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Public Lectures

The McGill Office for Science and Society has developed over 60 lectures on a host of topics of interest. These lectures are offered to educational institutions, study groups, social clubs and professional organizations with the level, format and length of the presentations tailored to fit any audience. The material is normally presented with slides and therefore a screen is required. Listed below is a description of some of the most popular topics. (Note: depending on the lecture, some may be given in French).

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The Magic of Science

Everybody loves magic.  And when you couple it with science, you have a unique presentation that goes beyond entertainment.  This show is ideal for an after-lunch or after-dinner program but can also stand on its own.  Good old fashioned stage magic blends with a variety of chemical demonstrations to delight and educate spectators of all ages.

Hey! There are Cockroaches in my Chocolate Ice Cream!

No, there really are no cockroaches in chocolate ice cream.  But one of my radio listeners did jump to this conclusion after misinterpreting what had been said about a certain food colorant.  Being on one end of a microphone and in front of television cameras for over twenty years has afforded some fascinating insight into the public’s perception of science.  It has also provided an opportunity to separate sense from nonsense in areas ranging from nutrition and medications to cosmetics and pesticides.  This highly visual and entertaining presentation examines some serious as well as some frivolous experiences in dealing with the public and emphasizes the importance of fostering critical thinking.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall...

Who is the fairest of them all?  The one who sports the most alluring make-up!  And of course cosmetics companies all vie to make that claim.  But are there really significant differences between inexpensive and pricey brands?  Can creams retard aging?  What about allegations that some cosmetics contain untested and potentially harmful ingredients?  The scientific story of cosmetics, stripped of hype, hope and fear-mongering, makes for a fascinating account.

Are Cows more Trustworthy than Chemists?

A story in Time magazine about the relative merits of conventional and organic produce featured a curious quote from a professor of nutrition education at Columbia University.  When asked if she preferred butter or margarine, she replied “I would rather trust a cow than a chemist.”  Unfortunately such negative comments about chemistry are not unusual these days as the lay press often focuses on “toxic chemicals” in our air, water, food and even in our blood.  The truth is that chemicals are neither safe nor dangerous.  There are safe ways to use chemicals and dangerous ways to use chemicals.  The International Year of Chemistry is an especially appropriate time to try to build a dike of scientific reality to stem the rising tide of chemophobia.  

Nutritional Advice - Is there a solution to the confusion?

Eating has become a confusing experience.  Virtually every day bring news about some “miracle food” that we should be gulping down.  One day it's tomatoes to prevent cancer, then flaxseed against heart disease or soybeans for menopause.  Then there are the worries: genetic modification, aspartame, MSG, the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements.  We need proper science to guide us through this nutritional maze.

Herbs, Hype and Hope

Herbal supplements have escaped from health food stores and are filling the shelves of pharmacies.  They promise to prevent, and in some cases, cure disease.  What is the truth?  Is there magic behind echinacea, St. John's wort or ginseng?  This presentation explores the fascinating world of herbs from a historical and current perspective.

The Age of Anxiety

Life isn’t always a bowl of cherries.  Sometimes it even seems like there are no cherries, just the pits.  We’re inundated with worries.  We worry about PCBs in our fish, bisphenol A in our food, preservatives in our antiperspirants, mercury in our teeth, radon in our basement, aspartame in our diet drinks, dioxin in our toilet paper, radiation from power lines, pesticides on our lawns and golf courses and cooking in aluminum pots.  In many cases the worries are exaggerated and do not reflect the scientific evidence.  Maybe it is time to organize our worrying and put life’s risks into perspective.  Fish, cosmetic ingredients, genetically modified foods or golf courses are not destroying our health.  But maybe worrying about them is.

"Serendipitous Science"

Although many chemical discoveries have been the result of goal oriented research, there are a good number that have come about serendipitously. But as Louis Pasteur stated, “chance favours the prepared mind.” William Perkin’s chance discovery of synthetic dyes, Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, Craven’s discovery of aspirin’s anti-clotting effect and the discovery of artificial sweeteners are just some of the examples to be explored. 

Aging: Fact and Fancy

Everybody wants to live long but nobody wants to get old.  Can science solve this conundrum?  What are we to make of claims which suggest that the secret of longevity lies in human growth hormone injections, or some dietary supplement?  Can testosterone or estrogen keep us young?  Can we live longer just by eating less?  Are antioxidants like beta carotene or vitamin E the key to happy golden years?  A look at the science behind these issues can be a real eye opener!

Chemistry and Dentistry

Most dentists don’t think of themselves as chemists, but in fact chemistry and dentistry are strongly intertwined.  It is fascinating to explore the chemical composition of dental materials and their potential health consequences.  The fluoride issue is also intriguing as is the science behind tooth whiteners.  Historically dentists played an important role in the development of anesthesia and are now exploring the links between dental health and heart disease.  These and other relevant issues will be examined in an informative and entertaining fashion.

Have You Ever Wondered...

Why for years and years there were no red M&M's or how do they get that maraschino cherry to float in the syrup inside a Cherry Blossom?  What is the link between the bombardier beetle at the V-2 rocket?  Why does popcorn pop?  Why are there holes in Swiss cheese?  Have you ever considered why there are no nuts or grapes in Grape Nuts Flakes or why witches supposedly use broomsticks as a method of transportation?  Why did Van Gogh mangle his ear?  Were Agatha Christie's accounts of dastardly poisonings based on real science?  Can chocolate really make you fall in love?  After this presentation you’ll wonder no more!

Humour, Magic, and Medicine

It is becoming more and more clear that there is a strong interrelationship between the body and the mind.  While sick people may not exactly be able to laugh their way back to health, scientists are looking very seriously at the potential therapeutic value of humor and play.  There appears little question that mental attitude can influence how we deal with stress and how we recover from certain illnesses.  Unfortunately though, sometimes people place too much hope on the power of "positive thinking."  Come laugh a little, and learn a lot about the value of humor in managing stress!  You may even experience a little magic.....

Science and the Paranormal

Since the dawn of civilization humans have been fascinated by phenomena which appear to lie outside the scope of science.  Our history is peppered with accounts of psychics predicting the future, mediums conversing with the dead, and aliens in UFO's abducting earthlings.  Today, there is widespread belief that the moon and planets influence our behavior, that "psychic surgeons" can remove tumors without making incisions and that Uri Geller bends spoons with the power of his mind.  Do these effects really lie outside the scope of modern day science?  This lecture examines paranormal phenomena and describes how many of the effects can be explained by perfectly "natural" means.  The presentation is highlighted by a number of "demonstrations" aimed at increasing the awareness of the need to evaluate "paranormal" phenomena by critical scientific methods. 

Agricultural Myths and Facts

Pesticides, fungicides, herbicides…they are all meant to kill. Obviously these are potentially toxic substances. But that does not mean they cannot be used safely. Indeed, without the proper use of agrochemicals we have no hope of feeding the Earth’s increasing population. However, when it comes to weeds on our lawn, we may want to be a touch more circumspect. We need to trace out a path between the fear-mongerers and the chemical enthusiasts.

Houeshold Chemicals: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Most people don’t realize it, but our kitchens, bathrooms and laundry rooms are really chemical laboratories.  We may call them detergents, drain cleaners, stain removers and deodorizers, but these common household items are actually chemical products that merit attention beyond their efficacy.  There are both health and environmental issues that need to be considered.  Claims referring to “biodegradable,” “green” or “environmentally friendly” products require a careful, realistic analysis.

The Chemistry of Love

This presentation features a lighthearted but scientific look at a topic of interest to all. The chemistry of the brain "in love" is examined, as well as the possible existence of aphrodisiacs and love potions. Chemical sex attractants in insects constitute the background to a discussion of possible analogues to these compounds in humans. This talk is of interest to anyone who ever has been, or ever plans to be "in love," as well as to anyone else.

Health, Hype and Hope

Many people suspicious of modern medicine are turning to “alternative” practitioners. Homeopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture and naturopathy are enjoying popularity and the Internet offers miraculous solutions for virtually any health problem. It is, however, important to examine the claims scientifically in order to separate the quackery from potentially useful treatments.

Brainy Science

The human brain is the most complex machine on the face of the earth. Although we know a fair bit about the anatomy of the brain and have some insight into its chemical activity, much of its workings remain a mystery. What’s the difference between a brain that can decipher the laws of nature and one that struggles with a simple mathematical problem? Why do some people retain their mental capabilities into their nineties while others succumb to Alzheimer’s disease. Can we “feed” our brain nutrients to improve memory? Will you be smarter after this lecture? Come and find out.

The Science of Magic

Magicians have been called the scientists of the stage. Their wondrous effects seem to defy the laws of nature but in reality are all scientifically explicable. Exploring magic can teach us a great deal about the scientific method and the process of making observations and coming to conclusions. It can also be an eye-opener in terms of understanding techniques used by psychics to convince people that they possess special powers. 

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Alternative medicine, integrated medicine, complementary medicine. These terms are widely featured in the media, usually without appropriate critical analysis. There is a great deal of confusion among the public, as well as among physicians, about what the various “alternative” treatments actually encompass and about their safety and efficacy. Homeopathy, for example, is often mistakenly believed to be synonymous with any kind of herbal treatment. A proper  scientific investigation of the pros and cons of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) can be very enlightening particularly when it comes to vaccination, certainly one of medicine’s most impressive triumphs. Smallpox has been wiped out, polio has virtually been relegated to the history books and childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella have been brought under control. Yet, there is a booming anti-vaccine movement championed by the likes of “Dr.” Jenny McCarthy and “Dr.” Jim Carrey. This sort of unscientific activism presents real risks and needs to be addressed by the scientific establishment.


Most people think that the snake oil era ended with the advent of modern medicine. It did not. Snake oil is more popular today than ever, it just goes by different names. Ear candling, colonic cleanses, “aerobic oxygen,” “zero point energy wands,” magnets and a plethora of dietary supplements all claim to cure disease. Quackery is a multi-billion dollar business and is a testimonial to the extent of scientific illiteracy.

Yikes! There Are Worms in My Blood Vessels

I not only have worms in my blood vessels, I also have little insects dining on my bones and muscles. You just never know what a clairvoyant will see when she scans your body. For almost forty years my colleagues and I at the McGill Office for Science and Society have been in the business of separating sense from nonsense for students and the general public, taking advantage of all available media. In the process we’ve witnessed the consequences of scientific illiteracy as we locked horns with a variety of phonies, charlatans and alarmist zealots. These adventures make for an entertaining and informative plea for critical thinking. And, oh yes, apparently I also have mushrooms in my prostate.

Celebrity Science - From Suzanne Somers to Dr. Oz

Is it sound science or quackery? When it comes to health advice dispensed by celebrities it may be hard to tell. Suzanne Somers offers opinions on cancer treatment, Jenny McCarthy rails against vaccinations and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver serves up nutritional advice. And then there is the enigma of Dr. Oz! What we have here is a fascinating blend of sense and nonsense. Time to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Plastics - Facts and Myths

When Young Ben was counseled by a family friend in “The Graduate” that the future lay in plastics, audiences did not bat an eyebrow. Plastics were flying high! But these days plastics are often regarded as a pariah, a blot on the environment and an insidious contributor to disease. Public fear can be eroded by a factual, unbiased discussion of the facts and myths that envelop modern plastics.

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