I ran across an article from the BBC news magazine over the weekend that's likely to be of interest to DCHAS members. Written by a research chemist, it addresses many of the perception issues that we face on a daily basis...
Chemistry is everywhere in the world around us - so why are we so scared of it, asks Dr Mark Lorch.
I really enjoy my job, I'm a chemist in academia. I get to wallow in the fascinating world of research science and then pass on my passions to eager young minds.
But my job is even better than that. I'm an academic who gets let out of my ivory tower and into schools, shopping centres and festivals where I perform all the most entertaining chemistry. And I pull out all the stops - liquid nitrogen gets sloshed around in abundance, hydrogen balloons are ignited like mini-Hindenburgs, and ethanol-fuelled rockets zip around the playgrounds. Chemistry is fun.
So why is everybody scared of chemicals?
So why does chemistry's role in accidents get highlighted, and whose fault is it that people are so scared of chemicals?
Simple - mine.
It's my fault, and my grandfather's. We are responsible for chemophobia. Why? Well, grandfather's sodium demo certainly fuelled my enthusiasm for chemistry. But it didn't spark it - that happened somewhere else. And sparking an interest is what he should have done and what I should be doing.
Pouring fuel onto the flames of enthusiasm is easy, especially with chemistry. The theatre is easy, too - the bangs, the flames, the explosions, the pops, the whizzes, the smoke and the rockets are fabulously entertaining. I love it, and I love the whoops and cries and applause from the audience.
Food labels such as "natural" and "pure" are confusing shoppers, according to a survey. But even more misunderstood are the E numbers that populate ingredient lists, says Stefan Gates, who set out to see if additives are as bad as is often assumed.
But at the end of the day, what did the audience remember? Just those bangs - and not a jot of chemistry.
Explosive, flaming chemistry demos do nothing to show what chemistry can build and everything to highlight what it can destroy. And in the process, they blow out any flickering interest in chemistry and replace it with fear.
Instead of listening to the boys asking for more explosions, I should have paid attention to the girl at the back with her hands over her ears.
I should have shown her how easy it is to do fascinating chemistry safely.
Ralph Stuart, CIH, CCHO
Chemical Hygiene Officer
Keene State College
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