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Stories About Chemistry


48.  How to Make a Tortoise Go 
Like "Lightning" and Vice Versa

     A hundred odd years ago a chemist carefully introduced a platinum wire into a vessel containing a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. The result was extraordinary. The container filled up with fog, that is, with water vapour. The temperature remained unchanged and so did the pressure, but the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, "calculated" to take thousands of years, occurred in a matter of seconds.

    Nor was this all. The platinum wire which had caused the two gases to combine instantly, had undergone absolutely no change. Its appearance, chemical composition, and weight, were exactly the same after the experiment as before it.

    Now the scientist was by no means a magician, one of those who invents all kinds of clever tricks to amuse a curious public. This was a serious investigator, the German chemist Dobereiner. 

    The phenomenon he observed is now called catalysis. Substances capable of "making tortoises go like lightning" are called catalysts. Catalysts are literally legion. They may be metals, solid or powdered, oxides of a great variety of elements, salts, or bases. They may be used in the pure form or as mixtures.

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