemistry. Much of the humor is accessible to non-scientists, but other parts are clearly for insiders.

It would take a scientist's eye, for instance, to note that a group of young scientists (not wearing protective goggles!) pictured on one stamp is heating a liquid in a sealed container, which will soon explode. Another philatelic scientist has discovered a gravity-defying liquid which flows horizontally from the container from which it is being poured, Miller points out.

Poking fun at an Austrian stamp, Miller and Heilbronner note that physicist Erwin Schrödinger's hair is parted on the left side in one drawing, and on right in another. "This," they say, "... is now known as the Uncertainty Principle." Funny—if you're familiar with Schrödinger's work.

As you might expect, stamp designers and artists are not usually familiar with chemical equations and molecular diagrams, and the authors present a mock "Mad Benzene Rings on Stamps Award" to an Argentinean stamp for its misrepresentation of the benzene molecule.

"Among the great moments in chemistry we should list the discovery by stamp designers of a new type of chemical bond which complements the well-known s and π bonds," they write. "We call it the philatelic bond, or j for short."

"On the other hand, we strongly sympathize with Queen Elizabeth for averting her eyes from the free-floating hydroxyl group of phenol on stamp 90 before it drops on the floor and messes her carpet," the authors write, poking fun at a one shilling stamp honoring antiseptic surgery.

"Errors on stamps is the particular field of topical collecting where the usual pleasure of gathering stamps related to a given theme is considerably increased by the malicious joy of catching the artist and the post office with egg on their faces," writes Heilbronner.

Or perhaps, with a free-floating hydroxyl group of phenol on their faces.

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Stamp 1

Scientists in this stamp have apparently discovered a liquid that defies gravity!

Stamp 2

Not only are these young scientists not wearing protective goggles, but the fluid they are heating is in a closed container—meaning it's likely to explode.

The above graphics are available on the University of Pittsburgh's ftp site:

"ftp://ftp.univ-relations.pitt.edu/FTP/chemistry-stamps/"