Defensive About "Chemistry"

C&EN recently received the following letter:

Dear Sir:

C&EN, May 26, 2008, p. 9:

“the toxicity is a function of size and shape, not chemistry”

There is something alarmingly defensive about this use of the word “chemistry”. It would imply, for example, that the sugar mill explosion that you reported recently was an effect of particle size, not of “chemistry”. It also suggests that such subjects like the folding of proteins, being a matter of shape, are not part of chemistry.

I am not sure that a letter like this one is a "letter to the editor". I am an emeritus member of the ACS, and for some years had declined the offer of the free subscription to C&EN, partly on the basis of my not being interested in news which seemed to be mostly about mergers and divestments. But I missed the magazine and am finding it now lively, business news seeming more relevant than it did, the news about chemistry itself exciting, and the editorial stands worth cheering. But there must be a place for letters that are not for publication but are just suggestions about where the word smithing could be improved.

Russell D Johnson Jr Silver Spring, MD

Dr. Johnson was referring to a story by Beth Halford on the finding that carbon nanotubes of a certain length had some physiological effects that were similar to those of asbestos fibers. I do not think C&EN was being “defensive” in the statement singled out by Dr. Johnson. Rather, Beth was saying that the physiological effect being exerted by the nanotubes was not a result of a chemical reaction between the nanotubes and cells.

When you think about it, though, the nanotubes are disrupting the biochemistry of the cells by their presence. Otherwise, there would be no deleterious effects to note. It’s just another example that chemical considerations figure prominently in so many situations, even situations when no chemical reactivity is involved.

Author: Rudy Baum

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1 Comment

  1. Yes, as chemists we have to be very careful of appearing to shift the blame. In saying carbon nanotube toxicity is a product of a physical effect rather than a chemical effect to the outsider it may sound like we’re trying to put the blame on to physics rather than chemics chemistry. Same goes for chemistry departments who rename themselves the “Department of Molecular Architecture” and such…