Chemical reactions

Chemical reactions McGill University

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McGill Reporter
May 18, 2006 - Volume 38 Number 17
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Chemical reactions

Showing off the everyday magic of simple science

The next time a textbook spontaneously combusts following some music by The Village People, check for the whereabouts of chemistry professor Ariel Fenster.  

Caption follows
Chemist Ariel Fenster fires up the crowd.
Claudio Calligaris

 Magical trickery with a scientific basis has been the lure of the show The Magic of Chemistry since its inception three years ago. It was created to promote an understanding of science among the general public, and with more than 200 shows to their credit, Fenster and fellow professors David Harpp and Joe Schwarcz see no need to change their act now.

A founding member of McGill's Office of Science and Society, Fenster presented a shortened version of the group's popular show The Magic of Chemistry last Friday, May 12, in the Redpath Auditorium.  

Once 'YMCA' faded out over the P.A. system, the 63-year-old professor commenced his show by picking up the thick chemistry textbook laying on the podium. After reading from it for a few moments, he snapped his fingers and engulfed the book in flames; much to the delight of two wide-eyed toddlers sitting down front.  

Introducing his 'super-slurper' experiment, Fenster poured water into a cup. He then proceeded to dump the cup's contents onto the floor but, to everybody's surprise, the water had disappeared.  

The scientist's super-slurper - known to chemists as Sodium Polyacrylate - absorbed the cup's contents. It is used in disposable diapers and various feminine hygiene products because of its ability to absorb liquid.

This trick raises the very popular Disposable Diapers vs. Cotton Diapers debate.

"People see the world as black and white, but it is grey," said Fenster. "Sure, disposable diapers aren't great for the environment, but are cotton ones? Cotton is grown using pesticides and harvested with gas powered machinery."

Truffles also made for an intriguing experiment. To most they are known as a culinary delicacy used in French and Italian cuisine. A little-known fact, however, is that they secrete sexual attractants called pheromones that stimulate female pigs, which is why farmers use the animals to detect the fungi growing underground. Coincidentally, pheromones - known scientifically as androstenol - are emitted by humans as well.  

"Young men: do not walk by a pig farm because you may be attacked by sex-starved female pigs," joked Fenster.

The professor had put a drop of Androstenol in the auditorium's seating before people arrived and waited to see who it might lure in. Sure enough, a young woman installed herself on top of the attractant.

According to Fenster, fragrance companies have already developed perfumes containing pheromones that will soon be available for sale.

As if the bar scene weren't chaotic enough.

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