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Category → Public Understanding of Science

Promoting Chemistry’s Positive Public Image

D'ohh, no eye protection. Credit: David R. Carroll, Creative Commons

D’ohh, no eye protection. Credit: David R. Carroll, Creative Commons

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.

Country of Discovery Periodic Table of the Elements

The Periodic Table of the Elements and their Country of Discovery. Clicking to embiggen and make legible will open a new page at Smithsonian.com. Credit: Jaime B Gallagher @jaimebgall/Smithsonian.com

The Periodic Table of the Elements and their Country of Discovery. Clicking to embiggen and make legible will open a new page at Smithsonian.com. Credit: Jaime B Gallagher @jaimebgall/Smithsonian.com

Admit it. You have a Periodic Table of the Elements shower curtain. Don’t you?

Dmitri Mendeleev (and Julius Lothar Meyer, 1870) might have never predicted that his 1869 scientific tool would give rise not only to consumer products for the chemistry enthusiast but also a graphic visual adopted for all manner of non-scientific purposes:

The Periodic Table of Beer Styles

The Periodic Table of Drupal Modules

The Periodic Table of Typefaces

The Periodic Table of Islam

…and, for balance, The Periodic Table of Atheists and Antitheists

(yes, please add your own favorites in the comments below)

Well, my morning coffee Twitter feed brought me a new version that’s 1) about actual chemistry and 2) useful for educational purposes.

A story in this week’s Smithsonian.com Smart News displays the periodic table of the country of element discovery as constructed by Glaswegian chemistry PhD student, science communicator and dancer, Jaime B Gallagher (Twitter @JamieBGall). I’m reminded that the stories behind each element not only tell us history, but also how early chemists differentiated between the elements.

While Gallagher tries to give credit to multiple countries for some of the discoveries, debate will undoubtedly ensue. This is is good thing. It’ll get folks talking about chemistry.

Lithium, for example, was discovered by Swedish chemist Johan Arfwedson who liberated it from petalite ore, discovered by Brazilian Jose Bonifacio de Andrade de Silva while visiting the Swedish countryside. Swede Jans Jacob Berzelius named it lithos (for stone – think lithotrypsy). But it wasn’t isolated until the independent work of Sir Humphrey Davy in England and William Brande in Sweden. So while Gallagher is probably right to fully credit Sweden for lithium, one could make an argument that the UK flag should partially be at position 3.

The story might also get us talking about modern uses of the elements. For example, a large deposit of lithium has just been discovered in Wyoming, a find that’s likely to put the States in a better spot as international demand for lithium grows rapidly.

And while chest-thumping U.S. citizens might want to boast international superiority, we’re only tied for third (or fourth…with France!) for the discovery of 17 elements. The UK is tops with 23 followed by Sweden and Germany with 19 each.

Have fun looking at this table and consider using it in your science and public education efforts. There’s something here for everyone.

And before my graphic designer relatives chime in, yes, Jaime should have enlisted the help of a professional illustrator for color and typeface choices. But, hey, he’s already done the content legwork.

 

 

Saturday Morning Natural Products PharmChem Radio!

Listen to me live today at 8-10 AM, EDT, on wknc.org

If you’re up on this lovely Saturday morning and looking for something fun and educational to pass the time, dial up wknc.org for the “Mystery Roach” radio show from 8 am until 10 am Eastern time.

There, I’ll be discussing the discovery of drugs from nature and the differences between herbal remedies and medicines.

The show, hosted by forestry and natural resources doctoral student Damian Maddalena, will be interspersed with psychedelic music from the 60s and 70s.

I’ll be monitoring my Twitter account @davidkroll for questions and comments and you can also post at the Mystery Roach Facebook page.

Maddalena is an experienced scientist-communicator whose show, named after a Frank Zappa song, celebrated five years last November. The Research Triangle’s independent weekly, INDY Week, recognized Maddalena last year as runner-up for both top radio show and radio host, a tremendous accomplishment for a science and music show in a highly-competitive media market.

 

Livestream at this wknc.org page

“These pernicious anti-scientific trends”

I sauntered over to Duke University this morning to sit in an auditorium and watch the Nobel medal award ceremony via nobelprize.org with some fellow researchers and writers like Anton Zuiker and Eric Ferreri.

Owly Images

Hellooooo, Stockholm! The view this morning from Duke University’s Schiciano Auditorium. Yes, I could’ve watched on my computer anywhere but it felt right to be on the Duke campus. Credit: David Kroll/CENtral Science

As I’ve written ad nauseum, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to watch the goings-on with half of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2012 with Duke’s Dr. Bob Lefkowitz. Lefkowitz shared the prize for the chemistry behind G-protein coupled receptors with his former fellow, Stanford’s Dr. Brian Kobilka.

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“Food That Doesn’t Contain Any Chemicals” – Guardian Science

Win these, if you can. Credit: Royal Society via Guardian Science

[See addendum at end of post]

The Guardian?

Say it ain’t so!

Ever wonder why the public has an irrational fear of anything labeled, “chemical”?

Well. . .

The book section of Guardian Science has been running a contest since 19th November to win six books shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2012.

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
The Information by James Gleick
My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene
The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe

Lofty books, though I must admit to not having gotten to any yet (I’m currently stuck on Sid Mukherjee’s Pulitzer prize-winning tome, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer).

To enter the contest, one need only answer four “science” questions (and, sadly, be a UK resident.).

Let’s take a lookie-see at one of those questions:

Umm. . . Credit: Guardian Science book section (Click image for source)

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Helping Schools Hit By Sandy

Terra Sig’s Post-Sandy Science Drive

During the month of October, I had usually participated in a science blog drive to raise funds for public school teachers through a superb, New York-based charitable organization called DonorsChoose.com.

For those not familiar, the non-profit was the brainstorm of Charles Best was a Bronx high school history teacher who, like many others, spent a considerable amount of his personal funds on resources and supplies for his students. Best came up with an idea for an online giving site where teachers could match specific projects to parents and other external donors — “where anyone with $5 can become a philanthropist.”

How it works.

The entire story is here but DonorsChoose has been a remarkable success.

Many science bloggers became involved with DonorsChoose as far back as 2006 due to the efforts of physical chemist, philosopher, and science ethicist Dr. Janet Stemwedel. While we were at ScienceBlogs.com, Janet corralled the entire network and then other blogging networks into a month-long challenge where we asked our readers to spare a few doubloons for projects we thought would appeal to our audience.

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L’Embarras Des Richesses: ScienceOnline2013 and ScienceWriters2012

In this quiet moment on a rainy Saturday evening in North Carolina Piedmont, I lie here in awe of the breadth of creative talent and boundless enthusiasm that this place attracts.

Tonight at 5:00 pm Eastern time, a couple hundred folks or so learned that they had not scored a slot in the lottery for the remaining spaces at ScienceOnline2013. I won’t be there this year either but I can certainly understand the disappointment. This simple idea of Bora Zivkovic along with Let’s-Get-Together-and-See-Where-This-Goes Guy, Anton Zuiker, has grown from a small gathering of likeminded online science enthusiasts to become the South-By-Southwest of science meetings, now under the exceptional leadership of Karyn Traphagen.

I encourage everyone to stay on or sign up for the waitlist. Lots of plans change between now and late January so registration slots will most certainly open up.

Y’all come! Click for details.

But in the meantime, you might consider another possibility that just happens to be available this year very near to the same GPS coordinates: ScienceWriters2012, the annual conference of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and the National Association of Science Writers.

Scheduled for October 26-30, 2012, ScienceWriters2012 will be headquartered at the very same hotel with a program crafted by a broad group of science communicators that include a subset of ScienceOnline folks. (For the record, we’re called Science Communicators of North Carolina, or SCONC.).

Here, look at the schedule yourself.

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RTI scientists solving forensic, designer drug mysteries

Kerstin Nordstrom, PhD, AAAS Mass Media Fellow, News & Observer. Credit: Losert Laboratory/Univ of Maryland.

Catching up on my reading this Sunday morning, I’m beaming with pride on the collective accomplishments and coverage of some old friends and colleagues.

Kerstin Nordstrom, a AAAS Mass Media Fellow with the Raleigh News & Observer, had a nice story on 3 September about the work of Dr. Peter Stout at RTI International. You old-timers will know this non-profit entity as Research Triangle Institute, home to the discoveries of Taxol and camptothecin by Wall and Wani and colleagues.

Kerstin, or Dr. Nordstrom I should say as she holds a PhD in physics, interviews RTI’s Dr. Peter Stout on the institute’s forensic analytical chemistry capabilities with regard to the “designer drug” industry. Yes, here we go again with my long-running commentary on the “synthetic marijuana,” “herbal incense,” “plant food,” and “bath salts” products that have recently taken a direct hit from “Operation Log Jam,” a coordinated, federal operation to shut down the industry.

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Talking fungi at Skeptically Speaking

A brainy, free, and fun online and radio chat-type call-in show on all things science. Hosted by Desiree Schell and edited by K.O. Myers. Awesomesauce. From Canada, of course.

Well, if you’re looking for something to do during Super Bowl halftime than watch Madonna, you’re welcome to join me online for the wildly-successful science radio show, Skeptically Speaking.

With Edmonton-based host Desiree Schell (@teh_skeptic) and her US-based producer K.O. Myers (@KO_Myers), we’ll be discussing the secret lives of fungi, particularly as related to the synthesis of secondary metabolites that we use as therapeutic agents.

If you’re able to join us live, we’ll be at this UStream.tv page at 8 pm Eastern, 6 pm Mountain. On the chat bar at the right of the page, you can follow the online discussion and submit questions of your own.

I hope that you can dial us in. If not, the complete podcast will be downloadable on the evening of February 10.

Drugs of Abuse Tag-Team at Skeptically Speaking

A brainy, free, and fun online and radio chat-type call-in show on all things science. Hosted by Desiree Schell and edited by K.O. Myers. Awesomesauce. From Canada, of course.

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Canadian radio host Desiree Schell for her wildly-successful show, Skeptically Speaking. The episode on which yours truly appears can be accessed here.

Launched in March 2009, the show airs live on Sunday evenings at 6 pm Mountain Time on UStream where one can discuss the show and asks questions by live chat. The show also includes a previously recorded segment with another scientist and is then edited and distributed for rebroadcast to stations and networks across North America. The shorter pre-recorded segment where I appeared to speak about my most popular topic of the last two years on this blog, synthetic marijuana compounds.

I’m not entirely guilty of self-promotion here because I primarily wanted to mention that the first two-thirds of the show – the live part – was an interview with my neuropharmacologist friend, Scicurious, author of The Scicurious Brain blog at the Scientific American blog network and Neurotic Physiology at Scientopia. Sci has a gift for offering laser-sharp science in a hip, conversational manner.

Here’s how the Skeptically Speaking team describes the show:

With humour, enthusiasm and a lot of curiosity, Skeptically Speaking guides you through the fascinating world of science and critical thinking. We interview researchers, authors and experts to help listeners understand the evidence, arguments and science behind what’s in the news and on the shelves. A basic understanding of science, combined with a little bit of skepticism, goes a long way.

Note: The term “skepticism” may be new to you. If that’s the case, click here.

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