Tag Archives: Education

The ‘deficit model’ only works half the time when you’re fighting chemophobia

focus group sitting at a table chemicals

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.

table 1 mechanisms of deficit model
Table 1 from Phillips & Beddoes (2013). Click to download.
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. ♦

Combatting Chemophobia With Wine

Ava Winery composes fine vintage wines molecule by molecule in the lab
Ava Winery composes fine vintage wines molecule by molecule in the lab

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.

galaxy-class_replicator
Ava Wines’ business model is somewhat akin to the Star Trek replicator!

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.

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100 to 300 compounds are responsible for the full flavour of a wine.

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.

Fighting Chemophobia

Bananas contain unpronounceable ingredients, too. Ingredients of an All-Natural Banana by James Kennedy

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;
  • Chemistry people;
  • 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.

Let’s add oxygen, fluorine and neon gases

Oxygen from Theodore Gray's amazing book, The Elements
Oxygen from Theodore Gray’s amazing book, The Elements

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.

Nothing happens.

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:

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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

Substance Amount in mol
He(g) 1.000
Be(s) 0.514
LiH(s) 0.000
Li2C2(s) 0.272
B2H6(g) 0.000
Be2C(s) 0.175
H2(g) 0.007
BeC2(s) 0.136
CH4(g) 0.009
N2(g) 0.552
NH3(g) 0.154
LiNH2(s) 0.277
polyborazine 12.194 grams

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

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Elements by Theodore Gray

The following three reactions would all occur as 1.00 mole of fluorine gas is added:

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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

elements110010
Elements by Theodore Gray

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.

The End

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?

Possibly not.

We Lied To You

Click to download the book
click-here

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.


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lie-15


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we-lied-to-you-cover-lightbulbs

click-here


Pre-order my second book “We Lied To You” here

Pre-order here
Pre-order here

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.

Pre-order the FREE e-book by filling in the form here.

Redox Rules

Click to download REDOX RULES posters for VCE Chemistry
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.

VCAA VCE Chemistry how difficult is each topic
Notice how chapters 26, 27 and 28 are consistently the most difficult and the most frequently askedClick to download PDF version

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, 12 mol Cu or 13 mol Al. That’s why I teach “1, 12 and 13 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:

  1. Do KOHES as normal
  2. Add the same number of OH(aq) ions to each side of the half-equation to balance out the H+(aq)
  3. 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:

  1. Separate it into two half equations
  2. Balance them using KOHES or KOHES(OH) as appropriate
  3. Multiply them and recombine
  4. Cancel and simplify
  5. Done!

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:

  • MnO4(aq) + 8H+(aq) + 5e → Mn2+(aq) + 4H2O(l)  2/2 marks

Instead of this:

  • Mn7+(aq) + 5e → Mn2+(aq)  0/2 marks

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!

Mystery supervolcano is at the root of the ‘mad scientist’ stereotype

The Mad Scientist stereotype was caused ultimately by a supervolcano that nobody can locate to this day
The Mad Scientist stereotype was caused ultimately by a supervolcano that nobody can locate to this day

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.

Thanks, volcano.

LIVE Chemophobia Session Thursday 11th August @ 2pm ET

Click to register for the free webinar
Click to register for our free webinar hosted by the American Chemical Society

What can I expect to learn?

  • What does the public think of chemistry, chemicals and chemists?
  • How prevalent is chemophobia?
  • How did we evolve the propensity to become chemophobic?
  • Who were the first chemophobes?
  • What is a “chemical”?
  • Why have chemists’ efforts to fight chemophobia been to no avail?
  • What’s the ultimate cure for chemophobia, and who’s willing to fund it?
  • What can you do as a chemist to combat chemophobia?

Registration is open

Click the above banner to register for the free webinar.

Chemists need to speak the same language as the public

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Chemists and the public need to be speaking the same language

Chemicals

The public uses the word ‘chemical’ to mean ‘synthetic substance’. Chemists have traditionally opposed this definition and stuck with ‘substance’ instead, responding with “everything is a chemical” in defence.

Arguing over definitions is futile and avoids the elephant in the room – that there’s been almost no public outreach to support the field of chemistry in the last few decades to counteract growing public skepticism of science (and of chemistry in particular).

Furthermore, it’s even more futile arguing over definitions when the Oxford English Dictionary provides a clear answer to this debate:

chemical (noun) – a distinct compound or substance, especially one which has been artificially prepared or purified

I ask all chemists to embrace the dictionary definition of ‘chemical’ and stop bickering with the public over definitions.

My main concern here is that if “everything is a chemical”, then it therefore follows that ‘chemophobia’ is the fear of everything, which is nonsensical. If we’re going to talk about chemophobia, we’re also going to have to accept the definition of chemical that the OED and the public have been using for a long time: that “chemical” = “artificially prepared substance”.

So what do we call non-synthetic chemicals? Try using a word with less baggage such as “molecule”, “compound”, “substance” or “element” where it’s relevant. By using these words, we avoid the natural=good/artificial=bad divide, which is the central assumption of chemophobia.

Chemophobia

‘Chemophobia’ is an irrational aversion to chemicals perceived as synthetic.

The word ‘chemophobia’ refers to a small subset of people who are not only disenfranchised by science, but who have subscribed to alternative sources of knowledge (either ancient wisdom or – sadly – Google). Many people with chemophobia are protesting against the establishment, and this is particularly evident in the anti-GMO movement. At the core of most people who oppose GMOs is a moral/political opposition to having their food supply controlled by giant corporations. No number of scientific studies concluding the safety and reliability of GMO crops will succeed in persuading them otherwise because the anti-GMO movement is founded on moral/political beliefs, not on science. By throwing science at them, we’re wasting our time.

More important than chemophobia

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s recent report on Public Perceptions of Science showed roughly a 20-60-20 range of attitudes towards chemistry.

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No matter how the RSC phrased the question, roughly 20% of the UK public who were surveyed indicated a negative attitude towards chemistry, and another 20% showed a positive attitude. The 60% in the middle felt disconnected from the subject – maybe disliked it in school – but felt neutral towards it when asked.

Chemophobia afflicts some people in the bottom 20%. They gave negative word-associations with ‘chemistry’ (e.g. ‘accidents’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘inaccessible’).That bottom 20% group is so vocal (e.g. Food Babe) that they distract chemists from the 60% in who are neutral. The ‘neutral’ crowd is a much larger audience that’s much easier to engage/persuade through outreach efforts. We should focus on talking to them.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has said in interviews that his huge TV hit show COSMOS was aimed at “people who didn’t even know they might like science”. That’s the middle 60%. Brian Cox’s amazing Wonders of the Universe was aimed at a similar audience – but chemistry has nothing similar to offer. We’re engaging those who are already interested (with academic talks and specialist journals) and we’re engaging with the bottom 20% via social media and comments on foodbabe.com… but why haven’t we started engaging the middle 60%, who gets most of their science information from TV? How many chemistry TV icons can you name? Where are the multi-channel launches of big-budget chemistry documentaries*? Chemistry is lagging far behind biology and physics in that regard.

*BBC Four’s Chemistry: A Volatile History (2010) doesn’t count – it was only three episodes long, got no further than ‘the elements’ and was presented by a PHYSICIST!

Focus on the 60% who are ‘neutral’

I ask chemists to focus on addressing the disinterested 60%. From an outreach perspective, this is much more fun and is positive rather than reactionary. By engaging those who feel neutral about chemistry, we might even empower enough of the public to fight chemophobia (online, at least) by themselves – without our direct intervention.

I urge chemists to tell the public what you do in simple terms. Describe your work to the public. Tweet about it. Participate in your university/faculty’s YouTube videos by explaining your work and its relevance. Offer advice as a science correspondent for local media outlets (many universities have ‘expert lines’ – get involved). Give your ‘talk’ at local schools – it make a HUGE difference to students’ perceptions of science. Devote 5% of your working time to doing outreach. As a teacher, I’m practically doing it full-time.

Plus, we urgently need a chemistry TV hero. Could someone do that, too, please?

Registration is open!

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About the webinar

James Kennedy will explore the rise of chemophobia, an irrational fear of compounds perceived as ‘synthetic’, and the damage it can cause in this interactive webinar. We’ll examine its evolutionary roots, the factors keeping it alive today and how to fight chemophobia successfully.

What You Will Learn

  • Origins of chemophobia as an irrational psychological quirk
  • Chemistry teachers, Walter White, materialism and advertisements are all fuelling chemophobia today
  • Fighting chemophobia needs to be positive, respectful, multifaceted, and good for consumers

Webinar Details

  • Date: Thursday, August 11, 2016 @ 2-3pm ET
  • Fee: Free to Attend
  • Download Slides: Available Day of Broadcast

Register your attendance here.

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Slide from the lecture. Click to register to attend.

ASAP Science Video: This is NOT NATURAL

this is not natural
Click to watch AsapSCIENCE’s video on YouTube

AsapSCIENCE has made an awesome video called This is NOT NATURAL based on the work I’ve been doing on this site. Watch the video and read the comments thread for some insight into the discussion (and misinformation) that spreads online regarding ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ products.

One of the most upvoted comments is actually a thinly-veiled advertisement for a book called “The Coconut Oil Secret: Why this tropical treasure is nature’s #1 healing superfood”. Click through to their product page and you’ll see why the natural/organic sector needs more regulation, and why consumers need to be better-informed.

Check out the video below, or click here to visit the comments thread on YouTube.

Personal Care Product Ingredients: Are Natural, Chemical Free, and Organic Always Best?

Personal Care Product Ingredients: Are Natural, Chemical Free, and Organic Always Best? Reserach Review Thumbnails
Click to download full article via Research Review NZ/The Parent Centre, NZ
Shaun Holt and I recently co-wrote a paper for Research Review on the ingredients found in personal care products (e.g. shampoos, lotions and cosmetics). We analyse the recent surge in demand for ‘natural’ products and the beliefs that have been driving it.

We’re not saying that natural products don’t work – in fact, quite the opposite. We’re saying that natural products, just like synthetic ones, can be harmful, beneficial or neutral depending on the dose and upon how they’re used. 

Article preview

The terms “natural”, “chemical free” and “organic” are used frequently to market personal care products. However, the exact meaning of these terms is still unclear for consumers, and the use of these terms on labels is still unregulated in some markets. The purpose of this review is to provide clarity on the meanings of these terms and the implications of their application in the marketing of personal care products. The importance of applying a science-based approach to the assessment and recommendation of personal care products is also emphasised. This review is intended as an educational resource for healthcare professionals (HCPs), including nurses, midwives, pharmacists, and pharmacy assistants.

Read the rest of the article here.

My iOS app is free until the end of June 2016

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Screenshot from my free iOS app

I quietly released a simple iOS app back in March 2016. It’s free to download and works on iPhone and iPads running iOS 7.0 or later.

It’s called VCE Study Tools (Chemistry) and it’s the fastest way to browse this website on a mobile device.

Get it from the App Store here.

I’m removing it from the App Store at the end of June 2016 so I can release something a little better later on. If you want the app, go ahead and download it before it’s gone!

James Kennedy's iOS app called VCE Study Tools (Chemistry) is available on the App Store

‘Chemophobia’ is irrational, harmful – and hard to break

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Kiran Foster/Flickr

We all feel a profound connection with the natural world. E O Wilson called this sensation biophilia: ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. That sense of connection brings great emotional satisfaction. It can decrease levels of anger, anxiety and pain. It has undoubtedly helped our species to survive, since we are fundamentally dependent on our surrounding environment and ecosystem. But lately, biophilia has spawned an extreme variant: chemophobia, a reflexive rejection of modern synthetic chemicals.

Continue reading this article on AEON IDEAS…

Let’s add nitrogen gas

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‘Nitrogen’ page from Theodore Gray’s amazing book, ‘The Elements’

Initial conditions

Recall from last week that our Periodic Table Smoothie contains the following species:

Substance Amount present (moles)
He(g) 1.00000
Be(s) 0.51435
LiH(s) 0.27670
Li2C2(s) 0.27165
B2H6(g) 0.23300
Be2C(s) 0.17470
H2(g) 0.14267
BeC2(s) 0.13625
CH4(g) 0.00949

Pressure: 718 kPa
Temperature: 350 °C

Reactions of nitrogen in our 10-litre vessel

Our freshly-added 1.00 mol of nitrogen gas, N2(g), reacts with hydrogen gas to make ammonia in the following reversible (equilibrium) reaction. We will assume that the interior metal surface of the vessel is a suitable catalyst for this reaction (e.g. iron). 

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There are three other reactions below that might have occurred at higher temperature, but I’ve chosen not to raise the temperature of the vessel at this point. Rather, we’ll keep it at 350 °C to keep things manageable.*

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*I was tempted at this point to elevate the temperature of our vessel to 500 °C so that the second reaction could take place as well. This would produce copious amounts of smelly ammonia gas, which would allow for larger quantities of interesting organic compounds to be produced later on. To keep our simulation safe and (relatively) simple, I’ve decided to keep the vessel at 350 °C. Interesting compounds organic will still form – only in smaller amounts.

Equilibria

The ammonia reaction above (the first equation) is actually an equilibrium reaction. That means that the reactants are never completely used up, and the yield is not 100%.

Recall from Le Châtelier’s principle that removing product from an equilibrium reaction causes the position of equilibrium to shift to the right, forming more product. This is because:

“If an equilibrium system is subjected to a change, the system will adjust itself to partially oppose the effect of the change.” – Le Châtelier’s principle

There are three reactions that will remove ammonia from our vessel while it’s being produced, and I’ve put all three of these into the simulation. One of these is the reverse of the reaction above (producing hydrogen and nitrogen gases) and the other two are described below. Let’s take a look at those other two reactions.

With what will the ammonia react in our vessel?

Ammonia can undergo the following reactions with the other things in our vessel**

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**The ammonia does react with methane and beryllium as well, but only at temperatures of 1200 °C and 600 °C, respectively.

Two compounds will be formed: lithium amide and borazine.[1] Lithium amide reacts with nothing else in the vessel, so the reaction chain stops there. Borazine, on the other hand, is much more interesting.

We’ve made borazine!

Borazine is a colourless liquid at room at temperature. It boils at 53 °C and has a structure that resembles that of benzene.

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Borazine is isostructural with benzene
Because of the electronegativity difference of about 1.0 between the B and N atoms in the ring, borazine has a mesomer structure:

600px-borazin_mesomers

Like benzene, there is partial delocalisation of the lone pair of electrons on the nitrogen atoms.

Borazine polymerises into polyborazine!

Fascinatingly, borazine polymerises into polyborazine at temperatures above 70 °C, releasing an equal number of moles of hydrogen gas.[2] Polyborazine isn’t particularly well-understood or well-documented, but one recent paper suggested it might play a role in the creation of potential ceramics such as boron carbonitrides. Borazine can also be used as a precursor to grow boron nitride thin films on surfaces, such as the nanomesh structure which is formed on rhodium.[3]

Like several of the other compounds we’ve created in our Periodic Table Smoothie, polyborazine has also been proposed as a hydrogen storage medium for hydrogen cars, whereby polyborazine utilises a “single pot” process for digestion and reduction to recreate ammonia borane.

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Polyborazine’s chemical structure
The hydrogen released during the polymerisation process will then react further with a little bit of the remaining nitrogen to produce a little more NH3(g) – but not much. Recall from earlier that the ammonia reaction is an equilibrium one, and the yield of NH3(g) at pressures under 30 atmospheres is very low. Pressure in our vessel is still only around 7 atmospheres.

Simulation results

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Once polymerised, this would form about 12 grams of polyborazine:

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As far as I’m aware, no further reactions will take place in the vessel this week.

Conclusion after adding 1.00 mole of nitrogen gas

Substance Amount in mol
He(g) 1.000
Be(s) 0.514
LiH(s) 0.000
Li2C2(s) 0.272
B2H6(g) 0.000
Be2C(s) 0.175
H2(g) 0.007
BeC2(s) 0.136
CH4(g) 0.009
N2(g) 0.552
NH3(g) 0.154
LiNH2(s) 0.277
polyborazine 12.194 grams

Pressure: 891 kPa (higher than before due to the addition of nitrogen gas)
Temperature: 350 °C (vessel is still being maintained at constant temperature)

Next week, we’ll add a mole of oxygen gas to the vessel. Warning: it might explode.

References

  1. Stock, Alfred and Erich Pohland. “Borwasserstoffe, VIII. Zur Kenntnis Des B 2 H 6 Und Des B 5 H 11”. Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft (A and B Series) 59.9 (1926): 2210-2215. Web.
  2. Mohammad, Faiz. Specialty Polymers. Tunbridge Wells: Anshan, 2007. Print.
  3. Toury, Berangere and Philippe Miele. “A New Polyborazine-Based Route To Boron Nitride Fibres”. Journal of Materials Chemistry 14.17 (2004): 2609. Web. 4 May 2016.