Promoting Chemistry’s Positive Public Image
Jan25

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...

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Country of Discovery Periodic Table of the Elements
Jun24

Country of Discovery Periodic Table of the Elements

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.  ...

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Saturday Morning Natural Products PharmChem Radio!
Mar23

Saturday Morning Natural Products PharmChem Radio!

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...

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“These pernicious anti-scientific trends”
Dec10

“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. 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. And as my students know, nobelprize.org is an absolutely terrific (and free) site for some of the most noteworthy documentation of the great scientific discoveries since 1901. So, I’ve been very interested to now follow the Nobel lectures for all the prizes. But what I absolutely loved was tonight’s banquet speech given by Lefkowitz on behalf of himself, Kobilka, and their families. Here’s an excerpt that warmed my cockles: For those of us in the sciences, we watch with delight as every October the eyes of the entire world focus, if only transiently, on the power of discoveries in chemistry, physics, medicine, physiology, and economics to shape our lives. However, as an American Scientist, and now Nobel Laureate, I have never been more aware or more appreciative of this effect of the Prize announcements. We have just had a Presidential election in the United States. One of the fault lines in the campaign was the role that science plays in shaping public policy decisions. A clear anti-science bias was apparent in many who sought the presidential nomination of one of our major political parties. This was manifest as a refusal to accept for example, the theory of evolution, the existence of global warming, much less of the role of humans in this process, the value of vaccines or of embryonic stem cell research. Each of us Laureates aspires in our own small way to do what we can to counter these pernicious anti-scientific trends. I hope that this excerpt and message makes it to the mainstream media. And I’m happy to work with Dr. Lefkowitz in any way he sees to “counter these pernicious anti-scientific...

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“Food That Doesn’t Contain Any Chemicals” – Guardian Science
Nov24

“Food That Doesn’t Contain Any Chemicals” – 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: A mega-tip-of-the-hat the London nanochemist Suze @FunSizeSuze and Oxford’s Nessa Carson @SuperScienceGrl for alerting me to this travesty via Twitter. As Suze tweeted: Most surprising to me is that this contest has been up since Monday and will run through 29th November. That’s another five days to attract ridicule. On one hand, I jest. But this is one serious example of why the public has chemophobia. We know several superb science journalists at The Guardian so I’m certain that the book editor(s) didn’t run this quiz past them. But to let such a question go live online? To win six science books shortlisted for a major award? I hope that The Guardian will quickly remove this question and/or print a correction.   Addendum: After seeing a recent tweet from @guardianscience about their “(slightly tricksy) competition,” I suspect that the question is meant to be one in which no answer is the correct answer. If so, they’ve done a lovely job in getting the social mediasphere to talk about the contest. I still object to using this as a trick since it feeds chemophobia among some, but I can also see that value in using it for a science book...

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Helping Schools Hit By Sandy
Nov05

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.” 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. Most of us focused on promoting science projects, of course. But I became acutely aware of the poverty of school systems barely 50 miles from where I live (one city had 34% of the population living below the US poverty line, currently defined as an annual income of less that $23,050 for a family of four). Some teachers simply needed pencils and paper for their students. Seriously. How can you get to science education if your school district lacks the funds to purchase basic supplies? You can simply rely on parents who are struggling to merely feed their families. So, I listed many of these efforts together with some of the more creative science projects. Well, Terra Sig readers blew me away the very first month. Although the blog ranked in the bottom 75th percentile of readership, we ranked #1 in dollars given per 1,000 unique visits. Yes, we have quality readers — generous and good-looking. I got tied up with other things this October and didn’t have a dedicated giving page. But various science blogging factions are once again part of a friendly competition called, well, Science Bloggers for Students. While originally intended to finish last week, Janet and other science bloggers like Gerty-Z are extending their drives to focus specifically on supporting projects at schools hit hard by last week’s tremendous storm. Even better is that DonorsChoose is extending their 100% match — yes, your donation has twice the impact! Just enter SCIENCE when prompted for the gift/match code. These blogs at CENtral Science get a...

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