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Chemistry isn’t Just About Chemicals

What do we do with chemistry?  The topic isn’t covered much.  Genetics, microbiology and neuroscience get significant playing time, but chemistry is relegated to the bench.  Pacing the sidelines until it gets the opportunity to use its only ostensible skill, throwing punches on the topic of chemicals.  The argument is tired and un-winnable (one side stirring fear, the other crying concentration dependance) and I am ready for something new.

Here is my blasphemous, little secret chemicals scare me.  Since I have had children they terrify me in a way it never even occurred to me to be concerned about pre-offspring.  For example, I never worried about my bath tub before I had kids.  I mean, I kept it clean, but now I have to clean the cleaner.  I rinse the bath tub about 600 times after dousing it with Clorox Clean-up, to eliminate all traces of bleach that might dry out my precious son’s baby-soft skin or, worse yet, initiate a redox reaction that will eventually lead to some terminal illness.  He is 10 and a swimmer.  There is no rationale to this line of thinking, but it is still there, every time I clean the tub.  Then there is the increasing number of allergy and asthma cases and too many of my girlfriends are in need of medication to compensated for their malfunctioning thyroids.  The thought of endocrine disrupters in our food leads me to seek out preservative free sources and to hand-wash containers, least they leach plasticizers in the dishwasher. 

Knowing there is a chance that a choice I make could cause my family harm scares me. That a choice I make could spare my family suffering keeps me on high alert.  I try not fixate on these things.  I know there is no such thing as a chemical-free life.  That is nonsense which is why I go whole-hog and buy Clorox Clean-up the bacteria will die!  I stop short of having the soil and water privately tested – Do I really trust the water treatment plant’s report?– and I don’t get mad when my husband loads the top rack of the dishwasher with Gladware™ he is too busy to personally clean.  But these little chemical concerns are always on my mind.  It is a primitive response.  I am human, designed to protect the survival of my species.  No amount of don’t-be-ridiculous will allay my trepidation.  Given the fact that I know better, how can you blame the average citizen?


It is like this:  I bolt up the stairs to go to bed on nights when my husband is out of town.   I am afraid of a hidden stranger, in the darkened living room, waiting to grab me on the way up.  We could sit down and you could explain to me that all the doors are locked, and I am surrounded by watchful neighbors, and the likelihood of a maniacal intruder is slim, and I would nod in dismissive agreement, because, of course, I know all that.  Then when it is quiet and dark, and I am alone with my imagination, I will high-step it up those stairs so the boogieman can’t grab my ankles.  It is ridiculous, I know, but I could not get my brain to believe I was safe, not until I got a dog.  It’s time for chemistry science writing to change, it needs the journalistic equivalent of a dog. 

There is no doubt chemistry needs avengers, its reputation is abysmal.   There are happier expressions on death row inmates than on freshman entering their first semester of college chemistry.  But you turn them around; you make converts out of them – your class becomes known as a fun way to spend 50 minutes and your students bring their non-sciencey friends to your lecture (Why yes, that was my class and I am being boastful, but when your good…).  This rebirth is not accomplished by the tabloid tones of the chemicals sermons offered to the general public.  It happens slowly as you present your audience with all that chemistry has to offer.

First of all, chemists are nuts which provides hundreds of years of interesting stories (e.g. Dr. Kary Mullis recipient of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry), but even among the sane there are great stories.  One of my favorites is about Einstein and the photoelectric effect.  I haven’t told the story in a long time so forgive me if I mix-up some of the details.  The story goes that when Einstein first developed the equation for the photoelectric effect, that earned him the Nobel Prize, (not E=mc^2, as everyone assumes) he didn’t believe it.  The quantized energy of light was too far-out, at first, to swallow, but he published it anyway, making it available for other scientists to disprove.  The equation was, in fact, proved right by Max Planck who determined the factor by which light is proportional – Planck’s constant.  This is a great story because, not only are the characters well know, but the scientific method takes center-stage.  The general public needs to hear more of chemistry’s rich history. 

Secondly, the mere fact that we know what we know boggles the mind.  I am an analytical chemist which means my appreciations are slanted towards research that solves molecular puzzles.  You know how radar is used to locate a plane or to determine the speed of a car.  Those are big objects, big freaking objects, that can be seen with the human eye.  Chemists are able to achieve the equivalent with molecules, unfathomably small molecules.  Chemists are able to actively measure neurotransmitters in the brain.  They are bold enough to have inserted electrodes into the human synapse to identify the release of dopamine which could potentially end drug addiction.  This is a story that has been published, but not with the same kind of fanfare a chemicals story gets.  Chemistry needs a better agent.        

There are thirdly’s and fourthly’s, but this blog post is already longer than I intended and I will save my words for future examples of stellar chemistry science writing (tune in here).  But I will say this, the come on people, you should know better tone of chemicals articles does not make for good public relations.  They are generally aimed at other authors (typically chastising them as fear mongers) but a reader could easily infer that it is they who are at fault for being so gullible, so human.  And in the end, it is often just semantics.  I correct my children if they use the word chemical as a generalization for something harmful, just like I ask them not to use the word sucks.  The response in either case is the same, they exhale forcibly and roll their eyes, because I have interrupted the rhythm of their story.

By reducing chemistry’s spotlight to an argument about the good and the bad of chemicals, you lose the bigger, beautiful picture of chemistry.  Argument outreach, lovable chemicals outreach, neither are affective because chemistry is not just about chemicals.  Maybe it is not that big of an issue, most of what I read seems choir directed anyway.  But as a member of that choir, I would like to request a different tune.