Science fictions and mysteries as the teaching tool for the students of non-chemistry major courses
Introductory Teaching Tool for the Students of Non-Chemistry Major Courses:
Mysteries, Science-Fictions and Chinese Classic Literature
– Forensic Detection of Arsenic Murder in 12th Century --
Laboratory of Chemistry, Japanese Red Cross Colege of Nursing
Hiro-o, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0012, JAPAN
Professor Emeritus, Aoyama-Gakuin University
Tsujido-Shinmachi, Fujisawa, 251-0042, JAPAN
We have tried to use several famous mysteries, science fictions and various classic literatures as the introductory tool in
the sequential lectures for the freshmen or sophomores of these courses in several universities. The existence of strong
chemophobia among the students of non-chemistry major courses is the significant barrier to carry out the general
chemistry lecture in these decades in several universities or coleges in Japan. The students have frequently shown the
morbid fear against the chemical symbols, structural formula like benzene ring, and so on. These trends appear not only
in law, economics or pedagogy students, but also, surprisingly, in the students of computer science or nursing courses also.
Perhaps it may be the results of physics chauvinism and/or the inaccurate articles and propaganda of mass-
communication media. To overcome these dificulties, we have selected various literary works from ancient to the recent
mystery or SF novels. During the selection, we have found the interesting example of the forensic arsenic detection prior
to James Marsh (five to seven centuries ago). In one of the Chinese Four Great Curious Books, “Shui-Ho-Chuan”
(English title: ”Al Men are Brothers” translated by Mme Pearl Buck), which was writen by Lo Kwan-Chung in the
beginning of Ming-dynasty (around 1350), it was described that the black arsenic deposits (arsenic mirrors) can be
observed on the skeleton after the cremation of arsenic-poisoned victim. Such examples as new approaches have been
able to induce somewhat positive responses and to remove apparent shields of their chemophobia at least partialy.
Keywords: introductory chemistry teaching tools, SF and mystery, Chinese classic literature, ancient forensic arsenic
In these decades, we have faced directly to the strong chemophobia widely spread among
many students of non-chemistry major courses. They have frequently shown the morbid fear
against the chemical symbols, structural formula like benzene ring, and so on. These trends
appear not only in law, economics or pedagogy students, but also, surprisingly, in the students
of computer science, electronics or nursing courses also. Perhaps it may be the results of
physics chauvinism and/or the inaccurate articles and propaganda of mass-communication
Most of these students are thinking that the knowledge concerning chemistry is thoroughly
useless and only valid for “mad scientists” like Dr., Viktor Frankenstein. These prejudices
against chemistry seem to be derived at least partly from the teachings and modern textbooks
in secondary schools, which are rich in physico-chemical and mathematical topics and
exercises. (We have once found a startling expression that “Chemistry is rather new science
area than physics, geology, biology and medicine. Therefore the coverage is much narrower
than those sciences of long and glorious history”, in an introductory science book.)
Some of our colleagues are eager to introduce various teaching aids such as audio-visual
tools and self-teaching computer software, to overcome these difficulties. However, it seems
only slight effects for students because of their groundless prejudice against material science
and chemistry. It is also interesting and effective to introduce the laboratory practice
concerning Crime Lab Experiments [Barber: 1991] for science teaching, but our facilities are
rather poor to cover the recent development of forensic science.
Therefore, we have tried to use several famous mysteries, science fictions and other literary
works as the introductory tool in the sequential lectures for the freshmen or sophomores of
these courses in several universities. These new approaches have been able to induce
somewhat positive responses and to remove apparent shields of their chemophobia at least
On the selection of texts, there are some books of forensic science, which were produced
from A. C. S. (Gerber: 1983, Gerber and Saferstein: 1997, Stocker: 1997). All of them contain
chapters concerning fictitious topics such as Sherlock Holmes anthology or Dorothy Sayers,
Umberto Eco, and Patricia Cornwell’s books. We have found much interesting chemical
descriptions in these and other literary works and historical readings, which have been
overlooked for a long time. These topics are seemingly impressive to students because they are
contrary to their customary expectation. Several examples will be shown in the following.
Forensic detection of arsenic murder
Lo Kwan-Chung's "Shui-Ho-Chen" (English Translation was carried out by Mme Pearl
Buck, " All Men are Brothers") is one of the " Chinese Four Great Curious Books ". This long
novel has many chapters, and several parts were compiled into the famous pornographic
Wu Ta-Lang, the elder brother of brave hero Wu Sung, was poisoned by his beautiful wife
Pan Chin-Lieng (Gold Lotus). She obtained white arsenic from Hshi-Men Ching, her rich
lover and usurer. After Wu Ta-Lang's death, She sent her husband's corps to crematorium,
and immediately married to Hshi-Men. Wu-Sung was already prisoned by a false charge.
Several years later, Wu Sung returned his home by imperial amnesty. His brother's ghost
appeared in night and told that his wife and Hshi-Men poisoned him to death. Wu Sung soon
visited to a coroner. Coroner Ho Chu told him "We have found black spots on your brother's
burnt skeleton after cremation. This spot proves that the victim was poisoned by white arsenic,
but it was strictly hidden to avoid the accuse from Hshi-Men."
The "black spots on burnt skeleton" seems to correspond to the "arsenic mirror" which
was applied to prove the existence of arsenic in the victim's organ, which was introduced by
English chemist R. Marsh in 1828. The written date of this long novel was estimated around
1350, at the end of Yuan dynasty or the beginning of Ming dynasty. Therefore, such arsenic
detection has much long history in China prior to the modern forensic chemistry
Platinum chemistry description in Casanova's "Memoire"
Marchionesse d'Urfe was one of the eager alchemists in Paris. Casanova visited her
laboratory and was shown many products made by her. Among them, beautiful silver trees
(l'arbore de Diane) and automatically coal-feed atanor are her boasting products.
She showed to Casanova a small pot filled with platinum metal, which was given from
English alchemist R. Wood, and said that "This metal cannot be dissolved in nitric or
hydrochloric acid, but the mixture (aqua regia) dissolves easily. The addition of salmiak
(ammonium chloride) to this aqua regia solution produces insoluble white precipitate (namely
This description is dated at around 1757. It is probably one of the earliest platinum
chemistry texts in the world with the exception of ordinary textbooks.
Such descriptions were written by non-chemists (or at least non-professionals) but the
contents seem to be very much accurate and interesting which seems to be important from
Although most of students have read only the translation of the greatly abridged (juvenile)
version of these classics, it seems much effective for them to read again the perfectly translated
ones which can be purchased today in pocket-book size.
Such approaches are effective to remove (or at least curtail) the barrier to the natural science
lectures (including chemistry) because of the students’ prejudice of undetermined origin.
Results and Discussion:
It is very difficult to evaluate clearly the consequence of our lecture to the freshmen or
sophomores in the short period, because the expected positive effects will appear rather slowly
after the lectures. The students’ responses in the reports or the answers in the terminal
examinations are likely to be not so definite in most case. Perhaps it may be due to their
inexperience to those topics, which were selected by us from much different perspectives
contrary to their expectation. Therefore, only qualitative evaluations are possible until today.
However, a large part of these students (ca.90%) have shown the astonishment for the
universality (or ubiquity) of chemistry (or material science) in the literature or historical
descriptions as not expected, because they are thoroughly thinking that the natural science
(including chemistry) is strictly self-conclusive and the appearance in other area should be
extremely rare, or negligibly small.
It seems also remarkable that the student’s questions related on chemistry or natural science
became much more clear and precise than those before the serial lectures by us. At the
beginning of each semester, many of them would make somewhat absurd or incoherent
questions concerning material science, perhaps because of their very narrow perspective or
misconceptions, which may be due to the mass-media’s inappropriate and exaggerated
reports. The frequency of these rather primitive questions decreased gradually but
It is also important for many students to be aware that the natural science itself has a long
history apart from many philosophical (or metaphysical) areas. Most of them believe that the
today’s science has been developed in these recent years (only one-decade) like many
technological or engineering products. After knowing these long science historical
background, most of them are seemingly to have much broader and flexible capacity to
understand various phenomena. Several students were able to point out the serious errors in
the newspapers and TV news reports after taking our lectures of about half semester.
With these non-ordinary literary introductory tools which were assumed to be non-
chemistry (or non-scientific) topics by almost students, it seems to be rather effective to remove
some parts of their chemophobia shields from groundless prejudice cited above. It can be
hopeful to improve their scientific knowledge in the future daily life.
Our trial to use these topics in literature or historical works are still continuing to elucidate
much more effective examples to be usable as the better tools for the introductory courses.
With several colleagues, we are now making the selected collections for these teaching tools in
these decades, and the parts of their lecture notes were published in small books [Imamura
and Yamasaki, 1987, Yamasaki, 1989]. Other general references and list of mystery and SF
books are shown below.
Recommended general references.
J. Barber, “Teaching Science through Crime Lab Investigations”, International Newsletter on
Chemical Education, No.35, 6-9(1991).
Samuel Gerber : "Chemistry and Crimes"(A.C.S. ) (1983)
Samuel Gerber and Richard Saferstein : "More Chemistry and Crimes, from Marsh Test to
DNA Profile"(A.C.S.) (1997)
T. Imamura and A. Yamasaki, “Mystery and Chemistry (in Japanese)” (Shokabo) 1987
W. B. Jensen, “Captain Nemo’s Battery: Chemistry and Science Fiction of Jules Verne”,
Chemical Intelligencer, 3(2), 23-32(1997).
Peter Nicholls : "The Science in Science Fiction" (A.A.Knopf) (1983)
J. H. Stocker: "Chemistry and Science Fiction"(A.C.S.) (1997).
A.Yamasaki, “Chemistry and Science Fiction (in Japanese) “ (Shokabo) 1989.
A. Yamasaki and A. Furuhashi, “SF and Mysteries as the Teaching Tool for the Students
of Non-Chemistry Major Courses”, Abstracts of the 16th ICCE (Budapest, 2000)
SF Bibliographic Collection (Five volumes. Compiled by Fujio Ishihara, Professor Emeritus,
Tamagawa University) and its database Version.
Selected Topics and Corresponding Examples (only partial) cited in our Lecture in these years:
Nuclides, Isotopes, Radioactive Decay
Isaac Asimov: "Pate de Foix Gras", "The God Themselves".
Robert Heinlein: "The Door into the Summer"
Jules Verne: "Cinq semaines en ballon, voyage de couvertes
(Five Weeks upon Balloon)".
•••Thermal Expansion of gases
Jules Verne: "Etoile les sud(South Star)". ••Artificial Diamond
Michael Clichton: "Congo" ••••Semiconductor Diamond
Arthur C. Clarke: "The Fountains of Paradise” •••Unimolecular carbon fiber
(fullerenes or nanotubes)
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: "Cat's Cradle" Ice 9(fictitious)
Jules Verne: "Vingt mille lieue sous les mers"(20000 miles under the sea)",
•••Bunsen electric battery
Dorothy Sayers: "Abominable History of a Man of Copper-Fingers"
•••Sheffield plating, cyanide bath
Analytical Chemistry, Forensic Chemistry
Lo Kwan Chung: "Shui-Ho-Chen(All men are brothers)
•••Historical description of arsenic murder detection
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: "The Study in Scarlet" •••blood stain identification
Dorothy Sayers: "Strong Poison" •••Marsh Test
Ed McBain: "Poison" •••nicotine color reaction
Patricia Cornwell: "Post Mortem" •••laser fluorescence
Inorganic Toxic Substances
Barbara Pole: "Primadonna at Large" •••conc. ammonia solution
Alisa Craig (Charlotte McLeod): "The Terrible Tide" •••ammonia and bleach
F. W. Crofts: "The Death of Andrew Harrison (Death in Cygnette)”
(actually, carbon monoxide)
Agatha Christie: "The Pale Horse" ••••••••••thallium compounds
Natural Organic Chemistry, Alkaloids
Alexandre Dumas: "Les Comte Monte Cristo" •••brucine, hashish
Agatha Christie: "The Thumb Mark of St. Peter” •••pilocarpine
"The Mysterious Affair at Styles" •••strychnine
Charlotte McLeod: "Rest in Merry" •••taxine
"The Convivial Codfish" •••colchicine
Ellis Peters: "Monk's Hood" •••aconitine
Dorothy Sayers: "Documents in the Case" •••muscarine
Clinical Chemistry and Metabolic Disorder
Daniel Keyes: "Flowers to Algernon" •••Phenylketonuria
Patricia Cornwell: "Post Mortem" •••Maple Syrup Uremia
Agatha Christie: "The Mirror Cracked Side by Side"
•••rubella (German measles)
Several literary work of Japanese mystery and SF writers including Saburo Kohga*, Shin-
ichi Hoshi**, and Hideaki Sena***, were also utilized as the example of many chemical topics.
*) (1893-1945) Industrial chemist (real name: Yoshitame Haruta). Studied ammonia synthesis
under Prof. Fritz Haber.
**) (1925-1997) Biochemist and ex-President of Hoshi Pharmaceuticals Co.
Author of about one thousand "short-short" stories and many juvenile SF. Many of them
have been translated into foreign languages (English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and others).
***) (1968- ) Pharmacochemist (now in Tohoku University). Author of best-seller horror-SF
novel "Parasite Eve".
Akira YAMASAKI (Japanese Red Cross College of Nursing)
e-mail : [email protected]
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