Hidden In Plain Sight …

Chemistry is everywhere in everyday ways, but it takes an act of will for most people to keep that in mind. This is true even for some of us whose business it is to think about chemistry in our lives. I have been making it a practice to notice where chemistry is present but not acknowledged, and I intermittently foist these little observations of chemistry onto my colleagues in carpet-bomb e-mail memos, partly as suggestions for stories that we could do here at C&EN. Here are a few of those missives:

On Feb. 11, 2008, I wrote:

There’s been news recently about Mexican drug cartels using submarines and submersibles to smuggle tons of cocaine worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the U.S. Last year, I spoke with a former DEA official who told me that cocaine cartels have used chemists to do things like incorporate cocaine within the shells of PVC pipes and the like. My guess is that there is a whole list of chemistry-involved and materials-related innovations that drug smugglers have come up with.

On Aug. 7, 2007, I wrote:

The tragedy of the Minnesota bridge collapse is bringing lots of talk of metal fatigue and material failure into the news. Although corrosion, a chemical process through and through, does not at the moment appear to be a primary cause, it is a huge infrastructure issue. A timely way into a corrosion story would be to contact the inspection, forensic, and failure analysis teams that now are descending on Minneapolis-St. Paul and find those members who are paying attention to corrosion. Then generalize from there to a story that shows the extent of corrosion phenomena out there, how well or poorly the chemistry underlying them is understood, and what steps are being taken to mitigate the problem. I think there even are blood diseases that are, at their basis, corrosion of the iron in hemoglobin.

On June 6, 2007, I wrote:

Chemistry, it’s out there, everywhere, even on the airwaves. I was driving my son, Max, to a soccer game in Springfield, Va., on Sunday morning. Max controls the radio when we are in the car together, and we were listening to one of the rock stations, either 101.1 or 94.7. Somewhere around Exit 52 on the Beltway, I started hearing some engaging chemistry speak. It was an advertisement from Pennzoil that actually taught readers about the chemistry of lubrication and what makes their molecules so good at it. It was wonderful science writing, and the on-air presentation was terrific.

Once you get your chemistry radar up and running, chemistry is discernible everywhere, hidden in plain sight.

Author: Ivan Amato

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