Saturday, September 10, 2011

Cobalt, Goblins And Globins

Cobalt's mysterious name apparently traces back to Greek and Latin roots meaning evil spirit. read more. Though known to Paracelsus (1493-1541) as salts and oxides, cobalt was not considered an element until Antoine Lavoisier redefined the very term "element."

Chemists have a little mnemonic teaching rhyme which goes:

 If it's blue, it's cobalt (II).

Cobalt (II) salts give the gorgeous deep blue color which contrasts the stark white tin glaze used in Delftware pottery:


Like iron, our bodies need cobalt -- just less of it. Vitamin B12, also called cobalamin, contains cobalt. Vitamin B12 fascinates me because it was present at several very important 20th century chemical mileposts. I could write a blog post about each and every of the following:
  • How the discovery of liver juice and liver extracts cured pernicious anemia, leading to a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1934.
  • How after the curative factor was isolated and named Vitamin B12, British chemist Dorothy Hodgkin determined its structure using X-ray crystallography. Vitamin B12 was then the most complex natural molecule known.* Hodgkin received the 1964 Nobel Chemistry Prize for her work.
  • How Hodgkin's structure inspired Robert Burns Woodward, American chemist extraordinaire, to synthesize B12 de novo. This work, his crowning oeuvre, in collaboration with Albert Eschenmoser in Switzerland, spanned a dozen years and spawned much new chemistry and also a set of rules which led to another Nobel Prize in 1981 (which Woodward would have shared had he lived).
  • How the isolation of Vitamin B12 sparked a legal battle in the patent world beginning in the late 1950's: the legal question was whether something found in nature was patentable subject matter or not. Ironically, SCOTUS may be revisiting parts of a 1958 case this fall when they decide to hear arguments or not regarding the patentability of genes.
*While the contemporaneous discovery of DNA (the double helix) was perhaps more important, B12 was intellectually more interesting, involving as it did a novel cobalt-carbon bond. 


  1. You never mentioned adding a cobalt sheath to a nuclear fission weapon to increase its lethality...

  2. You never mentioned adding a cobalt sheath to a nuclear fission weapon to increase its lethality...

    Dirty bombs? I'll cook something up just for you. I have lots of little goblins in store.

    Don't forget that cobalt was around for the discovery of magnetic resonance too. That was an enormous stride forward too and led to NMR and then MRI.