Monthly Archives: January 2016

On the Origins of Chemophobia – Part 1

800px-the_earth_seen_from_apollo_17
“The Blue Marble” is a famous photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon.

The rise of the environmental movement is most often attributed to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which demonised chemicals as it introduced them to the public:

“Chemicals are the sinister and little-recognised partners of radiation entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death” – Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962

Later that decade, the Apollo missions and the six moon landings between 1969 and 1972 gave us a new perspective of planet Earth that was so profound that we felt a sudden compulsion to protect its natural beauty. Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson argue this point below.

In 1970, we are still going to the moon, we are still going until 1972, so watch these sequence of events. In 1970, the comprehensive Clean Air Act is passed… Earth Day was birthed in March 1970. The EPA was founded in 1970… Doctors Without Borders was founded in 1971… DDT gets banned in 1972, and we are still going to the moon. We’re still looking back at Earth. The clean water act 1971, 1972 the endangered species act, the catalytic converted gets put in in 1973, and unleaded gas gets introduced in 1973… That is space operating on our culture and you cannot even put a price on that. – Neil deGrasse Tyson in April 2012

Together, Rachel Carson and the Apollo missions made the public in Western countries quickly aware of the Earth and its natural beauty. Humans were portrayed as selfish destructors of a planet that was supposedly most ‘beautiful’ when in its ‘natural’ state. The field of toxicology was spawned in wake of this concern, and had the goal of analysing the toxicity of different chemicals on humans and the environment. As the first edition of Human and Experimental Toxicology stated:

“Politicians cannot be expected to come to rational and acceptable decisions without adequate impartial and objective information, and toxicologists have grave responsibilities to produce such information”. – Human and Experimental Toxicology

While the field of toxicology accumulated a wealth of scientific evidence about ‘chemicals’, this evidence largely hasn’t trickled down to the public and certainly hasn’t allayed their fears. There remains a lingering skepticism about chemicals, especially artificial chemicals, which some people still feel are more harmful than those found in nature.

Take the Think Dirty iOS app, for example, which gives cosmetic ingredients a safety rating out of 9. According to the app’s creators, “Fragrance” gets the worst possible rating (9), while “Natural Fragrance” gets the best rating (1). Black-and-white ‘natural’ vs ‘artificial’ decision-making such as this is completely unfounded and ignores toxicological evidence. This kind of thinking is misleading, has no scientific basis and sometimes causes consumers to make harmful conclusions – no matter how benign their intentions. (More on this in future posts.)

This simplistic thinking is a remnant of the environmental movement back in the 1970s: that ‘selfish’ humans were destroying a ‘pristine’ planet Earth. While the ‘natural/good’ vs ‘artificial/bad’ dichotomy was an effective solution to short-term environmental problems of the time, this black-and-white thinking is actually leading people to make bad decisions today. We can no longer assume that “natural” is always “best”: the issue is actually far more complex than that. Toxicological evidence needs to be made public and easy to digest so that consumers can make more enlightened decisions.

This post is part 1 of a weekly series on Chemophobia. More next week.

Neil deGrasse Tyson – Space as Culture transcript

All-Natural Banana Poster Series PDFs

Ingredients of an All-Natural Banana and other fruits set $99
New for 2016: Click to download free PDFs of all twelve All-Natural Posters

It’s been two years since I posted the All-Natural Banana. Motivation behind this poster was to dispel the myth that “natural = good” and “artificial = bad”. It’s been a very successful project. It’s spawned 11 more “Ingredients” posters, a successful clothing line, and has sold thousands of print copies worldwide via this website.

Online news portal io9 then published a news story about the All-Natural Banana, which was followed in quick succession by articles in Vox, Forbes, Business Insider, the New York Times and more.

The All-Natural Banana has now received over 700,000 views via this website and millions more views via social media.

From today onwards, you can download the original PDF artworks for free. They come with a Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Creative Commons License, which means that you can share them, print them and modify them as much as you like for non-commercial purposes only.

I’ll be following this up with an article on the ‘Origins of Chemophobia’ next week. Subscribe to this website below or subscribe via my Apple News channel here.

Click here to download the whole poster set.

Creative Commons Licence
All-natural Banana by James Kennedy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://jameskennedymonash.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/ingredients-of-an-all-natural-banana/.

Kennedy Rainbow Cell

Kennedy Rainbow Cell electrolysis chemistry demonstration initial setup aerial view
Initial Kennedy Rainbow Cell setup

Demonstrate electrolysis with an electrolytic cell in a petri dish.

Materials

  • 1 × Large petri dish
  • 1 × DC Power pack
  • ~50 mL Distilled water dH2O(l)
  • ~3 g potassium nitrate powder KNO3(s)
  • 2 × Graphite electrodes
  • 2 × Wires with crocodile clips
  • 1 × Clamp and stand
  • 1 × Very strong static magnet
  • 1 × Roll of sticky tape (any type)
  • ~10 drops of universal indicator
  • ~50 mL dilute HNO3(aq)
  • ~50 mL dilute KOH(aq)
  • 1 × Spatula

Method

  1. Place petri dish on clean, light-coloured bench and add distilled water until it is two thirds full
  2. Add ~10 drops of universal indicator and observe the colour.
    Q: What pH is the distilled water? (You’ll be surprised!)
    Q: Why is/isn’t the colour green?
  3. Add ~3 g of potassium nitrate to the petri dish and stir using a spatula until completely dissolved
  4. Adjust the pH of the distilled water carefully using the nitric acid and potassium hydroxide as required. Try to make the universal indicator colour green (as pictured) ~pH 7
  5. Attach one electrode to each of two wires using crocodile clips
  6. Dip each graphite electrode into the green solution at opposite sides of the petri dish. Hold these electrodes (and wires) in position by in position by sticky-taping each wire to the surface of the workbench
  7. Demonstrate the strength of the magnet by attaching it to the clamp. Carefully, clamp the magnet into the clamp and position the magnet 2 mm above the surface of the green solution
  8. Ensuring the power is turned off, very carefully, attach the wires to the DC power pack according to the manufacturer’s instructions
  9. Turn the voltage to zero (or very low) and turn on the power pack
  10. Turn the voltage up slowly (12 volts worked well) and observe any changes you might see in the Kennedy Rainbow Cell

Extensions

  • Turn off the power pack and stir the solution. Explain why the colour goes back to being green. (If it’s not green, explain that, too!)
  • Turn the magnet upside-down (TURN OFF THE POWER FIRST)
  • Reverse the polarity of the wires
  • Use AC current instead of DC
  • Use different indicators
  • Why would using NaCl(aq) be dangerous in this cell?
  • How can you maximise the swirling?
  • How can you make this experiment much more epic?

Click to download Kennedy Rainbow Cell worksheet (PDF)

Safety considerations

  • Make your own risk assessment before carrying out this experiment
  • The strong magnet is capable of attracting both wires to itself. Don’t be touching the exposed parts of the crocodile clips when this happens. If this does happen, immediately turn off the power pack and fix the problem. Secure the wires with more tape. Don’t touch the electrodes while the Cell is operating.
  • Don’t use chloride salts or hydrochloric acid in this experiment. The voltages involved can cause the production of toxic chlorine gas if sodium chloride is used. Use nitric acid and potassium nitrate instead.
  • Make sure the wires don’t touch each other.
  • Again, make your own risk assessment before carrying out this experiment

Video

Disclaimer

This cell is potentially dangerous. I accept no responsibility for and loss, damage or injury caused by the operation of a Kennedy Rainbow Cell. If you’re under 18, always get adult permission before you make this type of cell.

Elements 113, 115, 117 & 118 are now Confirmed!

Periodic table
Image courtesy of RSC

Article originally posted on rsc.org

Confirmation that four new elements – those with atomic numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118 – have indeed been synthesised has come from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (Iupac), completing the seventh row of the periodic table.

The groups credited for creating them – in Japan, Russia and the US – have spent several years gathering enough evidence to convince experts from Iupac and its physics equivalent, the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, of the elements’ existence. All four are highly unstable superheavy metals that exist for only a fraction of a second. They are made by bombarding heavy metal targets with beams of ions, and can usually only be detected by measuring the radiation and other nuclides produced as they decay.

Continue reading on rsc.org…