It is an annual tradition. The third week in October is designated as “National Chemistry Week” by the American Chemical Society with a goal of raising the public’s awareness of the value of chemistry in daily life. Educators are encouraged to give talks, perform demonstrations, and write articles designed to demystify the science that many look upon with a wary eye. When asked for a word they would associate with “chemistry,” responses commonly are along the lines of “difficult,” “dangerous,” “scary,” “toxic,” and “boring,” whereas a more appropriate response would be “useful,” “practical,” “relevant” or “important.”
Chemistry is what allows us to understand why people on “blood thinners” can take Tylenol but not Aspirin, why bleach cannot be mixed with toilet bowl cleaner, why glue sticks, how the queen bee attracts drones on her nuptial flight, or how lead can end up in tap water. If you are confused about terms like “biodegradable,” “genetically modified,” “bisphenol A,” “phthalates,” “perfluoroalkyl substances,” “probiotics,” or “antioxidants,” “endocrine disruptors,” you can look to chemistry for answers. Ditto if you don’t understand the difference between “polyester” and “rayon,” between “gluten” and “lectin,” or between “aspartame” and “sucralose.” Worried about what is worth worrying about and what is not? Chemistry can provide answers there as well.
For me, an understanding of chemistry is the key to unlocking many of the mysteries of life. So you can appreciate why I am troubled when after giving a public lecture I’m approached by people who somehow feel the need to unburden their soul and tell me, with some sort of perverse pride, that chemistry was the only course they ever failed in high school or that organic chemistry scared them from any further encounters with the subject. Unfortunately, if chemistry is poorly taught, it really can turn students off. And that is a real shame, because it is so easy to make the subject interesting and relevant. All one has to do change “boring” and “irrelevant” to “fascinating” and “practical,” is relate the concepts introduced to medications, nutrition, cosmetics, plastics, dyes, pesticides, pollution or climate change. Chemistry isn’t only for career chemists, it is for everyone.
When you decide to drink caffeinated or decaf coffee, use sugar or an artificial sweetener, drink bottled or tap water, eat a meat or veggie burger, microwave in plastic or glass, use a hair-straightener, spread butter or margarine on your sourdough or seven-grain bread, you are practicing chemistry! The more chemistry you know, the easier the decision. And the less likely you are to become a victim of scientific illiteracy.
Scientific illiteracy is no laughing matter and it is rampant. A magazine advises its readers to drink water frequently because "one third of water is oxygen and drinking it will keep you alert." A popular cookbook claims that "people don't want to waste time cooking so they go to fast food restaurants but they lose five years of their lives from eating food with chemicals in it." A chemical-free meal would not be a good deal, unless you like to dine on a vacuum. Meryl Streep, a great actress, but obviously no scientist, once espoused on a national TV program that "my grandparents didn't need chemicals to grow food." Miss Streep either comes from a line of magicians or she doesn't realize that all fertilizers are chemicals, be they old-fashioned manure or modern synthetics.
Chemical absurdity has even made it into the courtroom. The prosecutor in a gang fight trial in California described "a situation very much like nitrogen meeting glycerin; it was guaranteed that there would be an explosion of violence." He probably had some vague recollections about nitroglycerin being a potent explosive. But this substance is not made by combining glycerin with nitrogen. Actually, glycerin meets nitrogen all the time quite peacefully since nitrogen makes up 80% of air!
Then there is the classic, chilling story of the student who won a prize at a science fair by getting 43 of 50 passers-by to sign a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide because it can be fatal if inhaled, is a major component of acid rain and can be found in the tumors of terminal cancer patients. What was this horrible chemical? Water of course (H2O)!
Hopefully, activities during National Chemistry Week can go some way towards alerting people to the important role chemistry plays in their lives and maybe even spark further interest in the subject. But I think every week should be chemistry week! And that is why we produce these weekly newsletters that delve into the study of matter and the changes it undergoes. If you haven’t guessed, that is the definition of chemistry.