Promoting Chemistry’s Positive Public Image
I had an opportunity earlier this month to write a short “Inside Science” piece for the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer newspapers. These two publications are among those under the McClatchy Company umbrella of 30 U.S. newspapers with a history dating back to 1857 and the founding of what is now The Sacramento Bee.
I was offered great latitude in writing a piece that was to run between 401 and 426 words. Our chemblogging community has been debating how best to address public chemophobia – or whether to even use the term “chemophobia” – in emphasizing to general audiences that not all chemicals are toxic at levels to which one is normally exposed.
I decided to write about the most central and, if you will, magical chemistry that happens around us everyday and sustains our very existence: photosynthesis. You can read, “Chemistry? It’s a Natural” here in the Charlotte paper, or “Life depends on the chemical reactions of plants, algae and microbes,” in the Raleigh paper.
Just look up and around you. Virtually all life on Earth depends on plants, algae and specialized microbes performing chemical reactions – photosynthesis – that capture the light energy from the sun to produce life-giving chemicals – the unlocking of oxygen from water and the capturing of carbon dioxide from the air to create glucose and other carbohydrates. In most cases, this light-capturing conversion begins with a green pigment in chloroplasts called chlorophyll, itself a magnesium-containing chemical with similarities to heme in our hemoglobin.
I go on to speak, of course, about the massive amount of photosynthesis carried out by phytoplankton and the estimation that about half of the planet’s oxygen results from marine photosynthetic reactions.
And your dear natural products pharmacologist couldn’t resist the urge to speak about secondary metabolites such as indigo and the opiates.
I didn’t count at the time, but the words “chemical” or “chemistry” appeared 16 times in the articles, approximately 4% of the word count.
Writing with a short word limit is very challenging, unlike writing blogposts. Including my self-quote above, this piece runs 463 words without even trying.
Unfortunately for my efforts, these articles received far less attention than I had hoped owing to the West Virginia (4-methylcyclohexane)methanol release a few days later.
But I’d like for these articles to represent how I’m going to approach chemistry education this year. I’ve taken to heart last June’s post by Janet Stemwedel – someone I’ve been learning from since 2005 – that making fun of people who are not well-versed in chemistry or risk assessment is not the best way for us scientists to build trust and promote education.
What do you think? Were my pieces too simple for a regional newspaper audience? And how are you, as a chemistry ambassador, going to reach out to the public in 2014.