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Cathy Cobb

Contributor II
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My name is Cathy Cobb, and I am a chemist. I received my undergraduate degree from Reed College and my graduate training at UC Santa Barbara. I taught at California State University, Los Angeles, before moving to South Carolina with my husband and our first son. I worked at Savannah River National Lab until I found I needed more flexibility with our then three sons, at which point I moved to Augusta State University. While at ASU I found a previously unreported oscillating reaction and enjoyed a lively research program funded by PRF.

However when my sons entered middle school, I found I needed even more focused time at home; yet, I wanted to preserve my professional life while keeping the home fires burning. Fortunately I had enjoyed some success in fiction writing, so I decided to try nonfiction. My first book, written with Harold Goldwhite, was well received, and I was off and running.

Ultimately I produced two histories of chemistry—Creations of Fire and Magick, Mayhem, and Mavericks—and two elucidations of chemistry with demonstrations: Joy of Chemistry and Crime Scene Chemistry. Based on these works I have been invited to deliver talks at ACS national, ACS local, Sigma Xi, Royal Society of Chemistry, and other meetings in a dozen different states. My experience and reception has been such that I have also been asked to give talks on topics as diverse as writing for a nontechnical audience, forensic science for authors, and the chemistry of Harry Potter. Most recently I turned my efforts to producing a new book, and perhaps my favorite to date: The Chemistry of Alchemy.

The Chemistry of Alchemy is a collection of reenactments of alchemical practices accompanied

by biographies of the western-European alchemists who performed them. I wrote this book because I was aware of our weird intellectual ancestors, the alchemists, and their legendary quest for gold, and I wanted to know what made them tick. Why did they think they could make gold? What kept them at their kettles year after year, risking the gallows, neglecting their duties, and selling their souls for one more day at the fires?

To answer these questions, my coauthors and I dug into the ancient books and soon found

recipes for glittering golden alloys, silver trees, emeralds, pearls, and golden script. No wonder they thought they could make gold!

So then we had to ask: What about the rest of the legend? What about philosophers’ stones,

peacock’s tails, and powders of projection? Consequently, we went back to the books and were amazed.

We found all these—and yes, transmutation.

Accordingly, I have prepared a presentation based on the fascinating history of these western-

European alchemists complete with video of alchemical processes, samples of products, and wonderful images and stories that comprise the lives of these amazing people. I look forward to the prospect of sharing what I have learned and the opportunity to communicate the appreciation I now feel for my unique and proud chemical heritage.

And, oh yes, my sons turned out fine.


Chemists, Climate, Coal, and Cows (environmental chemistry)

Climate change is real. Not much debate any more. Temperature is a measurable. Ocean acidity is a measurable. Water level is a measurable. And these measures are going up. Details remain under discussion – causes, consequences, and cures – but it’s time to get these details ironed out. Climate change is accelerating. Social change is not. In this talk I address climate change from the perspective of a well-known contributor – coal – and one less explored – cows. In the process, I present frequently overlooked information, offer uncommon perspectives, and highlight the role of chemists – past, present, and future – because chemists cannot afford to be bystanders in a climate collapsing world. The purpose of this talk is to simulate conversation and stir creative juices! Chemists pride themselves in having solutions, but now they may have to look outside the lab. Chemist pride themselves in better living – but now they may have to keep the planet alive.

The Art of Fire: The Chemistry of Alchemy (history of chemistry)

By the time of the European Renaissance the writings of the alchemists read like the ravings of brain-addled addicts, and their contemporaries judged them charlatans and fools. So why waste more words on this weird deviation in the evolution of chemistry? Because there is more to the story than that. While artisans kept close to their kilns and ken, the freewheeling alchemists saw the future in their fires. By trial, by error, by design, and by persistence, they discovered acids, alkalis, alcohols, and salts, and their techniques would become standards in the chemical lab. In this presentation I display videos of alchemical practices, examples of products, and demonstrate a bit of chicanery in the manner of the alchemical charlatan. I tell stories of alchemists from all walks of life—priests, pirates, mothers, and politicians—and relate how their chemical insight and systematic approach produced results tantalizing enough to keep them at their fires. Moreover, I honor alchemists for the spirit they represent. The lives of the alchemists are tales of courage, resourcefulness, and perseverance—and this spirit is with us still. We are believers, dreamers, and philosophers of fire. Alchemist and chemist, one and the same: Seekers after the golden dream.

Unsung Heroes of the Quantum Weird (history of chemistry)

Every student of AP chemistry knows the names of Bohr, de Broglie, Heisenberg, Hund, Pauli, and Planck and learns the power of quantum mechanics. They are told of quantum’s peculiarities—leaps, duality, tunneling, uncertainty, and perhaps Schrödinger’s cat in a box—but there it generally stops. It is possible, in fact, for a physical chemist to survive graduate school without hearing of Bell, Bohm, and the weirdest of all quantum effects: entanglement. Yet interest in quantum weirdness remains alive, even in the face of “shut up and calculate.” Therefore there is value in examining the lives and works of the quixotic grapplers with quantum weirdness and their creative theories, too. Accordingly, in this talk we take a few moments to admire the twentieth-century approaches to the quantum weird and then look at newer approaches, including probability models that say quantum weirdness may not be that weird after all. But Einstein said the gods don’t play dice, and action at a distance is spooky, so other approaches may be needed, too. In this case the lives of the quantum misfits may still have much to teach us: There’s more than one way to skin a cat and room to think outside Schrödinger’s box.

The Chemistry of Lucrezia Borgia, et al. (history of chemistry)

According to legend, poison was a tool of statecraft for women in power during the European Renaissance. The purpose of this talk is to examine the fascinating lives of some of these women, look at possible poisons and techniques that might have been available to them, and ways in which these poisons may have been deployed. It is concluded that there is no irrefutable evidence that the poisonings discussed herein actually occurred, but if they did, arsenic was probably the most reliable and flexible poison available to them, and that techniques existed at the time to engineer arsenic poisons for all their various political needs.

Crime Scene Chemistry as a Teaching Tool (education)

Let’s face it: Crime is fascinating. It’s fascinating for educators, it’s fascinating for chemists, and it’s fascinating for students—which plays right into our hands. What better way to sneak chemical education into the minds of youngsters than mixing it up with a little crime? In this talk I begin with a dreadful mystery and then discuss and demonstrate some chemical methods employed in today’s crime labs that will help us solve the crime. There may be twists, turns, and dead ends, but by the time we’re done, we’ll have the criminal in cuffs.

Measures of the Spread: The Influence of J. Willard Gibbs (history of chemistry)

As chemists, we claim J. Willard Gibbs as our own. Is he not, after all, the progenitor of physical chemistry? It seems, however, that several disciplines can trace their linage through Willard Gibbs. This presentation will offer a brief history of the field of statistics up to the time of J. Willard Gibbs, explore Gibbs’s masterful use of statistics to establish the theoretical foundations of chemical thermodynamics, and then investigate how fields as diverse as economics, evolutionary biology, and literature have adapted and profited from the mathematics of J. Willard Gibbs. We then explore the impact of statistical analyses on quantum mechanics, which includes the Copenhagen interpretation of Schrodinger’s equation and the significance of Bell’s inequality on our interpretation of reality, and conclude with a projection into the future of statistics in science.

Those Marvelous Ladies of Science (history of science)

Women are never far from the action in science; in fact, they often form the front lines. In this hour-long survey I begin with En Hudu’ Anna, mathematician and astronomer, whose name was carved in stone ca. 2300 BCE and then highlight the contributions of ancient Greek, African, and Asian female artisans, scholars, and healers. I move rapidly to the female proto-scientists of the European Middle Ages – the witches and alchemists – and then dwell a bit on these fascinating, indomitable souls before I bring women of technical talent out of the shadows of history – Kepler’s mother; Galileo’s daughter; Lavoisier’s, Galvani’s, and Maxwell’s wives – and even Voltaire’s lover. I end with a summary of modern European, American, and Asian Nobel-prize winning women and women who perhaps should have won. I conclude that – recognized or not – women of dedication and perseverance always were, and always will be, present in science. These women pursue science – even at social and physical peril – not for gain or glory, but because they can do no other.

Alchemy in the Americas (history of chemistry)

In this talk, I explore the history of alchemy in Colonial America, a little known, and poorly understood, but important, page in America history. I myself only discovered this fascinating history in the process of conducting research for my latest book, The Chemistry of Alchemy, a collection of reenactments of alchemical practices accompanied by biographies of the western-European alchemists who performed them. In my research I learned, to my delight and surprise, that these alchemical skills and traditions were not restricted to the Western Europeans but had been carried to the early American colonies and practiced by respectable early Colonial leaders, such as John Winthrop, who proudly and unabashedly pursued the art. In the Americas I found alchemy linked to economic experiments, government policy, educational initiatives, and (of course) the practice of magic and witchcraft.n In this discussion I will briefly explore the origins of alchemy as practiced in Western Europe and then focus on how the custom translated to the Americas. I will then trace the influence of alchemy in America and explore its ramifications in the United States of today. I particularly look forward to presenting this talk because it allows me to share the appreciation I now feel for my unique and proud chemical heritage.


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Aiken, South Carolina 29803


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