The Test Tube of Happyness

The Test Tube of Happyness
The Humble test tubes.



For this article, let's begin with a game. I'll say a couple of words, and you'll tell me what image comes in your mind. Here we go: Chemistry-Lab! I know you had many pictures in your mind and no proper method to tell me which image appeared in your mind. But I can claim that one of those pictures was the humble test tube.

Now this image could also be due to the title of the article. Nevertheless, this piece of glassware is something that has done wonders for science. It possibly is the one equipment that you have definitely used, regardless of your background of studies. It is used so often that it goes more or less without notice. The simple design and shape are not very exciting. Yet if there’s one piece of lab equipment has come to signify chemistry, and in some ways all of the sciences, it is the test tube. How on earth did that happen?

To stir up an origin

Similar to Paper Clips, the test tube has no known origin. One version of the source is dated back to the imagination of Swede Jöns Jacob Berzelius back in 1814. Berzelius has many discoveries to his name. A few of which are silicon, selenium and thorium, and ascertaining the differentiation between organic and inorganic compounds. He is considered one of the fathers of modern chemistry. In such an outstanding list, the test tube seems like a name that could be dropped quickly. He described something somewhat related to what we know as the test tube in an article he wrote in 1814. However, this was more likely the form of the tall form beaker that carries Berzelius’ name to this day.

J J Berzelius
J J Berzelius was the first one to introduce the test tubes to labs.


The next version of the origin is related to the very well known Michael Faraday. The list of discoveries and inventions by Faraday is unprecedented. The test tube is something that can be added to this list. He first mentioned the idea of the test tube in his book Chemical Manipulation published in 1827, recommending that small glass tubes would be useful for examining reactions. So the test tubes would be the replacement of the wine glasses that were used by the chemists back then. There is evidence in letters written by Faraday which were filled with descriptions and drawings of test tubes.1

Can it resist the heat?

Apart from the transparency of the test tube, heat resistance is a crucial property. And arguably, it is said that this discovery was the turning point of the test tube story. This moment was when German chemist and glass expert Otto Schott created borosilicate glass in 1893. Schott was the founder of the global glass manufacturing organisation Schott AG. The borosilicate glass is made of boric acid, soda ash and of course silica sand. All of this resulted in one critical feature: low thermal expansion coefficient. In regular words, this material could withstand high temperatures without stressing the structure and the shape of the test tube.

Test Tube on Bunsen Burner
The critical property of the test tube is withstanding direct heating.


This sounds like a very trivial phenomenon right now, but it was revolutionary! Think about it. Now one can take the test tube with the chemicals in it and direct it to the heat source like a Bunsen Burner (another Faraday's invention.) This was not possible before. Due to the low thermal expansion coefficient, the liquid inside would be heated, but the glass will stay intact. It can withstand several hundred degrees celsius. In addition to this, it is resistant to chemicals and has excellent optical clarity.2

Schott called this glass Duran. But Pyrex is the more popular name. Eugene Sullivan developed Pyrex in the US in 1908 after the problems he faced with Duran. Pyrex is now the glassware material found in kitchens and chemistry labs. Its fracture-proof abilities have prevented many hot casserole dishes from shattering upon hitting with cold water.

Simple Symbol

From a punk band’s name to covers of chemistry magazines, the test tube is everywhere. (The name of the punk band is Peter and the Test Tube Babies.) Speaking of which, the test tube baby has nothing to do with test tubes. In a literal sense, it should be called a "petri-dish baby". But the symbolism stands since the birth of Louis Brown in 1978. Louis Brown was the world's first baby conceived using in vitro fertilisation (IVF.) Fun Fact: Today is his birthday!🎂3

Fan Art of Walter White holding the test tube
A fan-made art for Breaking Bad with Walter White holding the test tube.


The symbol of science related to the test tube can be seen everywhere. Wherever there is a lab involved, there is a test tube. Be it Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dexter's Laboratory, Shaktimaan or CID, test tubes are everywhere. Hollywood movies like The Incredible Hulk and many Marvel movies, The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Jurassic Park and the sequels, and many more have a wrong serum that gets injected into the body. But it was in a test tube before that happened.

Your turn now

Imagine designing a part and discovering a material that changes the way chemists carry out experiments in a whole another way. Imagine how chemists performed experiments before Schott had made Duran. Chemists have worked on various vaccines using the humble test tube.

I think the test tube is one of those invisible geniuses that are not given enough credit for what meaning they hold. Collecting data and using it to make something extraordinary is what lead to the test tube. Right now, scientists are working on vaccines to eliminate COVID-19.

This week in Invisible History

I am introducing this new section in this article and all the future writings for a game. This game is quite simple and requires your participation. It is called "This week in invisible history." Yeah, I'm taking a little inspiration from The Orbital Mechanics podcast here. So the week in this section means this Saturday to next Saturday. I will give you a clue, and you have to guess what important event I am talking about that happened in the week. This week's clue is: "A noble price for two in a group of three." This is an event that occurred on the dates of "July 25th to August 1st." You can send me the answers in the social media links below. It should be fun.

If you want to read more about such inventions, why not subscribe to the blog? And if you are really into it, follow us on social media. Feel free to share this article with your friends and family to show them how awesome you are!

See you next Saturday! Cheers!

  1. Reddit:r/theinvisiblegenius
  2. Instagram: @theinvisiblegenius
  3. Twitter: @notnitinchopra

Reference links

  1. The test tube: a symbolic story | The Biomedical Scientist Magazine of the IBMS
  2. "An Elementary Manual of Chemistry: Abridged from Eliot and Storer's Manual ... - William Ripley Nichols - Google Books". Society of Automotive Engineers International.
  3. World’s first "test tube" baby born - HISTORY.

Comments

  1. For the game, is it about the Nobel Prize that Einstein got? I think there was dispute at that time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nope. But yes there was a dispute that time as well. Here's another hint: The three of them shared the money they received as the reward.

      Delete

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