Some chemical formulas, like H2O (a.k.a. water), are almost as familiar to us as the words themselves. But why do we write them the way we do? The answer goes back to a 19th-century doctor working in Sweden.
In an attempt to create more fun and random posts on the ODeck we can try this out.
This guy is Jöns Jakob Berzelius. A physician hailing from Sweden, Berzelius found that his true calling came in his introduction to chemistry. Berzelius became frustrated when he learned that other Swedish scientists at the time were not using chemistry in their work sufficiently as other nations were. He became worried that Sweden would lag behind the upcoming scientific nations of England, France, Germany and Russia.
Being an inquisitive lad and questioning nearly everything, Berzelius annoyed his family. They introduced him to a local physician of a mineral spring, hoping he would get out of the house and leave them alone. This strategy worked profoundly as Berzelius began analyzing the mineral content of water from the spring. Around the same time, work in the voltaic pile was published. The voltaic pile which later evolved to the cell shows conductivity and electrochemical reactions with elements in water. This laid the foundations of Berzelius' impact on modern chemistry.
Berzelius was finally awarded the ability to travel after various financial problems and met with fellow electrochemical researchers in England, France and Germany. Making notable connections and relationships with esteemed researchers such as Hans Christian Oersted [Discoverer of electromagnetism], Humphry Davy [researcher in electrochemistry that was similar to Berzelius' work] and Friedrich Wöhler [a high esteem German chemist who helped translate Berzelius's works and personal friend].
While on his travels, Berzelius was elected secretary of the Swedish Academy of Science, paving the way for him to continue his research practically free of debt and within financial responsibility. Through his research he discovered several elements namely silicon cerium, selenium and thorium. He also was the first to apply a standard symbol and name for elements - although some of these changed with Mendeleev's rendition of the periodic table.
After gaining access to Sweden's largest voltaic pile, Berzelius worked with Hisinger to put a charge in a number of mineral solutions to find the result. Some of the discoveries that followed from this included: salt decomposition by electricity, oxygen, acids, alkalies gravitated to specific positive and negative poles.
In addition to his skills, Berzelius loved to write and highlighted the importance of having literature on every topic he studied. Since he was also a physician, Berzelius also studied animal tissues and fluids - noting that muscle tissues contain lactic acid, a finding he published in his book on animal chemistry in 1806. After this, Berzelius also noted that there was no such compendium of all the known chemistry facts, equations and reactions, something he considered quintessential for every chemist in the world. Like a fabled whirlwind J.J.B began work on gathering material, manuscripts and notes all about chemistry. The first designated 'handbook of chemistry' Lärbok i kemien was published just two years later!
This catapulted Berzelius as an authoritative figure in chemistry as his handbook became used for the next 30 years, quite a legacy to leave!
By the end of his career, Berzelius had published tables on atomic weights, constant proportions in acid-base neutralization, as well as the modern way of writing chemical formulas with their properties in superscript [ SO3 ]. He even is the reason for placing dots above the symbol which he used to show how many atoms of an element were being used; but this was later transitioned to electrons.
All in all, Berzelius was a hugely influential chemist and scientist and in a way, accelerated the development of chemistry and even biology. He is, after all the inventor of the word protein!
My hat is off to you Mr. Berzelius, a widely overlooked contributor to the way science has developed over the past 200 years.