Chemists serve up a festive test of biblical proportions

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The Independent Online

Offering to share brown resin and white powder around a London pub will usually result in the police being called.

Still, science was involved at the Star Tavern yesterday as the Royal Society of Chemistry tested whether the public would recognise the gifts given to Jesus by the three wise men?

On a white plate sat the myrrh, resembling a golden brown resin, and on another lay frankincense, in the form of white granules. The scientists wanted to mark the centenary of the discovery of the analgesic and antiseptic properties of myrrh, and show how we are surrounded by chemistry every day.

Coming from the trees of certain Commiphora from Africa, myrrh is used by millions of Britons in toothpaste. But the suggestions of those who bit, sniffed or pinched it varied from tree sap, pepper and nutmeg, to paprika, while the frankincense reminded some of dried fish bladder.

Neil Strelitz, who is a surveyor, thought the myrrh smelt herby, but described its taste as "vile", and consistency as "really dry". He described frankincense as smelling like "sage and onion stuffing".

Only one drinker, Michael Powell, 61, a businessman from north London, solved the mystery. Brian Emsley, media relations manager at the Royal Society of Chemistry, said one punter ventured an early guess. "I had some old guy come up to me who said: 'I know what it is and you'll have to buy me a pint or I'll tell everyone'," he said.