Aqua regia

I came across the term aqua regia while reading, and looked it up. Wikipedia says the term is from Latin for “royal water”, and is also known as aqua regis (Latin, “king’s water”). In modern chemistry it’s known as nitro-hydrochloric acid. It got its name “because it can dissolve the noble metals gold and platinum.”

A great story is related there:

When Germany invaded Denmark in World War II, Hungarian chemist George de Hevesy dissolved the gold Nobel Prizes of German physicists Max von Laue (1914) and James Franck (1925) in aqua regia to prevent the Nazis from confiscating them. The German government had prohibited Germans from accepting or keeping any Nobel Prize after jailed peace activist Carl von Ossietzky had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935. De Hevesy placed the resulting solution on a shelf in his laboratory at the Niels Bohr Institute. It was subsequently ignored by the Nazis who thought the jar—one of perhaps hundreds on the shelving—contained common chemicals. After the war, de Hevesy returned to find the solution undisturbed and precipitated the gold out of the acid. The gold was returned to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Foundation. They re-cast the medals and again presented them to Laue and Franck.

(From Wikipedia article “Aqua regia”.)

I know the name Carl von Ossietzky from many street names in former East Germany, but didn’t know anything about him, so it was time to fill that gap a bit. I figured he was a persecuted Communist from the pre-World War II era. Actually he was not: He wasn’t a Communist and actually criticized German and Soviet Communism. He was a German pacifist who was “convicted of high treason and espionage in 1931 after publishing details of Germany’s alleged violation of the Treaty of Versailles by rebuilding an air force, the predecessor of the Luftwaffe, and training pilots in the Soviet Union.” He died while in a hospital under police custody. Interestingly, the case was later reopened by his daughter and in 1992 the 1931 “verdict was upheld by the Federal Court of Justice”.

These two anecdotes send a mixed message to us about how historical wrong may or may not be righted. When you are right but treated as wrong in your own time, even if many later view history as having vindicated you, sometimes it is formally recognized and sometimes not.


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