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It’s time to buy a lot of candles. And if we light them with matches, it will only be possible because of the anniversary in question. It’s happy 350th birthday to the discovery of phosphorus, an element that is essential for life as we know it. The story of how the 15th element on the periodic table was discovered stands as one of the great accidents of human endeavour – the chemist’s equivalent, perhaps, of Columbus setting out for India only to find the Americas by mistake. In the case of phosphorus, the explorer was Hennig Brand, a 17th-century alchemist and merchant from Hamburg, Germany. Brand had been trying to achieve one of the great goals of alchemy, to make the philosopher’s ... Full story

12 January