Aspirin and history

There are instances of chemical discoveries having a major impact on world history. Dr. Chaim Weizman helped the British World War I war effort by inventing a method to produce acetone, a fundamental component of explosives in those days. The Germans had a near stranglehold on chemistry in those days, thanks to their pioneering chemists and large industrial groups like the IG Farben cartel. The grateful British rewarded him with the Balfour declaration, the foundation for the later establishment of the state of Israel, of which Weizman became the first president.

Sometimes, the link is more indirect. Aspirin was purified in 1897 by Felix Hoffmann, a chemist working for Bayer who was looking for a drug to relieve his arthritic father’s pains. He took salicylic acid, the active principle behind willow bark tea (an ancient remedy mentioned as far back as Hippocrates), and found a way to synthesize sufficiently pure acetylsalicylic acid, much less irritating for the stomach lining.

In those days, medicine was just entering the scientific age (the conservative medical profession had long defended its turf, trying to shut down interlopers like surgeons or the chemist Pasteur), and modern drugs were few and in between. A potent medicine like aspirin was a godsend and used too often as a panacea.

Generations of inbreeding had led most of the royal families of Europe to be affected by various genetic diseases, the most prominent being hemophilia, a lack of clotting factors in the blood that can cause victims to literally bleed to death from the slightest cut. The tsarevich, heir to the throne of Russia was one of those affected. His physicians prescribed aspirin, the wonder drug from the West. As aspirin is a blood thinner, this actually worsened the hapless boy’s condition.

Enter Rasputin, a charismatic monk, who advised the royal family to shun the impious potions of the western heretics and to adopt his brand of faith healing. Removing the aspirin treatment led to an improvement in the tsarevich’s condition, thus sealing Rasputin’s influence over the queen.

Many historians believe Rasputin’s influence was one of the factors leading to the weakening of the Russian monarchy, leading to its eventual overthrow in 1917, followed by the rise of communism there. Thus did an act of filial piety lead to the fall of an empire.

Winged Migration

I went to see Winged Migration yesterday (Le Peuple Migrateur in the original French). It is a truly magnificent and inspiring movie with incredible footage of bird migrations seen up, close and personal. Just go see it, it is suitable for all ages.


After three months of development, I have finally migrated from Radio to Mylos, my home-grown weblogging software. It is far from finished, but there comes a point where you must just do it (the fact my laptop’s hard drive died on me was also a good catalyst). I have tested it with major browsers and RSS aggregators, but if you notice any errors, specially on the RSS feed, I would greatly appreciate it if you could email them to me.

How to ship books cheaply

A friend is moving from San Francisco to Paris, and I told him about a very low-cost option to ship books in bulk, the US Postal Service Airmail M-Bag. I used this service ten years ago when shipping books back from Yale to Paris, some of them were slightly battered in transit but all in all a remarkable service. It is also available for domestic use.

You basically buy the right to send a whole postal mail bag at a wholesale price, which comes to slightly under a dollar per pound for France. Interestingly, the French post office does not offer M-Bags to French customers but will accept those sent by the USPS.