Tweet of the Week:
There is not enough coffee for both me and America.
— Dr24Hours (@Dr24hours) May 13, 2013
To the network:
Grand CENtral: Guest Post: “#Chemclub” by Andrew Bissette
Last month’s guest re-post from Andrew Bissette generated quite the great conversation. So we’re excited to share an original post from Andrew today. We asked him to talk about #chemclub, the online community he co-founded, how it complements other communities like #RealTimeChem, and about what’s in store for #chemclub next.
What’s it like to be a chemist?
Regular C&EN readers hopefully got a good idea from Carmen Drahl’s great article about #RealTimeChem. This growing project, led primarily by Jason Woolford, encourages chemists to share their lives, whether by blogging about it, or taking photos, or even remixing it with some dubstep.
#RealTimeChem Week took place in the last week of April. For one week, chemists from across the world blogged and tweeted intensively about their work and lives. This was a great chance to meet other chemists and hopefully to show the human face of chemistry to the outside world. Perhaps in the popular imagination we all wear labcoats and handle beakers of dry ice, but in reality we are diverse. Even within a particular field, two chemists will have very different labs and lives. #RealTimeChem is a fantastic way to showcase that diversity.
However, diversity has a downside. It is so easy to get absorbed in the details of your own narrow field that keeping up with even closely-related areas can be challenging. What’s worse is that this can be a vicious cycle: the less you know about a subject, the harder it is to keep abreast of things and to identify the really promising new findings.
Since reading as widely and thoughtfully as possible will always be essential, several aids for this purpose have appeared. For example, some reference managers suggest new papers, and journals regularly highlight important publications. My preferred solution is to ask a friend.
That’s why I started #chemclub.
We chemists are lucky to have a strong and enthusiastic online community, as #RealTimeChem week demonstrated. We’re a diverse lot, including everyone from undergraduates to professors, from a range of specialities. Being chemists, naturally every single one of these people is a shining beacon of genius.
#chemclub aims to draw on that collective wisdom. First and foremost we ask people to highlight the papers they’re reading. It’s very simple: anyone can post papers to Twitter with the hashtag #chemclub for public discussion, and every week I round up a selection on my blog, Behind NMR Lines.
The idea of #chemclub is to complement your reading with some papers you might otherwise have skipped, giving you an appreciation for new developments in other fields. Hopefully this will make it that little bit easier to build up a broad knowledge from across chemistry.
To this end we’re expanding #chemclub beyond just the hashtag. The first baby step is to include blogs in the regular round-up; there are plenty of great chemistry blogs out there, and many discuss recent papers in some detail. We’ll be focusing on those that offer context which the casual reader might miss.
Long-term, we’re looking at other ways to help chemists. Our next big thing will be #chemclub reviews: short, coffee-break reviews aimed at giving the reader a quick overview of a subject. Naturally these will lack the gory detail of an academic review, but hopefully will benefit your own reading by providing easily-digestible context and from someone who knows the subject intimately.
Ultimately, #chemclub is much like #RealTimeChem: it’s about community. We’re slowly building an online, ongoing literature meeting that users can dip in and out of, helping chemists to stay current with the literature, meet others from across the world, and broaden their knowledge.
Get involved by posting to the #chemclub hashtag on Twitter.
I’m out of town today, folks, so I scheduled a roundup for everything we had as of overlord press time.
Tweet of the Week:
No, no, no *closes think geek* I can’t have ALL the things.
— Jamie Gallagher (@JamieBGall) May 9, 2013
And now, to the network:
Cleantech Chemistry: No Magic In China’s Solar Industry
I’m back for the month of May, folks.
Tweet of the Week:
Social media should be a part of the scientific process, just as the manuscript-writing process already is. #sciodc
— Eric Schulze (@SciencEric) May 1, 2013
To the network:
Cleantech Chemistry: Technology (like GMOs) and its Discontents
Grand CENtral: Talking about science online at #sciodc
Newscripts: Looking back at our time in New Orleans and In Print: Horse. It’s What’s For Dinner and “A Boy and His Atom”: The World’s Smallest Movie and Amusing News Aliquots and Flame Challenge 2: The Answers Are In
The Safety Zone: Patrick Harran ordered to stand trial in #SheriSangji case and Ripped from the pages: More on the West Fertilizer explosion in Texas and Hearing scheduled for David Snyder in UC Davis explosives case and Friday chemical safety round up
TWO tweets of the week to make up for none on Monday:
Something I have learned: you only complete one project by ignoring a whole bunch of other projects for a while.
— Kate Clancy (@KateClancy) April 26, 2013
— Eric Popczun (@ePopczun) April 22, 2013
To the network:
Cleantech Chemistry: Solar Boom in Japan, with Battery to Match
Grand CENtral: Guest Re-post: “In defense of chemphobia” by Andrew Bissette
Terra Sigillata: The Cinnamon Challenge: On Being Charged with #Chemophobia
Today’s guest re-post comes from Andrew Bissette, who blogs at Behind NMR Lines with co-blogger Emma Hooley. They are the keepers of the popular Twitter hashtag #chemclub, where chemists post and discuss interesting papers from the literature. Originally posted exactly one month ago, Andrew’s musings about chemophobia (or chemphobia as he calls it) are timely this week given the discussion at David Kroll’s blogs both at Forbes and here about chemophobia and the cinnamon challenge.
#chemphobia is a pretty popular topic at the moment, and for good reason. We’re often confronted with examples of people selling ‘chemical-free’ products, or articles scare-mongering about the terrible ‘chemicals’ lurking in everyday life. The anti-vaccine movement often takes this angle, blaming traces of chemicals such as mercury for all kinds of horrible effects they attribute to vaccines.
One typical response to this is the claim that all matter is chemical! or something to that effect, accompanied by much eye-rolling. I see the appeal of this response: in the lab, we don’t typically discriminate between different materials. They’re all chemicals to us. I regularly use water as a solvent and SDS as a catalyst – effectively, I do my reactions in shampoo! In the fume hood next to me, exotic Zr complexes and whiffy ethers are routine. Both of us are chemists, both of us are studying chemical reactions. It seems contrived to declare that, say, gold is not a chemical merely because it is familiar to non-chemists.
Naturally, I’m sympathetic to this response, and I find chemphobia as frustrating as anyone – but I think caution is warranted. However, I think this reaction is too strong and unhelpful. Of course, I am not including in this criticism some of the excellent responses to chemphobia out there – such as this by Michelle Francl. I am aiming specifically at the dismissive “all matter is chemical” response, for two reasons:
Chemphobia is reactive
Look at the history of our profession – from tetraethyl lead to thalidomide to Bhopal – and maintain with a straight face that chemphobia is entirely unwarranted and irrational. Much like mistrust of the medical profession, it is unfortunate and unproductive, but it is in part our own fault. Arrogance and paternalism are still all too common across the sciences, and it’s entirely understandable that sections of the public treat us as villains.
Of course it’s silly to tar every chemical and chemist with the same brush, but from the outside we must appear rather esoteric and monolithic. Chemphobia ought to provoke humility, not eye-rolling. If the public are ignorant of chemistry, it’s our job to engage with them – not to lecture or hand down the Truth, but simply to talk and educate. Given that the audience of this blog is largely composed of people who actively engage with the public, I suspect I’m preaching to the converted here. Regardless: I feel like the “water is a chemical!” response risks falling into condescension.
Material does not equal chemical
As I noted above, a common response to chemphobia is to define “chemicals” as something like “any tangible matter”. From the lab this seems natural, and perhaps it is; in daily life, however, I think it’s at best overstatement and at worst dishonest. Drawing a distinction between substances which we encounter daily and are not harmful under those conditions – obvious things like water and air, kitchen ingredients, or common metals – and the more exotic, concentrated, or synthetic compounds we often deal with is useful. The observation that both groups are made of the same stuff is metaphysically profound but practically trivial for most people. We treat them very differently, and the use of the word “chemical” to draw this distinction is common, useful, and not entirely ignorant. Even Wiktionary agrees.
This definition is of course a little fuzzy at the edges. Not all “chemicals” are synthetic, and plenty of commonly-encountered materials are. Regardless, I think we can very broadly use ‘chemical’ to mean the kinds of matter you find in a lab but not in a kitchen, and I think this is how most people use it.
Crucially, this distinction tends to lead to the notion of chemicals as harmful: bleach is a chemical; it has warning stickers, you keep it under the sink, and you wear gloves when using it. Water isn’t! You drink it, you bathe in it, it falls from the sky. Rightly or wrongly, chemphobia emerges from the common usage of the word ‘chemical’.
Dismissing critics of our profession as ignorant, as fear-mongering, or as having an agenda is essentially a grand ad hominem. It’s a sure way to alienate non-chemists, come across as smug and condescending, and to lose the argument. Defining “chemical” as “all stable matter” is begging the question: of course chemphobia is silly under this definition, but nobody actually uses it! Peddlers of chemphobia rightly reject this.
What about responses along these lines that avoid these traps? I think SeeArrOh’s recent post about dyes is exemplary. Confronted with a case-study in chemphobia, SeeArrOh doesn’t facepalm and groan “idiots”. Instead, he engages directly with the authors. He finds common ground and understands their perspective, attacks the weak logic of the petition, and points out the lack of evidence for toxicity. He doesn’t chastise them for being averse to lab-made chemicals, but simply points out the inconsistency of that position, and the poor analogy between these dyes and gasoline.
Anyway. My two cents. Let the rebuttals commence.
Update: Marc has shared a thoughtful post of his own along similar lines. It and the ChemBark post linked therein are worth reading if (like me) you’ve missed them.
Doh! Apologies for not sending the weekly roundup out on its usual Friday afternoon. Adding insult to injury, there’s no tweet of the week. I’ll try to get a double-helping for you on Friday.
To the network:
Just Another Electron Pusher: #ChemMovieCarnival – The Absent-Minded Professor
Terra Sigillata: Why Chemistry Should Care About Humanities Higher Education
The Safety Zone: Friday chemical safety round up and Stony Brook chemistry incorporates lab safety into Research Day celebration and Ripped from the pages: DHS lagging on chemical security, CSB has offshore jurisdiction, and hydrofluoric acid concerns
The Watch Glass: Talking about global warming in 1989, chemical forensics trace threat agents, pheromone lures control beetles, a book review of “African American Women Chemists,” and plutonium weighing helped open the atomic age
Tweet of the week:
— CHEMIST HULK (@ChemistHulk) April 10, 2013
I know, I know. There were a plethora of #ACSnola gems to choose from. But I wouldn’t want to make CHEMIST HULK angry…
To the network:
Tweet of the week:
Thumbs down to the death of Roger Ebert, Thumbs up for his life and his career. Although we all have different taste, you saved us from duds
— Daily Brew (@D_B_Connect) April 5, 2013
I’m baaaaack! Many thanks to Carmen for both overlording in my absence and agreeing to co-overlord in my return. Today we’re mourning the loss of film critic Roger Ebert, but we’re also celebrating the birthday of Terra Sig owner and ubermensch, David Kroll!
To the network:
Grand CENtral: C&EN Picks for ACS New Orleans #ACSNOLA
Just Another Electron Pusher: Why some women may choose not to enter STEM careers and ACS Webinar: Chemists at U.S. Customs and Border Protection
The Haystack: Liveblogging First-Time Disclosures of Drug Structures from #ACSNOLA (bookmark this link for next week)
The Safety Zone: Chemical and laboratory safety at #ACSNOLA
From The CENtral Science Blogs
- May 20th, 2013By Jyllian Kemsley
- May 20th, 2013By Sarah Everts
- May 17th, 2013By Carmen Drahl
- May 16th, 2013By Bethany Halford
- May 13th, 2013By Lisa Jarvis
- May 6th, 2013By Melody Bomgardner
- Apr 23rd, 2013By David Kroll
- Apr 18th, 2013By Glen Ernst
- Mar 11th, 2013By Rick Mullin