Image shows pennies in vaiorus stages after chemistry was performed on them. Text reads Chemistry in Action. See rest of page for full description of chemical event.

Chemistry in Action

Basement level

Chemistry in Action: Copper and Nitric Acid

The wondrous chemical change shown along this corridor shows the essence of chemistry: something changes into something else. Along the way there may be beautiful colors, strange odors, even explosions! Such changes have attracted many people to chemistry and science.

One such person was Ira Remsen, who attributed his interest in chemistry to the reaction you see here: concentrated nitric acid acting upon copper. Born in New York City, Remsen earned M.D. and Ph.D. degrees, the latter in Germany at the University of Tübingen. He went on to found the chemistry department at Johns Hopkins University, he was an excellent teacher of chemistry and wrote several influential textbooks, and eventually he became president of Johns Hopkins. As president Remsen founded the School of Engineering and established Johns Hopkins as a research university.

Here is Remsen’s description of how he decided to become a chemist:

While reading a textbook of chemistry, I came upon the statement, “nitric acid acts upon copper.” I was getting tired of reading such absurd stuff and I determined to see what this meant. Copper was more or less familiar to me, for copper cents were then in use. I had seen a bottle marked “nitric acid” on a table in the doctor’s office where I was then ‘doing time’! I did not know its peculiarities, but I was getting on and likely to learn. The spirit of adventure was upon me. Having nitric acid and copper, I had only to learn what the words “act upon” meant. Then the statement “nitric acid acts upon copper”, would be something more than mere words. All was still. In the interest of knowledge I was even willing to sacrifice one of the few copper cents then in my possession. I put one of them on the table; opened the bottle marked “nitric acid”; poured some of the liquid on the copper; and prepared to make an observation. But what was this wonderful thing which I beheld? The cent was already changed, and it was no small change either. A greenish blue liquid foamed and fumed over the cent and over the table. The air in the neighborhood of the performance became colored dark red. A great cloud arose: This was disagreeable and suffocating–how should I stop this? I tried to get rid of the objectionable mess by picking it up and throwing it out the window, which I had meanwhile opened. I learned another fact–nitric acid not only acts upon copper but it acts upon fingers. The pain led to another unpremeditated experiment. I drew my fingers across my trousers and another fact was discovered. Nitric acid acts upon trousers. Taking everything into consideration, that was the most impressive experiment, and, relatively, probably the most costly experiment I have ever performed. I tell of it even now with interest. It was a revelation to me. It resulted in a desire on my part to learn more about that remarkable kind of action. Plainly the only way to learn about it was to see its results, to experiment, to work in a laboratory.*

*From Getman, F.H. “The Life of Ira Remsen“; Journal of Chemical Education: Easton, PA, 1940, pp 9-10.

Many people have been inspired to become chemists by the beauty, wonder, and excitement of chemical reactions. We hope the photos along this corridor, the video above, and courses offered in this building will lead you to consider how you might contribute to society as a scientist.