Bisphenol A, or BPA, is used to line food cans and also to make strong plastic baby bottles. Eating large amounts of canned food – particularly canned soups or drinking hot liquids from baby bottles – can result in elevated amounts of BPA being detected in people’s urine. BPA acts as an estrogen mimic – albeit a very weak one – and some research has suggested a link between large doses of BPA and an increase of blood pressure. While this does sound worrying, remember that the dose is extremely important and that the molecules of BPA that do leech into food are too few to have any measurable effect.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (the FDA) conducted a four-year review of over 300 scientific studies and concluded that the traces of BPA that do migrate into canned food are so tiny that they have no effect on human health.
The decision to abandon the use of BPA in baby bottles was therefore based on public pressure not based on safety or on scientific evidence.
The science never suggested there was any safety concern with BPA.
Each year, the VCAA subtly upgrades the VCE Chemistry data book. Each year, I print it and annotate it to show students the wealth of useful information hidden within it (most of which, is in plain sight).
This year, the VCAA has changed some “constants” and added some interesting functional groups to the spectroscopy tables. Smaller things are changed, too. All the protons in the 1H NMR table are now in bold; not just the ambiguous ones.
Start using this annotated version of the data book for your year 11 and year 12 chemistry homework exercises. While you can’t take this annotated version into the final examination (or into most SACs), seeing the annotations frequently throughout the two years will help you find things faster in the final examination.
Do you have feedback? Any comments? Do you require 1-to-1 chemistry tutoring? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get back to you personally.
After several hurdles, I’m happy to announce that Fighting Chemophobia is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions for international delivery. Amazon.com and three other independent online book vendors have signed up to stock Fighting Chemophobia.
Buy your copy by clicking the links below – or search Amazon.com or your Kindle device for Fighting Chemophobia to download the book.
Signed copies are of this new third edition are of course still available via this website. Click the PayPal link below to order your signed copy.
I’ve been working on some exciting things in the last few months. Watch this space for teasers.
The second batch of Fighting Chemophobia books are finished! After a long search, we have finally found two great companies for printing and distribution in China. Dianzan design and printing company has laid the book out with great care and precision and turned Fighting Chemophobia into an excellent-quality product in both hardback and paperback editions. The 80 gsm Dowling paper feels great, and there are even some full-page colour images scattered throughout the book. Shunfeng Express is handling cheap, quick shipping and is currently achieving 2-day deliveries within China. They predict 7-day delivery times internationally.
This second batch is higher quality than the first. I’m sure you’ll love what these people have produced.
Working with a publisher could have saved me the search for an editor, a printer, a distributor, a marketer and a translator. Self-publishing has been more rewarding in this regard: not only have I selected the people I’ve worked with to bring this book to completion but I’ve probably learned more this way about the process of writing, editing, printing, binding, marketing and distributing a book than if a publisher had handled the entire process on my behalf.
You can buy your signed copy of the second batch of Fighting Chemophobia using the PayPal link below. Click subscribe on this page to receive future (approximately fortnightly) email updates.
Chemophobia is an irrational fear of chemicals. It includes the fear of sugar in food, formaldehyde in shampoo and aluminium in vaccines. Fitness bloggers, quack doctors and even small cosmetic companies take advantage of these quirks to sell fake-natural products at elevated prices. Almost always, the same people who spread a fear of ‘chemicals’ also have ‘chemical-free’ products for sale.
Some companies sell “natural”, “organic” and “chemical-free” products to combat the supposed onslaught of chemical pollution in conventional consumer products. Most of these alternative products are no less synthetic, and no safer, than conventional versions despite commanding much higher prices.
Chemophobia is spreading despite our world becoming a cleaner, safer place. People are becoming healthier, and product safety regulations are becoming stricter. The supposed onslaught of chemicals that these special interest groups describe simply isn’t happening.
Perpetrators of chemophobia create unnecessary guilt, stress and anxiety as consumers worry about making the right choices for their family. Consumers are the victims in this battle as pro-natural and anti-natural businesses spread fear about each other’s products.
This book analyses psychological quirks, evolved millennia ago, that prime us to fall victim to chemophobic ways of thinking such anorexia, a fear of vaccines, a fear of fluoridation or a dangerous fear of synthetic medicines. It explores how consumers, teachers, doctors, lawmakers and journalists can fight chemophobia by tackling the social issues that underpin it.
Order your signed copy of Fighting Chemophobia now
Unlike purple and pink pigments, which were rare and expensive enough to be reserved for royalty and high-ranking clergy, yellow pigments were abundant throughout ancient history. Yellow ochre, a powdery mixture of iron oxides, has been used in cave paintings around the world for up to 80,000 years and was still being used by artists in the early nineteenth century. Saffron and turmeric were also used as yellow dyes throughout ancient history. Vincent van Gogh was using mineral yellow pigments such as cadmium yellow and chrome yellow in his mid-nineteenth century paintings. By the mid-nineteenth century, people looking for yellow pigments already had plenty of options. Despite there being no pressure from consumers for a new yellow dye, chemists trying to replicate the fame and fortune that mauveine brought to William Perkin in 1856 were experimenting eagerly in pursuit of that goal.
In 1861, Mêne was reacting aniline with cold nitrous acid to produce a diazonium salt solution. He then added more aniline to the resulting salt solution and shook the flask vigorously and noticed a yellow precipitate formed at the bottom of the flask, which would later become known as ‘aniline yellow’ – the first ‘azo dye’. 
The reaction mixture must be kept cool (at around 5 °C) because different temperatures cause different products to form. If the same reactants are mixed warm, then smelly liquid phenol and inert nitrogen gas are formed, both of which are colourless, and neither of which are useful as pigments!
At the time, the ‘aniline yellow’ powder he discovered was considered useless because it didn’t dissolve in water. However, it did dissolve very well in oil. The dye eventually gained some niche uses as a microscopy stain (like fuchsine) but was never utilised by the garment or pigment industry.
After staying relatively unused for over a hundred years, aniline yellow left an unfortunate legacy for itself by becoming the culprit molecule in the Spanish ‘Toxic Oil scandal’ of 1981. A batch of Spanish rapeseed oil had been denatured (deliberately adulterated) with 2% aniline yellow so the company could report it as “machine oil” and take advantage of certain tax breaks. One local refinery obtained the denatured rapeseed oil and attempted to remove the aniline yellow dye so they could sell it on as “pure olive oil” on the market for profit. They sold the oil around much of north-western Spain in unlabelled 5-litre plastic containers.
The first casualty was an eight-year-old boy who died upon arrival at a hospital in Madrid on May 1st, 1981. The rest of his family then presented with an unusual set of symptoms: headache, fever, itchy scalp, lethargy and interstitial lung disease. The hospital diagnosed the family with “atypical pneumonia” and treated them all with antibiotics but they showed little improvement. 
Across Spain, 20,000 patients presented with similar symptoms within one month of the incident. Thinking that an unexplained pneumonia outbreak was unfolding, a children’s hospital in Madrid conducted a randomised, double-blind controlled clinical trial on the effectiveness of the antibiotic erythromycin, which is particularly effective on infections of the respiratory system.  Unfortunately, they found no difference in recovery or mortality rates between the treated group and the control group and decided to keep looking for potential treatments.
Attempting all avenues, the researchers conducted lifestyle surveys on many patients, which included (among many other things) questions about cooking oil. Sadly, even though the source of the problem was staring them in the face, the results of the oil usage survey questions came back “inconclusive”. 
A baby ultimately solved the puzzle. Prognosis for young children was generally worse than for adults after they contracted the strange set of symptoms. Oddly, babies under six months were unaffected even if the entire rest of the family had presented with the pneumonia-like symptoms. Their infants were completely symptom-free. When one baby did get sick, however, this prompted deep and urgent questioning of the parents involved to find out what they did differently from others. One unusual aspect of the baby’s upbringing was that the baby’s grandmother had been ‘supplementing’ baby’s formula powder with cooking oil that was sold in an unlabelled 5-litre plastic container. 
Spanish government agencies acted quickly. The Ministry of Health and Consumer Affairs issued a recall of all oil sold in unlabelled plastic bottles within 40 days of the first casualty reporting with symptoms (the 8-year-old boy). Rates of patients presenting with symptoms of Toxic Oil Syndrome, as it would later be called, plummeted after the recall was announced on June 10th, 1981.
The aniline yellow had all been removed. The problem was a side-reaction, completely unknown to the scientists who were purifying the “machine oil”, that formed a new, harmful molecule that was large enough to escape their detection methods.
The molecule responsible for Toxic Oil Syndrome is called “OO PAP” in scientific literature. Visual inspection of OO PAP’s structure reveals that it’s quite simply an olive oil triglyceride molecule (triolein) with one of its three fatty acid tails replaced with a large aniline group.  When the rapeseed oil was adulterated with 2% aniline yellow to disguise it as “machine oil”, some of the aniline yellow molecules didn’t just blend in with the oil but reacted chemically with it to make OO PAP molecules. ITH, the company who sold the de-adulterated product as “pure olive oil”, was likely unaware of this chemical reaction, and therefore (we assume) also unaware of the poisonous OO PAP that had formed in the oil. While ITH successfully removed the aniline yellow, they failed to remove the OO PAP molecules, which escaped their filtration techniques.  Sadly, hundreds of people died and 20,000 more were made ill from OO PAP poisoning, and financial damage was estimated by El País newspaper to be 2 billion pesetas (around 16 million US dollars today).  Just like the scandal of the pink fuchsine socks, government and industry were forced to work together to respond quickly to a growing public crisis.
Every chemical – regardless of whether it’s found naturally or created synthetically – has the potential to be beneficial, harmful or harmless depending on the dosage and the way that it’s used. Aniline yellow, like all other chemicals, is incredibly useful when used correctly. It’s a fantastic microscopy stain but totally unsuitable for culinary use.
Today, people use aniline yellow to dye specimens for viewing under a light microscope. Aniline yellow’s dangers are stated clearly on its safety data sheets: handling it today requires training, permits, safety glasses, gloves and a lab coat to avoid all contact with skin and eyes. Now that chemistry has given us a better understanding of the aniline yellow, nobody dare use it to dye foodstuffs. 
The “deficit model” is a widely criticized theory that suggests that people who harbor attitudes of negativity or indifference towards science (in this case, chemistry) do so because they are uninformed about the topic (Chinese: 无知).
People’s misinformation might come from a lack of interest, a lack of exposure or an experience of poor science outreach in the past, where incorrect messages were delivered.
The “deficit model” stipulates that if people knew more about science, they’d naturally become more interested in it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always seem to work, and the ‘model’ is subjected to routine criticism.
Criticisms of the “deficit model”
It is patronizing to the public, which alienates them further from science
It implies that there is only one coherent, correct narrative of ‘science’
It implies that people who don’t like science are misinformed about it
Learning science isn’t always fun
Being forced to learn something they’re not interested in could reinforce negative attitudes towards science
The public is too varied to attempt to give a “one size fits all” theory of science outreach
It ignores the fact that members of the public have individual preconceived ideas about science before they’re introduced to new science information
It relies too much on monologue/lecturing the public rather than engaging them in dialogues
Employ alternatives to the “deficit model”
Critics of the “deficit model” tend to advocate solutions that involve dialogue (rather than monologue) with the public. Dialogue works better when the particular public audience in question has pre-existing views about the scientific topic being discussed (called ‘affected/partisan’ public groups).
There are four main types of ‘public’ audiences. The table below summarizes each of these types and how to engage with them, and is adapted from Canek Phillips report from 2013.
The general public consists of people with diverse views that represent a cross-section of society. In a group, these views cancel out somewhat, hiding the deviation of views. The “deficit model” of monologue delivery is an effective way to engage such a group.
The pure public is a group of people who have no pre-existing ideas about the topic being discussed. The “deficit model” can engage these audiences as well.
The affected public can only be engaged if their pre-existing views are acknowledged and respected beforehand. Dialogue is an excellent way of doing this. Examples of dialogue-based approaches include science shops, public hearings, citizen judies, stakeholder consultations and focus groups.
The partisan public is sometimes led by charismatic leaders or lobby groups. Their views might have been shaped by influential figures (e.g. Mercola, Food Babe) and the pre-existing views (misconceptions) delivered in this way need to be debunked through respectful dialogue rather than monologue.
In short, before telling your audience something, find out whether they have any pre-existing ideas about that topic. If they don’t, then go ahead with a monologue delivery. If they do, then launch a two-way discussion with them, in which you listen and respect their views. Only then, will they respect your opinion as well. ♦
The wines your great-grandchildren might one day drink on Mars will soon be coming to a bottle near you. Ava Winery is a San Francisco-based startup creating wines molecule by molecule, without the need for grapes or fermentation. With complete control over the chemical profile of the product, Ava’s wines can be created safely, sustainably, and affordably, joining the food technology revolution in creating the foods of the future.
For Ava, foods in the future will be scanned and printed as easily as photographs today. These digital recreations will be more than mere projections; they will be true chemical copies of the originals, capturing the same nutritional profiles, flavors, and textures of their “natural” counterparts. Our canvas will be macronutrients like starches and proteins; our pixels will be flavor molecules. Future generations won’t distinguish “natural” from “synthetic” because both will simply be considered food.
Consider ethyl hexanoate, although scary-sounding it is the very chemical that gives pineapples their characteristic smell and also fruity wines a tropical note. From pineapples, or indeed other organisms, ethyl hexanoate can be extracted much more efficiently. By sourcing more efficient producers of each of hundreds of different components, wines can be recreated as their originals.
Future generations won’t distinguish “natural” from “synthetic” because both will simply be considered food.
In fact, by eliminating the variability of natural systems as well as potential environmental contamination, this digitized future of food can increase the safety, consistency, and nutritional profile of foods. Such food products can reduce overall land and resource use and be less susceptible to climate fluctuations. Indeed this future will see significant reductions in the costs of food production as the cost of the raw ingredients shifts to more efficient sources of each molecule.
So why wine?
We knew there would be a controversial love/hate relationship with our mission to build wine molecule by molecule. To the elite who value the high-end wine experience, our molecularly identical creation of the $10,000+ bottle of 1973 Chateau Montelena will be a mockery; but to the public, the $10,000 turned $20 bottle will be a sensation. To the purists who still believe organic is the only way to eat or drink healthily, our wine will get “some knickers in knots”; but to the nonconformists, our wine will be a contemporary luxury made by contemporary technology.
In short, wine is just the beginning. Soon, Ava hopes to build more food products molecule by molecule further blurring these lines between natural vs. synthetic while simultaneously making luxury items available for all. With our groundwork, the Star Trek future of food might be closer than we thought.
It’s been exactly three years since I uploaded the original banana poster.
In 2014, I soon followed up with podcasts, radio appearances, press interviews, a T-shirt Store and twelve more fruit ingredient labels. I’ve done six more customised fruit ingredients labels for private clients. The images have since appeared in textbooks, corporate promotional material, YouTube videos, T-shirts, mugs and aprons.
Momentum built in 2015. Parodies emerged online, and a copycat image appeared in one Chemistry textbook. I started writing about chemophobia and consulting with experts on how to address the issue. In short, it’s very, very complicated, and has deep evolutionary origins. I set a goal to understand chemophobia and provide a roadmap to tackle it effectively.
In 2016, my voluminous OneNote scribblings turned into a book. I have a first draft saved on OneDrive (thank you for keeping it safe, Microsoft) and I’ll be proofreading it on an long-haul intercontinental flight for you later today.
My next book, tentatively titled “Fighting Chemophobia”, will be published in late 2017.
I promise that my book “Fighting Chemophobia” will contain the following:
Stories you can share on a first date;
Maths – but just a little;
Chemistry – but not too much;
A deep exploration of chemophobia’s roots;
Tangible solutions to chemophobia;
More stories. Lots of true stories.
This “Fighting Chemophobia” book is for:
Educated people who are interested in a fascinating, growing social phenomenon;
People who want to settle the ‘natural’ vs ‘artificial’ debate;
People who love reading.
To get your hands on a copy, subscribe to this blog for email updates. Just click ‘Follow’ somewhere on this page (its location depends on which device you’re using).
I promise that throughout 2017, you’ll receive teasers, snippets and discarded book fragments via this blog to get you excited.
This post concludes the Periodic Table Smoothie experiment.
Recall that we’ve just finished adding one mole of nitrogen gas and created a bizarre boron polymer at the bottom of our vessel. The temperature was 350 °C and the pressure in our vessel was 891 kPa.
Today, we’re going to add 1.00 mole of oxygen gas, stand back and observe.
This is disappointing news.
Many of the substances in our vessel react (more accurately, explode) in the presence of oxygen but the ignition temperature for all of those explosions to take place is at least 500 °C. The temperature of our vessel is set at just 350 °C. At this temperature, nothing would actually happen.
There’s not enough activation energy to break bonds in the reactant particles in order to get the reaction started. We call this activation energy (EA) in chemistry. If we were to add a source of excessive heat (e.g. a matchstick), the vessel would explode.
Should we heat up the vessel to 500 °C and blow up the experiment right here?
If we did, the following reactions would happen:
Enough of these reactions – particularly the first three – are sufficiently exothermic to trigger a chain reaction – at least up to the reaction of oxygen with beryllium carbide. The vessel would bang, explode, and shatter. The helium would float away, dangerous lithium amide would fly out sideways, and polyborazine powder, whatever that is, would land on the floor.
Let’s not ignite our experiment – not yet.
Conclusion after adding 1.00 mole of oxygen gas
Amount in mol
Pressure: 891 kPa (higher than before due to the addition of nitrogen gas) Temperature: 350 °C (vessel is still being maintained at constant temperature)
Oxygen was relatively uneventful. Let’s add fluorine and see what happens.
Let’s add fluorine gas
The following three reactions would all occur as 1.00 mole of fluorine gas is added:
These two products are quite interesting:
HF, hydrogen fluoride, an aqueous solution of which was used by Breaking Bad’s Walter White to dissolve evidence (his victims)
NF3, nitrogen trifluoride, is used as an etching agent when making printed circuit boards (PCBs)
Let’s add neon gas
When 1.00 mole of neon gas is added, the total pressure inside the vessel increases but no reaction occurs. The concentrations of all the other gases present are unaffected.
That concludes our Periodic Table Smoothie experiment. The most interesting conclusion was the discovery of polyborazine, the bizarre solid that collected at the bottom of the vessel.
Also of interest was how easily we created ammonia, one of the simplest of biological compounds, just by mixing elements together. Could the compounds necessary for life be so easy to create that their existence is an inevitable consequence of the Big Bang? Is life inevitable? If the Big Bang were to happen all over again, would life occur? And would it look any different?
This book contains 50 lies taught in the VCE Chemistry course.
These lies include well-meaning simplifications of the truth, mistakes in the textbook, and, in a few extreme cases, blatant falsehoods.
This book isn’t a criticism of the VCE Chemistry course at all. In fact, I just want to highlight the sheer complexity of Chemistry and the need to make sweeping generalisations at every level so it can be comprehensible to our students. This is a legitimate practice called constructivism in pedagogical circles. (Look that up.)
Many of these ‘lies’ taught at VCE level will be debunked by your first-year chemistry lecturers at university.
Here’s a preview of some of the lies mentioned in the book. Check out all 50 by clicking the download link at the bottom of the page.
The content you’re learning now is probably not as true as it seems. Chemistry is a set of models that explain the macro level sometimes at the expense of detail. The more you study Chemistry, the more precise these models become, and they’ll gradually enlighten you with a newfound clarity about the inner workings of our universe. It’s profound.
Rules taught as ‘true’ usually work 90% of the time in this subject. Chemistry has rules, exceptions, exceptions to exceptions, and exceptions to those – you’ll need to peel pack these layers of rules and exceptions like an onion until you reach the core, where you’ll find Physics and Specialist Maths.
Enjoy this book. I hope it emboldens you to question everything you’re told, and encourages you to read beyond the courses you’re taught in school.
Click to download REDOX RULES posters for VCE Chemistry
What’s redox? We never learned that!
Yes, you did. I use the term “redox” to refer to all of the following chapters in Heinemann Chemistry 2, which you will have learned at the end of Term 3 (September).
Chapter 26: Redox (revision of Year 11)
Chapter 27: Galvanic Cells
Chapter 28: Electrolytic Cells
Don’t underestimate redox
The VCAA has consistently used redox to discriminate which schools and students have the self-discipline required to keep studying at the end of the year. Studies show that redox is taught at a time when student motivation is at its minimum: energy levels are low, emotions are high, and graduation is just over the horizon. Many schools and students gloss over these topics because they’re running out of time, any many students think they’ve grasped the topic – when they’ve actually grasped misconceptions instead.
Here are some popular redox lies (misconceptions)
LIE #1: The polarities switch during recharge Nope. The polarities never switch. It’s the labels of ‘anode’ and ‘cathode’ that switch because the electrons are flowing the other way through the external circuit. Polarity is permanent.
LIE #2: Hydrogen fuel cells don’t emit any greenhouse gases Wrong. They emit H2O, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. If you don’t believe that the VCAA can be this pedantic, think again. Read their 2015 Examiners Report here.
LIE #3: Each mole of electrons forms 1 mol Ag, 2 mol Cu or 3 mol Al in a cell Wrong again. If you look at the half-equations, you’ll see that each mole of electrons actually forms 1 mol Ag, 1⁄2 mol Cu or 1⁄3 mol Al. That’s why I teach “1, 1⁄2 and 1⁄3 moles” instead of the typical “1, 2, 3 moles” rule.
LIE #4: Temperature increases the rate of reaction in electroplating
Wrong! Remember that Faraday’s first law states that m ∝ Q. Because Q = I×t, only those two things – current and time – can affect the mass deposited at the cathode.
LIE #5: Electrons always leave the anode and go towards the cathode Wrong again. Electrons go RACO: to see what that means, download the posters above. This question appears in recent versions of Chemistry Checkpoints. Give it a try.
LIE #6: The cathode is always positive Ask your teacher.
LIE #7: Ions flow one way in the salt bridge
Nope. Anions always migrate to the anode; and cations always migrate to the cathode.
LIE #8: KOHES always works for balancing half-equations
KOHES only works for cells with acidic electrolytes. For cells with alkaline electrolytes, which sometimes appear in VCAA papers despite not being in the study design (see page 46 here), you’ll need to use KOHES(OH). Here’s KOHES(OH) explained:
Do KOHES as normal
Add the same number of OH–(aq) ions to each side of the half-equation to balance out the H+(aq)
Cancel and simplify. Remember that H+(aq) + OH–(aq) makes H2O(l). Remember also to cancel out any remaining H2O(l).
LIE #9: I can balance an unbalanced redox equation by putting numbers in the equation Don’t be fooled by this one! The ONLY way to balance an unbalanced redox equation successfully is to do the following:
Separate it into two half equations
Balance them using KOHES or KOHES(OH) as appropriate
Multiply them and recombine
Cancel and simplify
That’s a lot of work but it’s the only way to do it successfully. If you try to ‘cheat’ by just writing numbers (molar coefficients) in front of the reactants and products, you’ll find that the charges don’t add up, and you’ll get zero marks for the question.
LIE #10: I can break up polyatomic ions to make balancing half-equations easier
Nope! You’re only allowed to separate aqueous species in a half equation or an ionic equation. Because the Mn and O are actually bonded together in a polyatomic ion, you’ll need to write this:
If in doubt, keep it intact and it’ll cancel out by the end if it’s a spectator ion.
LIE #11: The two reactants that are closest together on the electrochemical series react Not always true. Use SOC SRA instead, which is explained in the posters above. Still struggling? Ask your teacher or tutor for help.
LIE #12: Oxidants are all on the top of the electrochemical series They’re actually on the left, and all the reductants can be found on the right side of each half equation in the electrochemical series. There is no top/bottom divide on the electrochemical series: only a left/right divide of oxidants/reductants.
Decorate your school/bedroom/hallway
Surround yourselves with truthful redox revision using these 17 free Redox posters. I’ve had these up around the whiteboard for a few weeks now – they’re a constant reminder to students that redox has many ideas that are always true.
One more tip: print and laminate an electrochemical series (available here) so you can annotate it during dozens of practice dozens without wasting paper. Good luck!
In 1808, a massive volcano erupted somewhere on Earth. So large was the eruption that it bellowed sulfate particles into the atmosphere that caused significant global cooling in the years that followed (Guevara-Murua 2014). Despite its gargantuan size, nobody to this day has been able to locate the volcano or find any direct eyewitness accounts of its eruption. The volcanic eruption of 1808 remains an unresolved scientific mystery to this day.
How do we know this mystery volcano ever erupted at all? The first piece of evidence is an increase in sulfuric acid concentration found in Greenland ice cores, which are a characteristic ‘chemical signature’ of sulfur-rich volcanic eruptions (Dai 1991). The only major spike in sulfuric acid concentration in Greenland ice that doesn’t align with a real volcanic eruption observed somewhere on Earth is the spike found around 1808, suggesting the existence of this mysterious volcano.
The second piece of evidence is called the ‘sulfur isotope anomaly’. Deposits of sulfur buried deep underground have a different isotopic composition compared with sulfur sources on the planet’s surface. In the same way that we can monitor the effects of fossil fuel combustion on atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, we can quantify the amount of sulfur emitted from volcanoes by measuring changes in the relative quantity of sulfur-33. A huge spike in Δ33S suggests an enormous volcanic eruption occurred – and that’s exactly what we see when we study samples from the year 1808.
The third piece of evidence comes from trees. Trees grow at different rates depending on the climate. In particular, trees grow faster when it’s warmer (but not too hot, of course, which inhibits their growth somewhat), and they grow more slowly when it’s cold. Counting tree rings can reveal not only the age of the tree, but measuring the thickness of each tree ring allows researchers to estimate the amount of growth the tree accomplished in a given year. By measuring different trees in the same region, researchers can gain insight into the past climate of that particular region. Analysis of tree rings has shown that bristlecone pine trees had drastically decreased growth rates in the summer of 1809, suggesting the climate cooled significantly around that time (Salzer 2007). Cooling might have been caused by a giant volcano.
While none of this evidence amounts to a direct observation that the mystery supervolcano ever erupted, we do have eyewitness accounts of volcanic ejecta from exactly the same time. All the evidence, taken together, definitely points to the fact that the supervolcano did in fact exist. Scientists, in fact, are certain.
The first eyewitness account was written a highly respected Colombian scientist called Francisco José de Caldas, who described “a transparent cloud that obstructs the sun’s brilliance” over Colombia for several months from December 1808 to February 1809. The second eyewitness was a physician named José Hipólito Unanue who wrote about seeing “sunset afterglows” over Peru in the same time period. Both these observations are characteristic of large volcanic eruptions.
The fact that atmospheric haze was observed in both Colombia and Peru, which are in the southern and northern hemispheres respectively, suggest that this volcano was located somewhere in the tropics. These observations imply that ash was cast 2,600 km in all directions but the effect on the climate was global. One researcher is quoted as saying the mystery volcano “blanketed the planet in ash”. (Cole-Dai n.d.)
Vulcanologists rate volcanic eruptions on a scale called VEI (volcanic explosivity index), which is similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes. It’s a logarithmic scale that approximates the volume of ash that’s ejected by a particular eruption. The logarithmic nature of the scale means that while a VEI-3 eruption is called “severe”, a VEI-4 event is called “cataclysmic”. In 2010, Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland, resulting in ash cloud so large that it caused severe delays to air traffic across Europe, Greenland, Russia and eastern Canada. The Eyjafjallajökull eruption was a VEI-4 (“cataclysmic”) event.
When Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1908, killing 57 people and causing $1.1 billion of damage across Canada and the US, it was classified by vulcanologists as a VEI-5 (“paroxysmic”) event. Alarmingly, the mystery volcano in 1808 was at least 10 times more devastating than Mount Saint Helens in terms of the volume of ash ejected. The mystery volcano was a VEI-6 event, and it’s described by vulcanologists as “colossal”.
Volcanic ash acts “like a giant window shade, reflecting sunlight and lowering temperatures on the ground for years afterward” (Cole-Dai n.d.). Temperatures across Europe were measurably lower in the years that followed as the ash cloud obscured incoming rays from the sun. Trees grew more slowly (as evidenced by tree ring data), harvests were diminished and the climate cooled for several years afterwards.
This cooling came at a very inconvenient time. Temperatures were already lower than usual in the northern hemisphere due to the Little Ice Age. In a further devastating blow, a second, much larger volcano erupted on April 10, 1815. It was located on Mount Tambora in Indonesia and had an intensity of VEI-7 or “super-colossal” (this is just one level away from VEI-8, which is named rather horrifyingly, “apocalyptic”). Mount Tambora’s eruption was so ‘super-colossal’ that 90% of the islanders on Tambora were killed by lava flowing down from the sky. Downpours of hot ash killed trees and fish for miles around, covering them with inches of grey dust. Hot ejecta was propelled eighteen miles into the air above the volcano producing a ‘boom’ that could be heard a thousand miles away. People across Indonesia mistook the volcanic ‘boom’ for a ship’s rescue signal or a bomb detonation. Some army officials across Indonesia’s vast archipelago even dispatched troops to defend their islands after mistaking the ongoing volcanic roar for the sound of an invading army.
The sulfur dioxide released from the super-colossal Mount Tambora explosion reacted with gases in the stratosphere to produce 100 million tons of sulfuric acid, H2SO4. The sulfuric acid condensed and remained suspended in an ‘aerosol cloud’ (basically a cloud) that was accelerated by stratospheric jet streams (basically very strong winds) until the entire globe was smeared with a thin layer of H2SO4. This is a rare event, and only happens following truly colossal volcanic eruptions. Interestingly, H2SO4 reflects incoming rays from the sun, and temperatures, which were already low as a result of the mystery supervolcano in 1808, were lowered yet again. The year 1815 was, as some writers put it, “the year without a summer”. Temperatures that year were about three degrees lower than usual across Europe, which is incredible considering that both volcanoes erupted near the equator.
If the Mount Tambora volcano was a little smaller, the sulfuric acid would have formed in the atmosphere instead, and would have rained back down to the surface as acid rain. But at stratospheric altitudes, far above the clouds, the sulfuric acid haze stayed there for years acting as a kind of sunscreen for our planet.
How does this relate to chemophobia? The combination of the Little Ice Age, the 1808 mystery eruption and the super-colossal eruption of 1815 had cooled the climate to such an extent that the weather in Lake Geneva was terrible in the summer of 1815. Who was there at the time? Mary Shelley, of course, who was staying indoors drinking because the weather was too bad to go boating. Cold, bored and disappointed at the lack of a ‘summer’ holiday, Shelley and her companions set about writing ghost stories instead. Among them was Frankenstein, which featured the original, quintessential stereotype of a mad scientist. The cliché lives on to this day.