Friday, April 24, 2015

ChEmIcAmAzInG - The Yellow Pages of Old Books and Newspapers

When we were kids, there was that day when our parents let us have a look at a dusty collection of historic old, yellowed newspapers. The Moon landing, political victories that started the great history of our own country and many more pillars of history, now sitting on bookshelves or hidden in trunks. These newspapers are fascinating artifacts documenting history, from remarkable moments to daily news. Unfortunately, these ancient relics are so hard to read due to the yellowed, brown color and fading print. So one day I asked myself: why does this happen? Is there any way to prevent this from happening?

Let’s start with the invention of paper. It’s thought that paper was invented around 100 BC in China. Originally made from wet hemp that was, then, replaced with pulp, tree bark, bamboo and other plant fibers. Paper soon spread across Asia, first only being used for official and important documents, but as the process became more efficient and cheaper, it became far more common.

Paper arrived in Europe around the 11th century. Historians believe the oldest known paper document from the European country is the “Missal of Silos” from Spain. The paper of this document was made out of a form of linen, the rest completely out of parchment. While paper, books, and printing would evolve throughout the next eight hundred years, with the Gutenberg printing press coming in the mid-15th century, paper was normally made out of linen, ragweed, cotton or other plant fibers. This until the mid-19th century when paper was made out of wood fiber.

So what changed during time?  In 1844, two individuals invented the wood paper-making process.

On one end of the Atlantic Ocean was Canadian inventor Charles Fenerty. Growing up, his family owned a series of lumber mills in Nova Scotia. Knowing the durability, cheapness, and availability of wood, he realized it could be a good substitute for the much more expensive cotton paper, widely used all over his town . He experimented with wood pulp and, on October 26, 1844, he sent his wood pulp paper to Halifax’s top newspaper, The Acadian Recorder, with a note claiming the durability and cost-effective spruce wood paper. Since then, the Recorder used Fenerty’s wood pulp paper.

At the same time, German binder and weaver Friedrich Gottlob Keller was working on a wood-cutting machine when he discovered the same thing as Fenerty – that wood pulp could act as a cheaper paper than cotton. He produced a sample and, in 1845, received a German patent for it. In fact, some historians credit Keller for the invention more than Fenerty simply due to the fact that he received a patent and the Canadian didn't.

Within thirty years, wood pulp paper was used all over the world, but a little issue was very annoying. While wood pulp paper was cheaper and just as durable as cotton or other linen papers, there were drawbacks. Mainly, wood pulp paper is much more prone to being effected by oxygen and sunlight.


Wood is primarily made up of two polymer substances – cellulose and lignin. 

Cellulose is a complex carbohydrate and one of the most abundant organic materials in nature. It is also technically colorless and reflects light extremely well rather than absorbing it, which would make it opaque. Therefore humans see cellulose as white. However, cellulose is also somewhat susceptible to oxidation, although not nearly as much as lignin. Oxidation causes a loss of electrons and weakens the material. In the case of cellulose, this can result in some light being absorbed, making the wood pulp of which paper is made appear duller and less white. But this isn't the cause of the yellowing in aged paper.
 Lignin is the other prominent substance found in paper- in newspapers in particular. Lignin is a compound found in wood that actually strengthen the wood, making it harder. In fact, according to Dr. Hou-Min Chang of North Carolina State University in Raleigh:

Without lignin, a tree could only grow to about 6 ft. tall

Essentially, lignin functions as a sort of glue that binds the cellulose fibers, helping make the tree much stiffer and able to stand taller than it otherwise would, as well able to resist external pressures like wind.

Lignin is a dark color naturally and so it is highly susceptible to oxidation. Exposure to oxygen - especially when combined with sunlight - alters the molecular structure of lignin, causing a change in how the compound absorbs and reflects light. The result in the paper containing oxidized lignin is a yellow-brown color in the human visual spectrum.

Since the newspapers are made with a less intensive and cheaper process – in fact a lot of the wood pulp paper is needed – the paper used for it has significantly more lignin than the one for books, where a bleaching process is used to remove much of the lignin. So, as newspapers get older and are exposed to more oxygen, they turn a yellowish-brown color relatively quickly.

Thanks to the bleaching process, the paper used in the production of books tends to be of a higher grade and the oxidation doesn't happen so quickly. However, the chemicals used in the bleaching process to make white paper modifies the cellulose formula,  making it more susceptible to oxidation than it would otherwise be. 

Paradoxically, the process of paper whitening  slightly contributes to the yellowing of the pages during time.

Nowadays, against this, many important documents are now written on acid-free paper with a limited amount of lignin, to prevent it from deteriorating over a long period of time.

As for old historic documents – the one already destroyed by time – there may not be a way to reverse the damage already done. But few simple rules can prevent further damage. As the historians taught us, it is essential to store the documents in a cool, dry, dark place, just like how museums store historic documents in a temperature-controlled room with low-lighting. Also, you shouldn't store them in an attic or basement because those places can get humid and have temperature swings. Most importantly, limit the handling of these documents. Nothing destroys a valuable piece of paper like frequent handling. Also an UV protected glass could be an idea, but maybe this solution is not very cheap.


There’s no denying the yellowing of pages is connected with the unceasing flow of time. Watching such objects becoming old is such a fantastic process. Time exists and this is the proof.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Random Room #1

Welcome to the Random Room. This time I felt like doing some kind of Random facts about ... Everything. In fact, here you will find fun and interesting facts, but without a specific topic. The Random Room could talk about everything. Maybe, while reading one of these curious facts, you'll find a detail that will surprise you, will make you laugh or say "I didn't know this". I hope my idea will let you discover even more the strange wonders of the world. The password to this new section is simple: Learn Interesting Facts Everyday (aka L.I.F.E. - yes, I did this on purpose).

To seed or not to seed....
1. When Helium is cooled to almost absolute zero (-273°C), the  lowest temperature possible, it becomes a liquid with surprising  properties: it flows against gravity and will start running up and over the lip of a glass container.


2. If you plant an apple seed, it is almost guaranteed to grow a tree of a different type of apple.

3. The average person walks the equivalent of five times around the world in a lifetime.

4. Otters sleep holding hands. Such cute animals, don't you think?

5. The katzenklavier (“cat piano”) was a musical instrument made out of cats. Designed by 17th-century German scholar Athanasius Kircher, it consisted of a row of caged cats with different voice pitches, who could be “played” by a keyboardist driving nails into their tails.

6. People say “Bless you” when you sneeze because your heart stops for a millisecond.

7. Every second around 100 lightning bolts strike the Earth and every year lightning kills 1000 people.

8. There are about 24,000 species of butterflies. The moths are even more numerous: about 140,000 species of them were counted all over the world.

9. Beetles taste like apples, wasps like pine nuts, and worms like fried bacon.
10. Camels have three eyelids to protect themselves from blowing sand.

11. Some worms, like the ribbon worm, will eat themselves if they can't find any food.

12. In 2008 scientists discovered a new species of bacteria that lives in hairspray.

13. Pepsi originally contained pepsin, an enzyme also present in our digestive system, thus the name.
A hummingbird eating from a flower

14. Hummingbirds are the only animals that can fly backwards.

15. There are around 60,000 miles of blood vessels in the human body. If you took them all out and laid them end to end, they’d stretch around the world more than twice.

16. The flea can jump 350 times its body length. It's like a human jumping the length of a football field.

Blood Falls in Antarctica
17. There is a glacier called “Blood Falls” in Antarctica that regularly pours out red liquid, making it look like the ice is bleeding. It’s actually oxidized salty water.

18. Your stomach has to produce a new layer of mucus every two weeks or it will digest itself.


19. When Twister was introduced in 1966, it was denounced by critics as “sex in a box”.

20. There are more lifeforms living on your skin than people on the entire planet.

21. Every year over one million earthquakes shake the Earth.
Ok...now what do I do?


22. In 10 minutes, a hurricane releases more energy than all the world’s nuclear weapons combined.

23. If you could remove all of the empty space between atoms that make up every human being, the entire world population could fit into an apple.
24. Caterpillars almost completely liquefy as they transform into butterflies.

25. It is impossible to drown and not die. Technically the term ‘drowning’ refers to the process of taking water into the lungs, not to death caused by that process.

26. A full moon is nine times brighter than a half moon.

27. In October 1999 an Iceberg the size of London broke free from the Antarctic ice shelf.

28. Bulls are colorblind, so it's the taunting motion that makes them charge at the flag and go crazy.

29. Frogs can't vomit normally, so they turn their stomach inside out.
The Mount Krakatoa
30. Cleopatra lived closer in time to the Moon landing than to the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

31. When Krakatoa erupted in 1883, its force was so great it could be heard 4,800 kilometers away in Australia.
A rounded rainbow...? Are you kidding me?!?
32. There is enough DNA in an average person’s body to stretch from the sun to Pluto. And back. 17 times.

33. A rainbow can be seen only in the morning or late afternoon. It can occur only when the sun is 40 degrees or less above the horizon. If a rainbow is seen from a plane, amazingly it is possible to see the rainbow as an entire circle and not just an arc.

34. The invention of tea bags was an accident. Tea was meant to be removed from the bags before being used, but no one made that clear.
35. At over 2000 kilometers long, The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on Earth.

The Great Barrier Reef...and a turtle.
36. Only female mosquitoes will bite you.

37. The earth’s magnetic field pulls the electron beams hitting the cathode ray tube in computer monitors. Every computer monitor has to be calibrated relative to its position in the earth’s magnetic field. Adjust a monitor in the northern hemisphere and its colors will be wrong if you plug it into a computer in the southern hemisphere.
Susami Bay Post Box

38. The world’s deepest postbox is in Susami Bay in Japan. It’s 10 metres underwater.

39. The oldest condoms ever found date back to the 1640s (they were found in a cesspit at Dudley Castle), and were made from animal and fish intestines.

40. If you could drive your car straight up, you would arrive in space in just over an hour.

41. Honey does not spoil. You could feasibly eat 3000 year old honey.
42. There are 8 times as many atoms in a teaspoonful of water as there are teaspoon full of water in the Atlantic ocean. I know, this is a little tricky…

43. The risk of being struck by a falling meteorite for a human is one occurrence every 9,300 years.

44. The loneliest creature on Earth is a whale who has been calling out for a mate for over two decades,  but whose high-pitched voice is so different to other whales that they never respond.

45. An individual blood cell takes about 60 seconds to make a complete circuit of the body.

46. The known universe is made up of 500 billion galaxies. There are between 500,000 million stars in a normal galaxy. In the Milky Way alone there might be 200 to 400 billion between stars and planets. The best estimates suggest that there are at least 70 sextillion stars in the Universe Now imagine me how great this is…

47. Some fruit flies are genetically resistant to getting drunk, but only if they have an inactive version of a gene scientists have named “happyhour”.

48. The Dutch village of Giethoorn has no roads; its buildings are connected entirely by canals and footbridges.
Giethoorn Village

49. It takes 8 minutes 17 seconds for light to travel from the Sun’s surface to the Earth.

50. The deepest part of any ocean in the world is the Mariana trench in the Pacific with a depth of 35,797 feet.

51. A family of people with blue skin lived in Kentucky for many generations. The Fulgates of Troublesome Creek are thought to have gained their blue skin through combination of inbreeding and a rare genetic condition known as methemoglobinemia.

52. Powerful earthquakes can permanently shorten the length of Earth’s day, by moving the spin of the Earth’s axis. The 2011 Japan earthquake knocked 1.8 microseconds off our days. The 2004 Sumatra quake cost us around 6.8 microseconds.

53. Melting glaciers and icebergs make a distinctive fizzing noise known as “bergy seltzer”.

54. Our oldest radio broadcasts of the 1930s have already traveled past 100,000 stars.

55. 10 percent of all human beings ever born are alive at this very moment.

56. If you somehow found a way to extract all of the gold from the bubbling core of our planet, you would be able to cover all of the land in a layer of gold up to your knees.

57. To know when to mate, a male giraffe will continuously kick with the head the female in the bladder until she urinates. The male then tastes the pee and that helps it determine whether the female is ovulating.

58. The average human body carries ten times more bacterial cells than human cells. But bacteria inside us produce chemicals that help us harness energy and nutrients from our food. So we probably have to thank those little creatures to be part of us.

59. Snails can sleep for 3 years without eating.
A Supernova
60. If Betelgeuse, one of the brightest stars in our sky, exploded from red super giant stage to supernova, then our sky would light continuously for two months. It can happen anytime, within a month, tomorrow or even now. So look up and get ready for the magic to begin…

I hope to have let your curiosity go crazy with these Random Facts. Never Stop Snooping Around, my dear Snoopers. As you saw, the world is beautiful and strange. The chance is ours to take. To discover how many fantastic things await us. The future belongs to the curious. Remember it.
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