Friday, June 28, 2013

Bad Science in the Movies: World War Z

Warning: This contains spoilers, including some for the main plot points of the movie "World War Z". Read on only if you've seen the movie, don't plan on seeing the movie, or really, really like spoilers. 

Tonight I took my wife to see the movie World War Z. She doesn't often go to movies with me. In fact, she doesn't even really like seeing movies in the theatre at all. But, for a zombie movie, she was easy to convince.

My thoughts on the film? I really liked it. I thought there was a good balance of action and suspense. I don't care that the characters were underdeveloped and I didn't mind that the movie had almost nothing to do with the book it was "based on". I wanted a fun, suspenseful zombie flick and I got it. There were a few things that bothered me, though, and of course they were science related. I can't help it - when a major plot point requires science I spend more time analyzing the science than enjoying the movie. I was able to shut off my brain for most of the film, but here's a few things that bothered me.

#1 - The Virologist
There is only one hope for humanity - a young virologist who knows everything about how to fight the zombie virus.

Why it bothered me
I was really worried when I saw this virologist character enter the picture. He's a young, brilliant scientist who is presumably humanity's last chance to find a cure. The reason this bothered me is that science really doesn't work like that - it's not a solo endeavor and there's not one person without whom we would be completely lost. True, there are some great scientists who have contributed enormous amounts of knowledge, but a major field doesn't usually just die because one researcher isn't researching anymore. Science is extremely collaborative - even if you're doing research on your own. There are papers, conferences, and discussion. Science doesn't move forward on the shoulders of one person. The "savior" scientist character is a little annoying, so I'm glad they took him out (or rather, I'm glad he took himself out).

#2 - The Virus That Knows You're Terminally Ill
Our protagonist notices that the zombies don't attack the weak or terminally ill. We learn that the virus will only seek out a healthy host.

Why it bothered me
I could actually believe the science of this . . . almost. It makes sense though, from an evolutionary standpoint, that the virus would be "programmed" to seek the next step in its life cycle - in this case a healthy human. It's even true that, as one scientist in the movie said, "there is a precedence for this kind of behavior." It's just a case of mind controlling parasites, which I've written on before.

The problem is that there hasn't been time for nature to select for this trait. Evolution doesn't work by "choosing" the best solution to a problem. It works by randomly coming up with billions of "solutions" and letting mother nature weed out which ones work and which ones don't. In this case, the virus spread quickly, had very few life cycles, and actually started showing the trait very early on (the zombies avoided the soldier with a bum leg - which by the way how is that terminally ill? Wouldn't most of the world be safe if a hurt leg is all it took for the zombies to avoid you? If you fall down while being chased wouldn't that be the zombie equivalent of sliding safely into home base?).

#3 - The "Camouflage"
A zombie "vaccine" of sorts is created. It's a hybrid meningitis bacteria that tricks the zombies into thinking you're terminally ill.

Why it bothered me
Vaccines are, in many cases, literally this exact thing. There's already a vaccine for meningitis that should be administered starting at 11 years old. Why wouldn't that work as zombieflage1? Talk about herd immunity - our vaccines in this scenario would literally be immunity from a herd (of zombies). If weakened bacteria were all we needed then this should have never been a problem.

But let's step away from vaccines. Maybe vaccines won't work in this universe because they aren't healthy bacteria. Even so, we are full of bacteria. It's everywhere, no matter how clean you think you are. If zombies don't attack a human that is infected with bacteria, then we're all safe. After all, we're mainly microbe:





But maybe I'm making a bigger deal than I should about all of this. After all, it is just a movie . . .



Notes
[1] It's camouflage, but for zombies. Stay with me, I'm making up words in this post.


Click here for more Bad Science in the Movies

Chemophobia: Podcast version

It has begun: The Collapsed Wavefunction podcast. 

I give you "Episode -1: Chemophobia"

Which is just an audio version of the hangout with Sam, Dorea, N. Tesla, and myself.

Here's a direct download link if you want to listen on the go (we'll be on iTunes shortly): http://thecollapsedwavefunction.libsyn.com/episode-1-chemophobia

Enjoy, plenty more coming!


Saturday, June 22, 2013

Another case of chemophobia - Processed meats are "too dangerous for human consumption".

Recently, a friend on Facebook alerted me to an article claiming that:
"The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has completed a detailed review of more than 7,000 clinical studies covering links between diet and cancer. Bottom line: Processed meats are too dangerous for human consumption. Consumers should stop buying and eating all processed meat products for the rest of their lives."
That is a pretty serious claim. Processed meats are pretty common: Hot dogs, sandwich meats, bacon . . . WAIT. Bacon? Are you serious? The World Cancer Research Fund has said that bacon, even in small amounts, is dangerous for human consumption? Please, say it isn't so!

Or, if you won't say it isn't so I will . . . it isn't so. The World Cancer Research Fund said no such thing. They even responded to this article on their own website, saying:
"The articles talking about processed meat being 'too dangerous for human consumption' are unhelpful and scaremongering."
The WCRF also pointed out that the "recent review" being talked about was performed in 2007. A more recent meta-analysis shows that while the question of red meat consumption is very much resolved (eating >120 grams of red meat per day raises your risk of cancer by 13%), the question of processed meats is not as clear. Although review of the available literature shows that 50 grams daily of processed meats raises your risk for colorectal cancers by 19%, the p-value, which is a measure of the significance of an effect (the lower the value the more significant) was pretty high. The p-value was 0.46. Usually you want to see a value <0.05. The red meat p-value was <0.001, so ya, don't eat red meat every day.


So, to recap that last paragraph (if I lost you in the numbers): Don't eat red meat every day, and avoid processed foods. But what does that even mean? The WCRF uses the same language, and it's frustratingly ambiguous. Does "avoid" mean (as the first article suggests) that all processed foods are "too dangerous for human consumption", or does it mean that you should just try to eat less? In the WCRF's response to the "scaremongering" article they say that there would be 4000 fewer cases of cancer if people ate less than 70 grams of processed meat per week [citation needed]. However, they stress that avoid does not mean completely remove from your diet. Instead, they advocate a balance. Again, to them this means less than 70 grams per week, while the recent meta-analysis I found said less than 50 grams daily. That's a little less than two hot dogs per day or one-quarter of a large sandwich meat container.

And let's face it. If you're eating more than 14 hot dogs every week I think you already know you're not eating healthy.

Sodium Nitrite
One chemical that is specifically pointed out in this debate is sodium nitrite (NaNO2). I'll admit, this is not a very welcoming image to see on the chemical's warning label:

File:Hazard T.svg

But, we can't let that be the end of our research. What is sodium nitrite, and should you completely avoid it?

Let's answer the cancer question first:
"The National Academy of Sciences, the American Cancer Society and the National Research Council all agree that there's no proof of cancer risk from consuming sodium nitrite."
Now, I agree that the source of this statement isn't the strongest I could provide, but the conclusions agree with the Material Safety & Data Sheet for sodium nitrite, which place it in the "unknown" column for cancer, so I'm using it. Sodium nitrite has not been shown to cause cancer. Let's move on to what sodium nitrite is, and where it's found.

Sodium nitrite is used as a preservative. Now, I hate that I have to explain this, but that doesn't mean that it makes your food dangerous. That's a common thought. Preservatives are bad. Always. That's a statement that's not supported by science though. In fact preservatives are used to . . . preserve your food. Specifically, sodium nitrite keeps botulinum, one of the most deadly of all toxins, from growing in your food. To put this in perspective, botulinum toxin is fatal at a dose of about 0.000000002 grams per kilogram of body weight. If given a choice between botulinum toxin and sodium nitrite I choose sodium nitrite every time.

But, maybe that's a false choice. After all we could just eat foods that don't require chemical preservatives, right? Let's say, for example, spinach, carrots, and celery. These fresh vegetables must be an excellent substitution for foods high in preservatives, right?

Well, as far as the sodium nitrite content goes, not really. Fresh vegetables contain sodium nitrate (NaNO3), which your body converts to sodium nitrite (NaNO2). So if you are worried specifically about sodium nitrite in your food then you need to stay away from a lot more than just processed meats (Please note: I am not saying that processed meats are as healthy as fresh vegetables. I'm saying they both contain similar amounts of nitrates/nitrites).

So should I change my diet?
Frankly, everything can give you cancer - it just depends on who you listen to. Here is a pretty extensive list of things that have been reported (by The Daily Mail) to cause cancer. Some of the entries are ridiculous, some are contradictory, and some are just plain wrong. The important thing to remember is the dose determines the poison. That is, just because something in large amounts will increase your risk of cancer does not mean that small, controlled, balanced portions of that same thing will give you any problems at all.

Should you change your diet? I don't know. Do you eat more than 50 grams of processed meats every day? If so you might want to change that. As for me, I already eat less than the recommended amount of processed meats, so I'll enjoy a hot dog every now and then or some bacon when I get the chance.

OMG, the Super Moon!

Ok, so right now Facebook is full of people posting pictures of the moon.

Yes, it is a super moon.

No, you can't tell just by looking at it.

A super moon happens when a full moon coincides with the time when the moon makes its closest pass to the earth. Tonight the moon does appear larger. But by how much?



Answer: Not much. In fact, you really can't tell just by looking at it.

So why does it look so big in this picture I just took?

Well, the truth is you're actually seeing what is known as the moon illusion - the moon looks larger on the horizon than it does high in the sky. So, you heard that tonight was a Super Moon, ran outside to see it on the horizon and sure enough, it does look big!

Sorry to be the downer once again, but it's the moon illusion that you're seeing. However, as far as cool science goes, the moon illusion is pretty cool as well.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

BuzzFeed Dishes Out Some Seriously Misinformed Chemophobia - Part 1

Ahh, the internets. A delightful distraction, a humongous time sink, an amazing educational resource. Unfortunately, they are also a terrible source of misinformation if you're not careful.

I recently came across this BuzzFeed article entitled "8 Foods We Eat In The U.S. That Are Banned In Other Countries." The article lists food additives that are not prohibited by the FDA, but are prohibited by its counterpart in other locales. Among the list are such items as rBST, potassium bromate, and arsenic. For each item, we are told what the item is, what it's used for, why it's dangerous, and where it's banned.

The "science" upon which this article is based is at best misleading and at worst an outright lie. Over the course of several posts, I will deconstruct the particularly egregious errors.

Brominated Vegetable Oil
What it claims: "Bromine is a chemical used to stop CARPETS FROM CATCHING ON FIRE, so you can see why drinking it may not be the best idea."

Why it's totally bogus: This article tries to compare the effects of elemental bromine (an admittedly toxic liquid) with brominated compounds, in which a bromine atom is attached to one of the carbons in vegetable oil. This may seem like a logical comparison, but it's actually a huge fallacy. Allow me to demonstrate by analogy:

Carbon and nitrogen are, arguably, two of the four most common elements (along with hydrogen and oxygen) for our bodies. Amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) always contain multiple carbon and nitrogen atoms. But what do you get if you have a single carbon atom triple bonded to a single nitrogen atom? CYANIDE. Yup, that's right folks, that nasty poison that smells like almonds (at least according to Law and Order). You cannot judge the health effects of a compound based on its constitutive elements. They way they're bonded radically changes the way that they behave in the body.

Ok, so what about the claim that "BVO is linked to major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems, schizophrenia, and hearing loss."? Well, if you look at the link provided, it tells us that "In 1997, doctors were stumped by the case of a man who came to the emergency room with headaches, fatigue, and a loss of muscle coordination and memory. He continued to get worse over time, and eventually he lost the ability to walk. A blood test found sky-high levels of bromide. The source? The man had been drinking between 2 and 4 liters of soda containing brominated vegetable oil every day. He needed dialysis but eventually recovered." That, is, as far as I can tell, the ONLY evidence that there might be deleterious effects from BVO's.

Let's take a look at this claim for a second. The man was drinking, and I'll put this on a second line for emphasis:

2 to 4 LITERS OF SODA EVERY DAY!!!!!

To put this in perspective, if you drank that much natural, pure, fresh squeezed orange juice, you would probably get massive diarrhea. Of course you're going to see health effects if you drink that much of pretty much anything on a regular basis. Heck, drinking too much WATER can kill you (looks like you can overdose on homeopathic remedies after all).

So what?
Someone was wrong on the internet. I wrote a post explaining why they were wrong. Who cares? (Besides me, of course; I care a lot.) Frankly, I didn't even make a very strong case the BVO's are safe, just that Ashley Perez's claims were unsubstantiated. Consider the following logical "proof":

No professional football team has ever had a perfect season.

The Chicago Bears have never had a perfect season.

Therefore, the Chicago Bears are a professional football team.

This blatant abuse of logic should make anybody cringe. Note that despite the logic being faulty, the conclusion happens to be true. But substitute "Woods Cross Wildcats" (my high-school football team) for "Chicago Bears," and the same argument suddenly supports a ridiculous conclusion. Heck, exchange "Chicago Bears" for "The sofa in my living room," and I could make a killing selling autographs. If you didn't know anything about American Football, would this kind of logic be helpful in determining whether someone/something played football professionally? Ultimately, it is important not simply to arrive at the correct conclusions, but also to arrive at them using correct principles.

Maybe BVO's are harmful. Maybe they're not. But wouldn't you like to find out, rather than simply jump in fright every time someone mentions a molecule that you've never heard of before? Chemophobia all boils down to a fear of the unknown. Not sure what something is? Treat it like it's evil, just in case. Never heard of a food additive before? It must be bad for you.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

New President at my undergrad institution. . . and he's a physical chemist!

In today's mail I got the usual barrage of junk mail. In particular a magazine from my undergraduate university (Weber State University) caught my eye. Its purpose was obvious; they wanted my money. I took the time to read a few articles, though, and was pleased to see that the new President of Weber State University is Charles A. Wight - a physical chemist.

Wight was previously a professor at the University of Utah. A graduate of Caltech (PhD - 1982) he began working for the University of Utah in  1985 and is now making his move to Weber State.

I don't know why this seems like such a big deal to me. Perhaps it's just nice to see some representation (all of the past presidents have been from the humanities or business departments). It's representation that's pretty specific to me as well. Not only is he a scientist - he's a chemist - specifically a physical chemist. So, good luck President. See if you can't send some research funds to the chemistry department.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and the "...Meh" of Scientific Conferences

The Good

#1 - New Friends/Old Friends
I've always met at least one great person at every conference I've gone to, and since I met them at a conference there's a good chance I'll see them at a later conference. It's fun to have friends and acquaintances from around the globe. It's even more fun to catch up with them.

#2 - Arguments
I love it when, after an oral presentation, you see someone rush up to the microphone. It usually means an argument is about to break out. Science isn't . . . well I guess the colloquial way to finish that phrase would be "Science isn't a science". We don't know everything and we don't [mean to] pretend that we do. When two competing theories meet at a scientific conference it's not only good for the field - it's downright entertaining to watch.

#3 - Inside Jokes
For many conferences, you see the same people every year. This usually leads to a few inside jokes that continue year to year. I'd give an example, but by definition you wouldn't find it funny. Things like trying to guess who will comment after a particular session: "Watch Dr. X, he always complains that theory Y is incomplete". Suffice it to say that you see many of the same people every year and jokes tend to accumulate. 

#4 - Feeling inadequate
Yes, you read that right. One of the best things about scientific conferences is feeling inadequate. In some ways, that the reason we get together - to make each other feel like we're not doing enough. At every conference I've been to there has always been one moment when I thought to myself:
"Man, I really don't belong here. These people are doing such awesome science. I really need to kick my own work up a notch"
And that's exactly what I do. It can be painful and embarrassing, but it's a process that results in serious growth. I love it.

#5 - Free stuff
I'll admit it. I like free stuff. Especially T-shirts. I don't know why, but give me a free t-shirt and it will probably become my favorite t-shirt. I still have an Agilent t-shirt from two years ago that I wear at least once a week.

The Bad

#1 - Hotels
There is nothing worse than sleeping in a hotel; even if it's a great hotel (and I rarely luck out in that department). The last time I remember enjoying my stay in a hotel was in high school on a choir trip to New York. Since then a hotel is just a way to not be homeless while on the road. Even a great bed never feels as comfortable as the bed waiting for me at home and the shower never works like it's supposed to (in other words like my shower at home works). What's worse is my own procrastination habits mean I'm usually staying in a run down motel or rushing last minute to find someone to share a room with me.

There is a sweet spot for hotels, though. A cheap hotel feels gross and makes for a horrible week while a fancy hotel will charge you $28.99 for a bacon and egg breakfast. The key is to get a hotel that is nice enough to be comfortable but cheap enough to give you free breakfast (and also be walking distance to the convention center). If you get a spot in that magical hotel feel free to move this item to the "good" list. 

#2 - Airports
I really hate airports. My main problem is I always overestimate how long it will take me to get to the airport and through security. This usually means I'm left waiting for at least two hours at the terminal. I know it's better than missing my flight, but it's not as nice as the extra hour or two I could have stayed in bed (if I have an early flight).

#3 - Crowds of people
I'm not a people person. By that I mean I don't like being in big groups. Anything more than 5 people and I start to wish I wasn't there - it's not a true panic attack; I can control my emotions just fine. I just wish I wasn't there. So, when I'm surrounded by thousands of people I get annoyed by very small annoyances. That's one reason why I love small conferences so much.

Bonus Joke: Related to the idea of misanthropy, I heard this gem of a joke while watching Scooby-Doo with my son:
". . . but he couldn't have committed the crime, he was at a misanthrope's conference at the time!"
I love it when children's shows have jokes that no child could ever understand.

The Meh

#1 - Planes
My sons find the idea of daddy leaving on an airplane amazing. They ask me to show them pictures of the plane I'll be flying on and want me to bring back pictures. For me, though, they've lost their excitement. Every time I get on a plane I'm reminded of Louis CK's comments about flying: Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.



Seriously. The fact that I can get on a plane and be across the country before my family can even miss me is amazing. And yet . . . 

I do enjoy takeoff. I think it's fun. It's like a baby roller coaster ride . . . except after the roller coaster is over you sit there in your seat for four hours. I also can never decide if I want the person next to me to talk or not. When they do I can't wait for them to shut up. When they don't my inner monologue accuses them of being unfriendly.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Someone is wrong on the internet: Part 1 - Crystal Field Theory

I'm subscribed to many science related discussion boards. Many of them on Facebook. I don't know why, really. They're full of internet trolls and bad science. So, in an effort to correct some misconceptions that I've seen (and because someone is wrong on the internet), I'm adding a segment I'm calling:

Someone is wrong on the internet

Today's post isn't necessarily someone that is wrong, but someone that presented their info in a very confusing way. Here's what I saw today on Facebook:



I'm sure you could make some pedantic correction somewhere, but to my understanding this is all correct. 

However. . .

This was written on a page intended for a general audience. I had to read through it carefully to check the information, so in no way was this posted to the right audience. In fact, the very first comment says 
"Good info. Bt what is d-orbital ?" 
Which is an obvious sign that the message wasn't understood. So, because someone is wrong on the internet, I now present you with my reexplanation of crystal field theory (as it should be presented to this audience):

Crystal Field Theory

When you think of electrons, you probably think of them as small, highly charged, bouncy balls. Sometimes this is a great way to think about them. However, like all matter, electrons will sometimes act like particles and sometimes act like waves.

Now, that guy was talking about orbitals. What are orbitals, and what is a d-orbital? Orbitals are the mathematical way that we describe the properties of electrons within an atom. An orbital is where an electron "lives". Electrons don't "orbit" the nucleus, they exist everywhere around the nucleus in what we call an "orbital" (but remember, nothing is orbiting). 

The shape of an orbital is described by the l quantum number (that's a lower case "L", by the way). l can only equal 0,1,2,3... It can't equal 2.3 or 1.5 or 5.43 or anything that isn't an integer number. This is the quantum part of quantum mechanics. Things can only exist in specific energy levels. 

We have chosen to name the orbitals as follows:

l = 0, which we call an "s"-orbital. There is only one, and it looks like this:



l = 1, which we call the "p-orbital". There are three, and they all look like this:



l = 2, which we call the "d-orbital". There are five, and they look like this:


I'll stop here, since we've reached the orbitals important to crystal field theory (if you'd like to know how to draw all of those yourself check out my post here). Now, in theory each of these d-oritals have the same amount of energy. However, in practice we have found that sometimes that's not true. Sometimes when an ion (a charged atom or molecule) binds to a transition metal (Cobalt, for example) the ion will split the energy of the d-orbitals.



Notice that before the splitting all 5 orbitals had the same energy. After splitting, though, three orbitals are lower in energy and two are higher. The differnce in energy between these energy levels is what creates the amazing colors in transition metal complexes. As the electrons "jump" between those energy levels they release energy as light and we're left with pretty colors!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What's in a name and other myths about Chemophobia

This post is an edited version of a post I wrote for the Skeptoid blog. The original can be found here. I was interviewed today by a radio station about this post, so I thought I'd repost it here.

As a chemist there’s almost nothing that annoys me as much as chemophobia; the belief that chemicals – especially synthetic chemicals – are inherently bad. In supermarkets I see things labeled “all natural” or “organic” and cringe.
What’s in a name?
The Myth: A good rule of thumb is “if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t put it in your body!”
The Truth: The structure of molecules (both healthy and toxic) can be fairly complex. When chemists name a chemical they need to accurately and unambiguously describe its structure. To ensure that terminology is consistent chemists have the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), an international organization that defines chemical nomenclature. Not only does this naming system give a name to every chemical that exists, it also gives a name to every chemical that could ever exist.  Because of this, systematic names for chemicals can become difficult to pronounce even for experts in the field. As an example look at this systematic name:
(3β,5Z,7E)-9,10-secocholesta-5,7,10(19)-trien-3-ol
That mouthful is the systematic name for the chemical you know as Vitamin D. Obviously vitamin D would never be classified as a dangerous chemical and yet the name is nearly unpronounceable. Again, that’s because chemists need to know a chemical’s structure by its name. A more extreme example of systematic naming is:
Dodecahydro-1H, 4H, 14H, 17H-2, 16:3, 15-dimethano-5H, 6H, 7H, 8H, 9H, 10H, 11H, 12H, 13H, 18H, 19H,20H, 21H, 22H, 23H, 24H, 25H, 26H-2, 3, 4a, 5a, 6a, 7a, 8a, 9a, 10a, 11a, 12a, 13a, 15, 16, 17a, 18a, 19a, 20a, 21a, 22a, 23a, 24a, 25a, 26a-tetracosaazabispentaleno[1’’’, 6’’’:5’’, 6’’, 7’’]cycloocty[1’’, 2’’, 3’’:3’,4’]pentaleno (1’, 6’:5, 6, 7) -cycloocta (1, 2, 3-gh:1’, 2’, 3’-g’h’) cycloocta (1, 2, 3-cd:5, 6, 7-c’d’) dipentalene-1, 4,6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25-dodecone
Which is the systematic name for cucurbit[6]uril, an interesting molecule that is not only non-toxic, but has many proposed uses in the medical field including insulin binding and drug delivery. The name may seem daunting, but that doesn’t make it bad for you.
Interpreting this rule literally also means that every chemical is harmful to my two year old son (since he can’t read) and chemicals do much less harm to me than they do my wife (since I have a background in chemistry and can pronounce names earlier). Now, I know that I’m misinterpreting the rule of thumb, which is meant to apply to the general public’s knowledge, but I do so purposefully because it shows why the rule is ridiculous – the name has nothing to do with the toxicity. A good chemical can have a complex name (as with vitamin D) and a harmful chemical can be easily pronounceable (cyanide, for example).
(It’s interesting to note that while chemists pack a lot of information into a chemical’s name, the one thing they never include is information about toxicity. On the other hand, some think that toxicity is the one thing you can know by just the name.)

Synthetic Chemicals!

The Myth: Synthetic chemicals are more toxic/less beneficial than their natural counterparts.
The Truth: A vitamin synthesized in the lab is identical in every way to a vitamin found in a fruit, vegetable, or any other natural source.
Now of course I can’t say this for every lab, so you should know something about the lab you’re getting things from or at the very least something about the regulations implemented. However, if the synthesis is properly done (including proper separation and isolation of the product) the synthetic chemical is indistinguishable from the natural source chemical.  How can I say this with such confidence? Well, there are hundreds of thousands of analytical techniques available to chemists: Nuclear magnetic resonance, mass spectrometry (which is my field), thousands of kinds of spectroscopy, kinetic methods, thermodynamic methods, gravimetric methods, and many, many more. None of these methods, which measure hundreds of different properties, are able to distinguish between the two.
In fact, every chemical is a synthesized chemical. Everything around you  from plants to cars began its synthesis in the crucibles of the universe: stars. There, hydrogen was compressed to form helium, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all of the other elements lighter than iron. This synthesis process continued as supernovae spread these elements throughout the universe where they joined together and broke apart in a seemingly random (but in fact energy guided) process. Every day this synthesis continues as plants convert sunlight and carbon dioxide to sugars or your DNA arranges amino acids into complex proteins.  Believe me, a chemical laboratory is nowhere near as efficient as the synthesis that is already taking place all around you; nature is the ultimate synthetic chemist.

I’ll just play it safe
The Myth: If a chemical is dangerous in large quantities it is also dangerous in smaller amounts.
The Truth: Every chemical is dangerous in large quantities. How dangerous something is in large quantities says nothing about its low concentration toxicity.
I’d like to warn you about a dangerous chemical. This chemical is extremely deadly in high doses. It’s chemical structure is simple, but it’s influence is strong enough in your body to create kinks in the proteins your body needs to live. This chemical is the bi-product of almost every industrial synthesis. It’s even the reason that nuclear power plants are required to have massive exhaust towers. Thousands of people die every year because of this chemical. I’m speaking of course, about water.
Water is the perfect example when talking about toxicity. We all know that we need it to live but it can also be deadly in high doses. That’s because everything is deadly at a high enough dose. In the same way, everything is also harmless at a low enough dose. The key in toxicity is LD50 – a fairly morbid measurement of how much of a chemical was needed to kill half of a rat population. Not only is everything deadly at a high enough dose, but sometimes things that are deadly in large doses are helpful in small doses (no, homeopaths, I don’t mean that low). Vaccines are the easy example – small amounts of a dead or disabled virus can help us prepare for the real infection when we encounter it.

Living chemical-free
The Myth: The nature of our modern lifestyle means we are surrounded by chemicals.
The Truth: The nature of the universe means we are surrounded by chemicals.
Notice the subtle difference in those statements. Living a “chemical free” lifestyle might sound appealing, but it’s impossible. Chemophobia displays a flawed understanding of the universe. You can’t get away from chemicals because everything is a chemical – water, concrete, trees, natural foods, processed foods, cars, horses and so on. Anything you can touch, smell, see, or taste is a chemical. We can’t live chemical free, and we shouldn’t want to, either.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The modern Sagan effect

Carl Sagan is an internet hero. Even now, some 17 years after his death, the words of Carl Sagan resound as a clarion call to science advocates. Sagan's biographers, however, claim that his popularization of science is what kept him from membership in the National Academy of Sciences. The so called "Sagan effect" is the belief that contact with the public is inversely proportional to academic achievement - those who have risen to the top of the "ivory tower" of academia wouldn't need to speak with the public. Therefore, if a scientist is spending time popularizing science he must not be a real scientist. The evidence, in fact, suggests the opposite is true, and Carl Sagan himself was a prolific scientist.

I don't believe the Sagan effect is of any current concern (an opinion I've had for some time and recently saw that Phil Plait agrees with me). I think scientists are much more willing (even excited) to share their results with the public - a change that can probably be itself attributed to Carl Sagan. Younger scientists, many of whom were drawn to science by the Carl Sagan/Bill Nye types of activism, are eager to continue the science outreach that brought them to science. They not only accept science outreach, the embrace it as a necessity. The modern Sagan effect isn't to discount a scientist because they seek to popularize science, it's to criticize a scientist that "dumbs science down". I can think of two specific examples:

1. "I F***ing Love Science"   
This wildly popular Facebook page (5.4 million likes) just may be the greatest science outreach success in the last 15 years. Elise Andrews has a massive audience willing to hear daily updates from the scientific community. There are those that criticize the page for not being science enough (most famously this one).
Now, to be honest I agree with some of the criticism. I have seen plenty of misinformation on "I F***ing Love Science", and the moderators of the page do very little to clarify misunderstandings. This is true both for inaccurate content and misunderstandings presented (and perpetuated) in the comments. When you control the most popular science page on the most popular social media site that comes with responsibility - responsibility that can't be shrugged off like it seems "I F***ing Love Science" does.
That being said, "I F***ing Love Science" is successful at gaining a new, larger audience that is interested in science. A great addition to the page has been a "This Week in Science" infograhic that shows somewhere around 6 advances reported in science literature every week - complete with sources for those that want to read more. Elise Andrew isn't doing a perfect job, but she's reaching a large audience and doing real science outreach. True, not everyone that subscribes to her page will become a scientist, but they are becoming more scientifically literate. 

2. "MythBusters"   
Over and over it seems that I hear people criticize the MythBusters for poor experimental design or misrepresenting science. I've said before that science, the MythBusters way, is a great advancement in science outreach (and Kyle Hill agrees with me). It is true that the MythBusters don't present a rigorous approach to experimentation. However, and more importantly, they show their audience that experimentation is possible. 

These are just two examples of the modern Sagan effect. There is no need to call out "dumbed down" science as wrong. Science was meant to make our complicated universe more understandable. Communicating science correctly, then, means to simplify a complex idea to the level that it can be understood. If someone walks away from science because they are "too stupid" we have failed miserably.