Chemicals are OK after all

The Royal Society of Chemistry has just released the results of their survey into the public attitudes towards chemistry, which you should totally go and check out here. I haven’t had time to read the full report yet, but there is a nifty infographic summarising the findings and you can watch the presentation of the findings on youtube as well. Thanks to Mark Lorch looping me into this by tagging me on Twitter, and massive props to the RSC for commissioning the study.

The most interesting thing to me was the “public attitudes to chemicals section”. Apart from a few choice certified rolled gold douchecanoes like the Food Babe, turns out most people are all over ALL OF OUR FAVOURITE PITHY PHRASES. Including “everything is made of chemicals”, “the dose makes the poison” and “many chemicals are naturally occurring”. So turns out all this whining we’ve been doing about chemophobia and people generally being science-hating idiots who hate science is a bit of a circle jerk.

Holy confirmation bias, Batman – that’s totally what I have been thinking lately anyway!

I realised I was on the path to mellowing (pretty sure it’s mellowing and not apathy) just this weekend. We went down to our favourite local restaurant for dinner, only to find that one of the night’s specials was a Gippsland steak with “no chemicals”. I pointed this out to my dinner companions and the conversation went something like this:

Me: nobody order the chemical free steak, that’s quite expensive for a plate of nothing
Dinner companion 1: babe, let it go
DC2: oh, but everything is made of chemicals!
Me: why did they write that? What do you think they actually MEAN?
DC3: I think they are trying to say there there is nothing artificial, nothing added to the meat. It could even mean organic?
Me: yeah orroight then

And I didn’t even pick a fight with the waitstaff or owner about it and I didn’t yell and we’re going to keep going back there because the food is ace and there are table lamps hanging from the walls and ceiling and it’s quite nearby our house.

Maybe I’m saying I now think it’s OK to use the word “chemical” in this way? Sometimes? People are savvy enough to comprehend that there are different meanings for this word in different contexts. The chemicals missing from a steak with no chemicals are different to the chemicals that I order from Sigma-Aldrich and are different from the chemicals you put in your swimming pool. It’s OK. Most of the time we can figure out what is meant. And as someone famous once said “the key to communication is the message received”

So what are we all going to blog about now chemists? On second thoughts, I can’t rule out the possibility that I will get my angries on about this again in the not too distant future.


Books in Scientia – The Unfinished Files

This is a post about a few of the books I started reading with the intention to review here, but I never finished.

Titles and authors

Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World by Nick Lane
Poisoned Planet by Julian Cribb
The Joy of Chemistry by Cathy Cobb and Monty Fetterolf

How far did I get?

OtMtMtW: half way-ish, maybe just under

PP: about three-quarters of the way

TJoC: not quite halfway

Why didn’t I finish it?

OtMtMtW: It just didn’t hold my interest. The narrative component of the book was weak, and it had a very textbook-y feel about it a lot of the time.

PP:  There are too many false analogies, giant leaps of faith, baseless assertions and misinformation to make this book worthwhile. I wrote 2 pages of notes about all of the wrongness. I also managed to rack up a $180 library fine thanks to this book (long story) but that in no way clouded my judgement.

TJoC: This book was pitched at a level too far below my interest and expertise.

Any redeeming qualities?

OtMtMtW: It’s clearly taken a lot of research to write and the information appeared to be sound. It would be a good reference material or starting point from which to really deep-dive into any of the topics covered.

PP: The premise is interesting and seems like something worth writing a book on – why aren’t we doing a whole lot about looking into the effects of industrial chemicals and by-products?

TJoC: I think it would be great for someone with an interest in chemistry who had never done it above a high school level. There are a lot of decent experiments in there that can be done with household items. It was just too basic for someone with a chemistry degree and 10 years of professional chemistry experience.


Chemicals What Even Are They

Chemophobia is a constant cause for consternation amongst chemists (alliteration FTW), and a regularly discussed topic on this blog. I often think and write about irrational fear of chemicals and the incorrect or misinformed usage of chemistry in the media, pop culture and modern life. Recently, I had an epiphany and have probably solved all of these problems for ever. OK maybe not but I thought it was worth blogging about.

In a recent visit to a materials science lab, I came across this sign on the door:

2015-02-18 12.56.08

At the time I made a totes hilare crack about the lab being a vacuum chamber, because as we all know EVERTYHING IS CHEMICALS RIGHT therefore game over idiots the smug chemists win again. But I continued to think about it for a while because the context of the sign within a professional setting that I know to be not completely incompetent with respect to OHS was somewhat puzzling to me. I think in these situations, the place where I always come unstuck  is what on earth do people actually mean when they say “chemicals”? It eventually dawned on me that that in this case, the word “chemicals” should be replaced with the phrase “hazardous chemicals” and everything would be 110 percent super and OK and making sense and perfectly fine and reasonable.

With the introduction of the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (don’t even get me started on the first sentence on that link, just don’t even), the phrase “hazardous chemicals” is clearly defined under the Australian Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations using the GHS.

So, given that I totally solved this workplace chemical mystery, I wondered if I could apply the same logic to other bogus chemical claims out there. Maybe every time someone other than a chemist uses the word “chemical”, they actually mean “hazardous chemical as defined by the globally harmonised system of classification and labelling of chemicals” and of course they wanted to say or write this but it was just a teensy bit too long. My first port of call for chemistry idiocy is of course the Food Babe, who particularly hates the antioxidant BHT, the yogi’s favourite urea derivative azidocarbonamide and 1958 heterocycle of the year 4-methyl imidazole. When I search for these three compounds in ChemAlert (an Australian chemical management and compliance program), the results are shocking (OK not actually that shocking).

chemalert

Yes, these three HAZARDOUS CHEMICALS are permitted in food and perfectly safe at certain concentrations – the dose makes the poison after all. So I wondered, is it possible that every time someone is concerned about “chemicals”, they are actually referring to Hazardous Chemicals which, by definition, are something surely worth a little consideration? Answer: YES CHEMOPHOBIA PROBLEM SOLVED FOREVER.


Postscript

One example in violation of my proposed solution is artificial sweeteners. For example aspartame, which is not a Hazardous Chemical but is something that people like Food Babe, Mercola, Mike Adams et al. flip out about. Here I think the word chemical is used in the chemical=synthetic sense. Eh, can’t win them all…


Books in Scientia – The Science of Ice Cream

Title and author

The Science of Ice Cream by Chris Clarke

What’s it about?

Ice cream. In particular, the scientific aspects of the aforementioned frozen confection. A good title’s a descriptive title eh.

What are the good bits?

I learned a lot of new things about ice cream. The hands-down best thing I learned about was Dondurma, which is a Turkish ice cream that is chewy! The first chapter is an interesting history of modern ice cream. The detail included about the characterisation and properties of ice cream was both extensive and fascinating.

What are the not-so-good bits?

This book is not intended to assist the home cook and has little to offer in this area. It is very much focused on industrial scale ice cream production. There are a few try-this-at-home experiments in the back but they seemed at bit ‘meh’ to me (although I am a somewhat experienced home ice cream cook. In fact, I’ve renamed the ice cream I make at home to “nice cream” because it’s pretty effing good OK.

Also, not the fault of the book or author, but my chemophobia alarm sounded loudly when in the chapter discussing ingredients, sodium carboxymethyl cellulose was described as being longer routinely included in ice cream because of “it’s perception as a chemical”. This is after a long list of other chemical stabilisers including carageenans, pectin and xanthan. LARGE SIGH TO YOU ICE CREAM MANUFACTURERS.

What does it say on p89 line 11?

Tacos are a type of sandwich product consisting of a semi-circular shaped wafer that contains icecream and sauce (Figure 5.4b)

WHAT THE WHAT? ICE CREAM TACO? HAVE NEVER SEEN. DO VERY MUCH WANT.

Who should read it?

People who would like to find out more about how ice cream is manufactured, and the macro and micro physical properties of different iced products. Those with a strong interest in rheology, microscopy and composite materials may also find much of the content quite satisfying.

How good is it?

It’s pretty good for a book with a decent amount of physics in it. I do like ice cream.

stars ice cream

 

 

 

 

3 round bottom flasks out of 5


Huzzahs and Ohnoes of the 2014 Royal Australian Chemical Institute Congress

I’m recently returned from the RACI National Congress in Adelaide. I’ve had time to reflect. Herein lies my feels

  • construction noise during the plenaries  OHNOES
  • every. single. plenary. speaker. HUZZAH
  • sessions that ran over time OHNOES
  • sessions that kept to time, or ran early! HUZZAH
  • paying the convention centre $120 to get wifi that actually worked OHNOES
  • well run, quite fun student quiz night HUZZAH
  • being on the first non-podium finishing table at the student quiz night OHNOES
  • Baran’s biceps HUZZAH
  • approaching a prof to talk about my work, he is interested and asks if I have any papers on it. I say no. Realise later that I have two OHNOES
  • meeting and catching up with colleagues and sharing a corporate whinge HUZZAH
  • not even seeing at least 7 people that I wanted to talk to OHNOES
  • accidentally getting in line for coffee next to someone I definitely did not want to talk to OHNOES
  • plenary speakers making themselves available for lunch time Q&A sessions with students HUZZAH
  • not getting much of a dinner at the conference dinner OHNOES
  • getting too much of the champagne at the conference dinner OHNOES
  • watching my boss dance at the conference dinner OHNOES
  • meeting or catching up with all the super cool people who came to the #RACI14 tweetup HUZZAH
  • not punching in the face the obnoxious undergrad who struck up a conversation with me, then insulted my home town, alma mater, employer and research OHNOES
  • the surprisingly useful congress app HUZZAH
  • seeing comic sans in 3 presentations OHNOES
  • delivering a reasonably OK oral presentation HUZZAH
  • learning about super cool new scients HUZZAH
  • meeting a lot of rad scients doers HUZZAH
  • coming home to this cool doge HUZZAH

IMG_5927


Silly Science Songs 3rd Edition

One Angry Dwarf Prof and 200 Solemn Faces Students by Ben Folds Five – Aug 7

September ’75 my H-index was not that high
My dean said by Christmas I would have
A research group all of my own
All these little minds to blow
I still had to teach 1st year class
Now I’m big and important
One angry prof and 200 solemn students are you
If you realy want to see me
Check in Nature and Angewandte
Look who’s telling who what to do

 

 

Always by Bon Jovi – Aug 15

this compound’s not crystallising
it just looks like tar or mud
it’s nothing but some atoms
this imposter cooked up
it’s been refluxing for eternity
now I’m drowning in black gunk
you see I’ve always been analytical
but with synthesis, I give up
see I can’t make a molecule
like the way it’s meant to be
well I guess I’m not that good a chemist
but baby that’s just me

 

 

LDNAB by Lily Allen – Aug 25

sitting at my bench in the lab all day
my experiments are in crisis
it doesn’t get me down and I feel OK
cos the skills that I’m gaining are priceless
everything seems to look as it should
but I wonder what goes on out of doors
laughter and some chatter but it doesn’t really matter
I’ll be stuck here for several hours more
you might laugh, you might frown
walking around the lab town
sun is in the sky oh why oh why would I want to be anywhere else

 

Every Day Should be a Holiday Science Day by Dandy Warhols – Sep 16

Super cool, science rules OK
Got no dough cos no grants came my way
Anytime, call me up if you
Got a job, in a permanent way
Any time
Baby let’s go
Every day
Should be a science day

 

 

When You’re Gone by Bryan Adams and Mel C – Sep 28
(for @upulie and burger ring aromas)

I’ve been wandering around the lab all night
Got experiments to do
And I’m trying to concentrate but all I can think of is food
Yeah the phone don’t ring everyone’s gone home
I don’t mind being all alone
But I’m working with this DTT reagent that reminds me of food

 

 

U Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer – Sep 29

Stop. Retention time
Go with the flow in helium if you can’t separate this
Then you probably are dead
So inject sample be aware
Bust through the column, run your compounds through the air
This is it for a paper
Plot out this and you’re gonna see vapour
Move slide your rump
Just for a minute integrate the bumps
Bump bump bump yeah

 

 

Welcome to the (Jargon) Jungle by Guns N Roses – Oct 2

Welcome to the jargon jungle
We like to abbreviate
We’ve got everything you want
If you only knew the names
We are the people that can find
Whatever you may need
If you only knew the name for it
We call it something weird

 

 

Something About the Way You Look Tonight Crystallise by Elton John – Oct 7

There was a time
I tried everything and nothing would happen
For many weeks
I tried all of the solvents under the sun
I need to tell you
How I scratched and scraped the bottom of the flask
But in frustration
I just chucked you in a cupboard in the dark
And I can’t explain
But it’s something about the way you crystallise
Takes my breath away
It’s that feeling I get about acicular types
And I can’t describe
But it’s something about the way you crystallise
Takes my breath away
The way you crystallise

 

 

Don’t Ask Me Why by Billy Joel – Oct 20

All the electrons in your molecule
Leave their orbitals when you blink
Every reaction you do every day
Every product down the sink
Don’t wait for answers
Just take your chances
Don’t ask me why


An Attempt at Combating Chemophobia Online

This past weekend, a Facebook post from a beauty studio was shared into my timeline. The post contained the erroneous claim that one of their product lines was “chemical free”. I’m not going to go into why this is a ridiculous statement, the likelihood is if you’re reading this blog you’re already well across why that is a ridiculous statement. Usually when I see these kind of things online I go into immediate #headdesk #facepalm or #otherhashtag mode, rant briefly about it on Twitter, #lesigh and then move on. For some reason this time I decided to engage with the post, which you can see below.

B2sQYeaCMAA1WLf

If you can’t see the pic, here’s the comments

[me] It’s not “chemical free”, the main ingredients are the chemicals phyllosilicates and zinc and titanium oxides which are safe and harmless when used as makeup.

[beauty studio] Inika is 100% vegan or certified organic.or both.They are cruelty free .Inika products contain no harsh chemicals. no talc,bismuth oxychloride or harmful preservatives, fillers, mineral oils, fragrance or petrochemicals. It is suitable for all skin types including those with allergies or sensitivities.

[beauty studio] To reply to Ren’ee [sic] Webster I don’t think there is any cosmetics on the market that is completely chemical free. They all have to have preservatives. Inika state that the products are natural.

There’s been bucketloads of discussion over the years about how to go about addressing chemophobia online, including whether this is even a good term for the phenomenon. So with all of this previous information in mind, I thought that I’d put out a reasonable response. But as you can see from the reply I could not claim that I succeeded. So I guess I’m wondering a few things:

  • could my comment have been put differently such that the recipient would get what I was trying to say? Is my comment polite, not condescending and clear or am I deluded about my civility and actually a hard-arsed bitch?
  • the chemical =/= natural false dichotomy rears its head again, should I have anticipated this?
  • are people fully aware of the fact that EVERYTHING IS CHEMICALS but just using a shortcut when they say “chemical free” because saying “vegan, certified organic, cruelty free, no talc, bismuth oxychloride,preservatives, fillers, mineral oils, fragrance or petrochemicals” is too cumbersome and unwieldy?
  • is there any point trying to engage with strangers online in this (or any) context ever?
  • WHAT THE ACTUAL EFF DO PEOPLE REALLY MEAN WHEN THEY CALL THINGS “CHEMICALS”? It seems to change to suit whatever they feel applies given the context. Is it up to us to figure this out?
  • why do we even bother? (rhetorical question, mostly)

Finally, I feel it’s important to mention that is was the beauty studio selling the products, NOT the manufacturer who made the “chemical free” claim.


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