Sunday, November 30, 2014

Health Food Fads

New podcast!

Yes, it's been a bit longer than a fortnight, but it's here. In this podcast we talk about health food fads and where we should draw the line beween McDonald's and the food babe.

Monday, November 3, 2014

TCW Book Review #1 - Undeniable, by Bill Nye

We're really excited about this podcast.

The Collapsed Wavefunction was recently given an advanced copy of Bill Nye's new book Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. In this podcast Sam, Dorea, and Chad discuss their thoughts on the book.

If you're a science lover you'll love the book. If you're not...well, listen to the podcast for our full opinion.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Don't Anthropomorphize Chemicals, They Don't Like It!!

New podcast!!

Sam, Dorea, and Chad talk about anthropomorphic examples in chemistry. Come take a listen!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The 2014 Chemistry Nobel Prize!

New Podcast!

That's two in a week, but we just couldn't let the week pass without a podcast about the Chemistry Nobel Prize!!


~4:30 - Sam, Dorea, and Chad take turns saying things wrong while trying to explain the problem behind this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

~8:00 - We give Lauren Wolf a round of applause for correctly predicting this year's Nobel winner.

~13:30 - Dorea gives an explanation of Stefan Hell's work.

~17:00 - Chad gives an explanation of Betzig and Moerner's work, including an analogy to explain this Nobel Prize winning work.

~25:00 - Answering questions from Twitter.

~39:00 - Listeners decide the content!

3 Sentences from the hosts explaining this prize:

(To be posted shortly)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Am I a scientist? Are you a scientist?

In our most recent podcast we talked at length with Janet Stemwedel, from the Doing Good Science blog on Scientific American, about the obligations that scientists have to society. One of the earliest questions in the podcast (~ ) was about defining what it meant to be a scientist. The conclusion was more or less that it wasn't very easy to define, but many broad definitions were possible - just like you don't need to have a record deal to call yourself a musician you probably don't need an active R01 grant to call yourself a scientist.

Enter Emanuel Derman:

This Tweet makes me incredibly angry. The science community on Twitter is strong - it's the only reason I'm even on Twitter. Yes, there are incredible science journalists, but actual practicing scientists (myself included) have a very strong Twitter presence. There are entire lists of scientist to follow (some much, much better than others - but that's a discussion for a different time). There are Hashtags used primarily - or only - by practicing scientists. #RealTimeChem is one that comes to mind. #RealTimeChem is a hashtag for Tweeting about chemistry research as it is being done. It's a hashtag that wouldn't be possible without scientists contributing in real time.

But what makes me angry about this tweet is not that Emanuel Derman is wrong. It's that he attempts to define the identity of tens of thousands of individuals with one conjecture. On Twitter you will find scientists in every field, of every race, of varying ages and beliefs. Bad things happen when you generalize identity, and it's even worse when you try to define someone else's identity. I am a scientist and most of the people I follow on Twitter are scientists. So how does Emanuel Derman define scientist, I wonder? Is it someone actively doing research? Someone with a published paper in the last N months? A Nobel prize winner? Someone with an active R01 grant? Someone that is in a lab this instant discovering something? With each and every one of these - on just about any given day - you will find someone on Twitter meeting the requirements of a scientist. Emanuel Derman's conjecture quickly becomes a "No True Scotsman" fallacy (thank you, @jfreebo).

Conjecture: If you're making a statement about someone else's identity you're probably wrong.

What Do Scientists Owe Society?

New Podcast!!!

We talk with Dr. Janet Stemwedel, Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State and Blogger for Scientific American about the obligations that scientists have to society.

Link to Janet's series of articles

~2:00 - How is a scientist?
~12:00 - Negative obligations (Don't be evil)
~14:00 -  Positive obligations (Do good!)
~34:00 - Fortnightly Scientist!


Some people want to define what it means to be a scientist a little too much. See what I mean in this blog post.

Monday, September 15, 2014

YouTube Chemistry with David K. Smith

New podcast!!!

While at the ACS meeting I interviewed David K. Smith from the University of York (UK) about some great chemistry education work he's doing with YouTube.


Friday, August 22, 2014

Support The Collapsed Wavefunction on Patreon

Hey guys!

I've got a couple of new projects going, and I wanted to tell you about them. Please check out the latest video on our Patreon page.

Patreon is a way for you to help make The Collapsed Wavefunction a better podcast. You pledge an amount of money per episode and I'll use that money to help fund the podcast - and some new projects.

Here's what you'll get if you pledge any amount of money:

  • A bonus video to go along with every podcast episode. 
  • Bonus podcast episodes
I'll be using this money to help fund the podcast hosting fees. I'll also be starting a second podcast called Chemical Dependence which is a short, 5 minute podcast released every week about a new chemical or chemical topic. I'll be sharing some historical insight and cool chemistry facts. With enough money I'll even be making an animated video series to go along with each episode.

Please consider donating - even if it's only a small amount. Every bit helps. Thank you!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Interview with Sam Kean

New podcast episode!

I was at the National Meeting for the American Chemical Society and had an amazing time. I recorded several interviews while I was there. One of them was this great discussion with Sam Kean, Author of The Disappearing Spoon.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Walking on Eggshells with Alon Eisenstein

New Podcast!

In this episode we talk with Alon Eisenstein about Pueblo Science.

Walking on Eggshells with Pueblo Science
Show Notes:

14:30 Free glassware is a big deal in the Phillipines!

24:00 How many books does it take to break eggshells?

28:00 Our fortnightly scientist is both admirable and irresponsible!

30:00 Chad doesn't like eating only liquids

Saturday, July 5, 2014

How not to Kickstarter

This afternoon I had the strangest Twitter interaction I've ever had. It all began when I found this Kickstarter campaign. It's a campaign to make an intro to organic chemistry video series/tutoring service/app/book. . .

You know what? I'm still not 100% sure what the product is. And that's why this is all so weird. I spent 4+ hours talking with the creator of the Kickstarter trying to get an idea for what the product was. Here's how it all began:

A tweet that I thought was innocent enough. It wasn't clear to me what the Kickstarter was really about. The video explains the problems with the current pedagogy, but doesn't really say what they plan to do about it. The text portion of the Kickstarter says:
"We have the ideas and the access...and are ready to solve this decades-long problem on the first attempt"
Wow. That's an impressive claim. Solve a problem that they admit has been an issue for decades. And they'll do it in their first attempt. I'll bet you can't wait to here more details, right? I couldn't either. Here's the creator's response to my tweet:

So it's a secret (yet crowd funded) project. If I'm truly interested I can wait to find out. Also, I'm apparently way off base for even asking for details...right?

This really only piqued my curiosity even more. What was so special about this crowd funded organic chemistry video/app/...whatever it actually turns out to be that so much secrecy was needed?
Also interested was @MCeep:

An honest question, if you ask me. What is involved in the patent? Is it a novel interaction with your iPad? A physical iPad add on? A cream you rub on your forehead to automatically learn organic chemistry? Seriously, none of these are out of the question, becuase the creator never answered the question. He spent about an hour telling us what is wrong with organic chemistry (expensive tutors, poorly designed apps) and another three hours patronizing anyone who had a question about his Kickstarter, but he never - not once gave a single word about what we would be contributing to with the Kickstarter.

Let's look at another - much better - example. Here is an excellent Kickstarter campaign that recently finished.

Zach Weinersmith, of SMBC-Comics fame, recently funded a children's book. It was clear from the start what the project was, who was involved, what the backers would get, and why it was an important project. He raised nearly $400,000. It was a huge success that I happily backed. Not only to get the book myself, but to put the book in libraries for others to enjoy.

I have my own Kickstarter that I'm working on. But I'm not ready to launch the Kickstarter because I don't have the details worked out yet. I'm working on it behind the scenes until I can go public. Because I want to go public when I can tell people what they'll be getting when they invest their money in my project. That's how it works.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Your Pee, with Dr. Billy Reuben

What?!? New podcast? They still do those?

Ya, I'm trying to finish a dissertation, here. I'm almost there, but this topic was so great we just had to record it. In this episode we're talking about pee.

2:00 - Don't Go in the Water: The Chemistry of Pee in the Pool.

6:00 - To Pee, Or Not To Pee: That is the #ChemSummer Question (Article by Lauren Wolf on peeing in the Ocean). Also, the link to the CDC report.

8:00 - An embarrassing story about my kid peeing in the pool.

10:00 - Sam, Dorea, and Chad discuss the question: Could a pee-sensitive dye exist. For the record, Sam and Chad have discussed this more since recording the episode and our opinions are a bit different. Send us your thoughts and maybe we'll have another episode to correct this part of the podcast!

15:00 - Beeturia: Peeing pink because you ate beets.

20:00 - The indicator that turns your pee blue. Sam doesn't want me to tell you the name. Google exists, though, so. . .

22:00 - Speaking of the color of your pee, why is your pee yellow? (Here's the wikipedia page for heme and bilirubin).

29:00 - The new mascot for the podcast, Billy Reuben.

31:00 - Fortnightly Scientist: Send us in who your favorite scientist is and why!


For this episode, our fortnightly scientist is Dr. Billy Reuben

This week we're suggesting you check out Astrarium, a great astronomy podcast and member of the Brachiolope Media Network!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Yogurt: Is there any science to it?

New podcast!

I'm in the middle of writing my dissertation, but you guys deserve a new podcast episode, right? We spoke with Dr. John Coupland, a Professor of Food Science at Penn State about the recent Chobani PR problem on Twitter. We also talk about the chemistry behind yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products. It's a great episode, so don't miss it!

Show Notes:

~2:30 John is surprised that this happened. In general scientific intervention in our food is ignored, he says.
~5:00 - John shares some interesting history about milk and yogurt - including how we know about what people were eating and drinking that long ago.
~10:00 - Everyone's favorite dairy product.
~11:30 - Cheese mites.
~14:00 - Flavor: The hardest part of food science, according to John.
~16:00 - How does yogurt stay good without preservatives?
~18:00 - Our favorite tweets from the #Howmatters
~30:00 - Fortnightly Scientist: Fred Accum

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Facts, Vani, do you have them?!?

Well, it looks like Vani Hari, The Food Babe, is at it again. In her most recent fact-free article she's claiming that Jello is nothing but toxic sludge that nobody should eat. Ever. Period. No matter what. In no case. Toxic. Bad. No good. Don't. Other percussive endings to prove my point.

But what's the fuss? I find it hard to believe that Jello is as bad as The Food Babe is saying, but let's take a look at what's so harmful about it all.

First off is this gem of a "toxin". Of course gelatin is in Jello. Jello IS gelatin. Guess what, Vani, there's tissue paper in Kleenex too. She doesn't really make a solid claim about why this is a health hazard. Yes, gelatin is made from animals. Yes, you could argue some point about it being cruel, but that's not what she's doing. She's made a claim about toxicity but only backed it up with opinion about animal treatment. If she wants to go with the cruelty to animals point then she needs to stick with it leave the word toxic alone. It's not toxic. I guess since she prefers European standards I'll link you to this study from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) stating just that.

Of course, by the end of the article she switches her position about this. For the catchy infographic that will be easily shared and linked to on Facebook she says that gelatin is toxic. Then, at the end of the article she says that gelatin is the "only redeeming ingredient" of Jello and that you should make your own, saying that:
"Since it is an animal product, it’s crucial that you carefully choose your gelatin and that it doesn’t come from factory-farmed animals that were subjected to antibiotics, artificial hormones and GMO feed."
Without stating any evidence, of course, that animal antibiotics, artificial hormones, and GMO feed will even pass through to your gelatin or do you any harm if they do. But who needs evidence when you have scary (albeit untrue) facts. 

Artificial Colors
TFB mentions that she's written plenty about Yellow 5 & 6. I think I'll just point out that my good friend and fellow chemistry blogger See Arr Oh has already responded to your points. I will reiterate his point that the attention effect you're talking about is seen in a small portion of the study population and the effect itself is low. It certainly isn't serious enough to call it a toxin.

Artificial Sweeteners
Ah, yes, aspartame. Everyone knows it's bad for you and causes cancer and will make you fat. Except that none of that is true. Well over 200 studies done over a time span of 40 years show the safety of aspartame. It's approved with no problems in the US, Europe, Canada, France, Australia, and New Zealand. The real irony here is that you want us to trust Europe when it's convenient to you, but when they say that aspartame is safe the EFSA is just an evil organization that doesn't care about your health.

And what about the claim that aspartame increases your cravings? Yes, there are studies that show that, but a recent meta analysis shows that the effect just isn't there. In fact, the most recent meta analysis shows that in randomized, controlled clinical trials low calorie sweeteners like aspartame actually help reduce weight, fat, and waist circumference. However, I will admit that the evidence isn't strong that it is a magic weight loss answer. Still, even if we call this issue undecided it doesn't make artificial sweeteners toxic!

Because if you're already blaming artificial sweeteners you might as well blame natural sweeteners as well, right? Sugar is not toxic, and listing sugar as one of the "No-Fun" ingredients is a pretty big stretch. Sugars are everywhere and they're incredibly important to life. Yes, the American diet probably has too much sugar, but I don't see what that has to do specifically with Jello. Jello can very easily be part of a balanced diet with an appropriate amount of sugar. It certainly doesn't make it a toxin that should never be eaten.


I'm not going to do it againEnough has been said by just about every reliable source I know.

Please, stop spreading misinformation like this!

As to the actual science, population studies have shown no increase in cancer because of BHA. Yes, it does cause tumors in rats, mice, and hamsters - but only in the forestomach (hint, you don't have that organ). BHA is an antioxidant used as a preservative because it keeps fats and oils from going rancid. An antioxidant, did you hear that? That's a health buzz word, right? So actually some studies show that BHA is an effective cancer preventative for that reason.
Also, in another blog post you should read about what chemicals aren't killing you, Derek Lowe points out that BHA has been in your food for decades while cancer rates are decreasing. 
So please, Vani, stop this fear mongering. Do some legitimate research into the chemicals you so quickly decry as toxic. 
I fully support your efforts to help people make good decisions about their food, but we can do that with real facts and without the fear. Please.

The last of the "No-Fun" ingredients is BHA. In the article she does mention that BHA is short for which is short for butylated hydroxyanisole, though I suspect that she adds this information to scare, not to inform. A long chemical name is sometimes all it takes to prove your point (or at least she seems to believe). 

So this brings me to the end of the list. I find nothing in Jello that warrants the alarmist view that The Food Babe presents. I'll say it again, though, the real danger of chemophobia is not that Kraft might have to go and change the formulation of Jello. Even if Kraft were forced to completely remove Jello from the shelves my life wouldn't change very much. The real danger behind this chemophobia is that it creates a culture of fear. Fearing chemicals does not lead to better health. Just the opposite, in fact. A fear of chemicals leads to fear of vaccines and real medical intervention. The real damage of chemophobia comes when little by little the word "chemical" becomes a bad thing. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

The F Word: Temperature with Dr. Michael de Podesta

Hey! New podcast

Sorry for the extreme delay on this episode - I'm trying to, you know, graduate and stuff. Anyways, please remember to give us a review on iTunes!

2:00 - Dr. Michael de Podesta is a physicist (let's keep it general). Metrology, by the way, is the science of measurement (not meteorology, the science of weather patterns). We totally missed the chance to call Dorea a meteorology metrologist.

14:00 - Oh No! It's a crisis in metrology!

25:00 - Dorea asks "Ya, but why do I care what the Temperature is?"

30:00 - Protons for Breakfast

35:00 - The Fortnightly Scientist

Monday, April 14, 2014


New podcast episode! Please, remember to leave us a review on iTunes!
In this episode we talk about prodrugs, aliens, and shrinking bodies!

In this episode we talk about:

What is a prodrug? (~3:00)

Two new papers about a prodrug related to Cisplatin. (~6:00)
Link 1
Link 2

The nature of science discovery. (~18:00)

Aliens. For some reason. (~24:00)

So here's the question for our listeners: 
When we meet an advanced alien species will they have a formalized atomic theory?
Head over to our forum to answer this question!

Listener questions: Shrinking a dead body? (34:00)

And, announcing The Collapsed Wavefunction Book Club! 
Start now reading the first book - Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History.
You can get the book on Amazon here (you'll need to turn off AdBlock if you use it to see the link):

Or, if you prefer, you can listen on audible. We're even giving away a copy of the audiobook. Go to and get one free audiobook.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Massimo Pigliucci and the philosophy of pseudoscience

New Podcast Episode!

Sam, Dorea, and Chad interviewed Massimo Pigliucci recently. We talked about pseudoscience - what is it, why does classification of pseudoscience matter, and how has our perception of pseudoscience changed.

2:00 - Dr. Pigliuicci shares his "philosopher origin story" - How did he get into philosophy?

4:30 - Massimo answers the question "Why should we care about pseudoscience?"

10:00 - The induction problem and falsifiability.

35:00 - What is the difference between being right and being persuasive? How should you approach someone that believes in a pseudoscience?

37:00 - 30 Seconds of Jargon!

41:00 - The Fortnightly Scientist.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Chemistry Origin Stories!

New podcast episode!

In this episode we discuss our chemistry origin stories - how we got into chemistry!

Remember to subscribe and rate us on iTunes.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Proteins and PEGylation: Sam's Thesis

It's a new podcast episode! This is the first episode that we've got Dorea Reeser as the newest permanent co-host of the podcast.

In this episode we're interviewing Sam about his Masters thesis. He studied protein stabilization using polyethylene glycol (PEG).


2:30 - A general introduction to proteins and amino acids. Complete with the start of an analogy by Sam. Comment below if you can finish the analogy for him.

4:00 - Sam's thesis title: "Investigation into the effects of PEGylation on the thermodynamic stability of the WW domain". We discuss what thermodynamic stability means, what PEGylation means, and how both of these ideas apply to protein therapeutics (using insulin as an example).

18:00 - How does Sam make his proteins? (Hint: Sam does it the hard way)

20:00 - Chad asks a synthetic question. Chad's children join in with their questions about synthetic chemistry.

25:00 - What are the big objectives of Sam's research?

28:00 - "30 Seconds of Jargon" a new feature for the podcast. We give our guest 30 seconds - and only 30 seconds - to explain their research with all the jargon they can muster.

30:00 - The Fortnightly Scientist: Primo Levi

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Hypothetical Homework #2: Sitting in a room. Waiting to die.

This week's question comes from @fxcoudert on Twitter:

"When sitting, your head is in the lower half of a room's volume. Estimate the frequency at which you will asphyxiate because all air molecules have spontaneously gone up to the higher half? Interpret the results."

Statistical Mechanics. My favorite (said with 0.0001% sarcasm). When I asked for homework problems I knew the day would come that I would be a bit stumped. I didn't know it would happen on the first submitted question. Thanks to @fxcoudert for the question. I hope I don't mess this up too much.

The first step in this question is to find the probability that all of the air molecules will be in one half of the room. Statistically this is simple; it's just:

So, partial credit at least. For this last part I know I have the right answer. At least correct to within a several orders of magnitude (and you'll see soon that a few orders of magnitude is close enough).

For the rest of the problem I'm going to be employing the ergodic hypothesis; I'm going to be assuming that over long periods of time the system will be in a particular state for a time that is equivalent to the probability of being in that state. So here's what we'll do. We start by putting all of the particles in a random position:

Then, after a certain amount of time we move all the particles to a new position:

The benefit of this approach is I can ignore any actual movement of the individual particles; we'll just assume that they move instantaneously from one state to another. This obviously doesn't happen in the real world but it's an assumption that is valid when you're looking at large numbers. 

So how long is "a certain amount of time" that we leave between switching states? The best approach is probably to consider a state changed every time there is a collision. Depending on the pressure I'll estimate that at somewhere around one collision every microsecond. We can calculate how long it would take  for all the particles to be in half of the volume by multiplying the time between changing states by the probability of that happening:

N is incredibly large (~1024). The age of the universe is ~1017 seconds. The amount of time it would take for all the molecules to be in the higher half is 21024 (and actually you wouldn't asphyxiate because they'd start moving away from each other to fill that empty space pretty quick, but I'll assume the question ignores that point).

Interpret the results? Well, you're safe to sit down. It won't kill you.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Real Damage of Chemophobia

I root for the underdog.

I'm not sure why, really. Maybe it's because I watched Rudy too much growing up or because my city's Minor League Baseball team couldn't win a game for a "Make-A-Wish" kid even if the other team was in on it. I cheer on the Miami Dolphins and go to Utah Jazz games. Lately I've noticed that I've been backing another, much more unfortunate, underdog: Chemistry.

Chemophobia is an irrational fear of chemicals. It can (and has been) debated that the word itself creates more of the same irrational fear; that it drives the fear deeper by making it a point to ridicule. Whether that is true I'm not completely convinced. What I am convinced of is that an irrational fear of chemicals runs deeper every day. This fear is seemingly unchecked by the chemistry community at large. I don't mean we don't talk about it. We do. We talk plenty about it. But what are we doing about it?

In early January General Mills announced that it will no longer be using genetically modified crops in Cheerios. You may have heard this but unless you've read it straight from the source you probably missed the part where vice president of Global Communications Tom Forsythe admits that the move actually changes nothing in the Cheerios recipe and is nothing more than a new marketing strategy:
"We did it because we think consumers may embrace’s not about safety...And it was never about pressure. In fact, General Mills’ position on GMOs hasn’t changed."
General Mills' position, by the way, is very reasonable. It's just unfortunate they have tried so hard to hide it from consumers. They admit that 20 years of rigorous testing has shown GMOs to be safe, that not a single disease can be linked to GMO crops, and that a host of benefits come with the technology. So why hide this evidence-based, rational position? Because they see that consumers embrace the opposing position.

Another company, Johnson & Johnson, recently made some radical changes to appease consumers (changes that brought with it some serious chemical misinformation). The famous amber colored "No More Tears" shampoo recently got a new formulation. In the past the well known shampoo contained formaldehyde. Actually, to be more accurate it contained preservatives that over time produced low levels of formaldehyde. How low? You would need to drink 15 bottles of shampoo to get the same exposure to formaldehyde that you get from eating one apple. You heard that right, an apple (and why in the world are you drinking shampoo?That's for washing babies). But Johnson & Johnson went through an exhausting process to reformulate the shampoo and remove the preservatives. All this because it makes them look good and consumers demanded it.

Finally, this morning I read a petition by the self described "Food Babe" to Subway. In it she demands that Subway stop using the chemical azodicarbonamide. She claims that eating a Subway sandwich with azodicarbonamide is the same as eating a yoga mat. This claim isn't new. Chemistry blogger Derek Lowe handily debunked the claim nearly 8 months ago. Azodicarbonamide has been documented to cause respiratory problems but only in high concentrations. The dough contains very, very low concentrations. The bread is made even more safe by the fact that none of the chemical even exists in the bread; it breaks down when heated (a process that I'm pretty sure all the bread you've ever eaten has gone through. Bread needs to be baked after all). Azodicarbonamide is completely safe in your bread and there is no need to worry. Imagine my surprise, then, when just 24 hours after posting the petition on her website the Food Babe gets a direct reply from Subway. It took only one petition and 24 hours for Subway to begin changing their recipe.

So what's the harm? Cheerios don't have GMOs, baby shampoo still looks and works the same, and I don't really like Subway in the first place. Big deal, right? I can keep eating the food I want and using the products I choose because companies will work just as hard to please me as the "chemical free" crowd. Why do I even care what health choices someone else makes? Aren't they making healthy decisions? If Subway removes azocarbanomide from their bread it will only make it more fresh and healthy, right?

The reason this is such a big deal has nothing to do with those individual products. The real damage of chemophobia comes when little by little the word "chemical" becomes a bad thing. The harm comes when people believe that if you can't pronounce an ingredient you should never put it in your body. Ingredients like thiomersal, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and formaldehyde. You'll find these ingredients in vaccines. Vaccines that save lives. Vaccines that - if avoided - will cost lives. So yes, chemophobia kills. I'm not just a pedantic chemist. An irrational fear leads to irrational decisions and every corporate concession legitimizes that fear. When General Mills goes against their own policy to appease the GMO free crowd they misinform the public. This misinformation leads to third-world countries banning GMO crops; the very crops that can help produce a thriving farming industry.

This is all very disheartening but I'm a perpetual optimist. I think chemophobia is something that can be overcome. If the Food Babe can bring about change in as little as 24 hours with one petition then so can we. I challenge organizations like the American Chemical Society to be more vocal about chemophobia. Do it in a way that educates. Do it in an open way, not behind a pay wall or trapped behind the safety of the chemistry blogosphere. Do it in a way that the American public won't be able to ignore. Do it in a way the American people will love you for. Chemistry doesn't need to be scary, but it doesn't need to be boring either. It won't be easy and it won't be cheap. But it is necessary and I think we can do it.

Because I root for the underdog.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Hypothetical Homework #1: The Amazing Eli

I'm in a very awkward stage right now - I'm neither teaching nor taking any classes. This hasn't happened to me in almost a decade. Many (and probably most) of you would say this is a happy time and I should just enjoy it. Instead I've felt absolutely lost. I'm not taking, grading, writing, or studying for any tests. So I've decided to start a new series on this blog I'm calling "Hypothetical Homework". It's basically the questions I wish I could either ask students or answering questions that others send me.

Here's the deal: I'll answer at least one question per week. I do not guarantee the questions will be answered correctly - in fact I suspect I'll get some very, very wrong - but discussing why I'm wrong can be part of the fun (that's what we call fun at least, right?) Submitted questions will take precedence over questions I write for myself, so please send questions to chad (AT) or ask them in the comments or on Twitter. Any topic is allowed, but chemistry and related disciplines will likely get picked first unless the questions are really awesome.

So, without further ado I present to you:

Hypothetical Homework #1

Eli, an orangutan at the Hogle Zoo has correctly predicted the Super Bowl winner 7 years in a row, the latest being the Seahawks victory over the Broncos. Is this statistically surprising? Why or why not?

The result is not surprising. Eli has correctly predicted the winner of Super Bowl from 2008-2014.1 The probability of him choosing the winner in any given year is 1/2. For Eli to pick the winner correctly 7 years in a row is a bit more surprising:

That is, there is a 0.78125% chance that Eli would pick the winner of the Super Bowl 7 times between the year 2008 and 2014. Or you could say that there is a 99.21875% chance that Eli would have gotten at least one of those years wrong:

So far it actually seems like we should be amazed at this ape's ability, and this is probably where most people would stop. But here's the deal: we also need to ask ourselves what makes Eli so special? Was he chosen from birth and raised with the expectation that from 2008 to 2014 he would correctly predict the Super Bowl Champions? Probably not. So the question we want to answer is, "What is the probability that a captive orangutan (of which there are ~350) could correctly predict the winner?" For that I pull out a special trick in statistics that I like to use: calculating the probability of the opposite outcome. In this case I want to find the probability that all 350 captive orangutans would predict the wrong team at least once:

There is only a 6.42% chance of all orangutans getting at least one pick wrong. This means that there is a 93.58% chance that at least one of the 350 captive orangutans would have picked the winner correctly from 2008-2014. A counter point may be that not all 350 captive orangutans were asked to predict the winner, but that doesn't really matter given the number of animals asked about any number of sporting event. And we haven't even begun to mention the probability of this happening during any other 7 year period (2007-2013, 2006-2012, etc). The point is you should not be surprised to hear an animal has predicted the future because it's all a confirmation bias: Only the animals that pick winners make the news.

[1] - Why didn't Eli pick his brother's team for the win? (It's a sport's joke, nerds. Peyton Manning, Quarterback for the Denver Broncos, has a brother named Eli who also plays football)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bananas, Eggs, and Blueberries

New Podcast Episode!

Sam and I are joined by James Kennedy, creator of the (now viral) "Ingredients of an all-natural . . . " infographics.

Also, this is our first episode as a member of the Brachiolope Media Network!

You can always find us on iTunes or via RSS.

Show Notes (all times are approximate):

1:30 - Where did the idea for these posters come from?

4:00 - Chemophobia and the posters. James says that relevance - not chemophobia - was the driving motivation for the posters.

8:00 - You can now get t-shirts with the ingredients.

9:00 - How did James determine what chemicals are really in these foods?

10:30 - Why isn't potassium listed in the ingredients for a banana? Aren't bananas full of potassium

11:30 - "E-numbers": What are they and what is the fear about?

15:00 - As a high school teacher, what opinion does James have about the state of science education?

17:00 - What else can we do to make chemistry relevant? A KickStarter perhaps?

21:00 - The Fortnightly Scientist: Luca Turin (TED talk)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Chemophobia-phobia: When chemists defend too much

I've written exhaustively about my feelings on Chemophobia. I've blogged, podcasted, and tweeted about it until my face (and your ears) turned blue. Chemistry is a beautiful science that affects every moment of your life. The air you breath, the food you eat, the iPhones, computers, cars, shoes, medicines, roads, buildings, clothes, etc. that you use every day  are only possible because of chemistry. So when someone says they want a "chemical-free" alternative or claim that our "modern life-style" is killing us I get pretty upset pretty quickly.

And really, that's a problem.

It's a problem because those are real concerns by real people. Not only that, some of their concerns are completely valid. Take the spill in West Virginia of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (or is it methylcyclohexane or methylcyclohexanol - ok, what spilled? Does anyone know?!?). Whatever it was, this spill has left some 300,000 people without drinking water. If we, as chemists, are calling this chemophobia we need to seriously take a minute to ask ourselves one question: What about this fear is irrational?

Now, it turns out that 300,000 people aren't without drinking water because there is a deadly chemical in the water. 300,000 people are in the hospital because a chemical that we know very little about is in the drinking water - or at least that's what Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water has said:
"We don't know that the water's not safe. But I can't say that it is safe,"
In other words - we just don't know what to expect with this chemical. And frankly, that's the worst thing chemists could say. If a chemical with a known toxicity and documented effects spills the public panics and retreats into deeper chemophobia (that is, the next time they see the word "chemical" it is even more scary). When a chemical with unknown toxicity spills the reaction is likely to be even worse. Chemophobia isn't just a fear of chemicals - it's a fear of the unknown.

Chemists should be the first to demand strict policies for chemical safety. We shouldn't be taking the "side" of corporations who insist on turning a blind eye to chemical safety. But that's what we (or at least I) seem to do. Our (my) first reaction is to defend chemistry - almost blindly and universally.

Take as an example the Radium Girls. These young girls are some of the best examples of chemical misuse. The girls were hired to paint the dials of watches with glow-in-the-dark, radium based paint. They were even taught to lick the tips of their paintbrushes to give them a fine point. Over time this exposure to radium was devastating to the young girls' health (see "The Poisoner's Handbook" film - start at about the 1 hour mark. Actually, start at the beginning, but for this particular story see about the one hour mark).

The Radium girls are a perfect example to compare to today's chemical concerns, but not because it's a story of an evil corporation doing harm to its workers. Radium was seen at the time as a miracle element; the perfect health remedy. U.S. Radium, the company the Radium Girls sued, may not have been acting maliciously to poison them but they were guilty of turning a blind eye. This is, I think, the state of modern chemical safety. OSHA does a pretty good job (all things considered) of protecting U.S. workers from known dangers, but major spill of a chemical with no (or at least little) toxicology data is alarming.

If we really think chemophobia is a problem the best thing we can do is be realistic - chemicals can be dangerous. Safety policies should be strict and clear. Major chemicals used in industrial settings need thorough toxicology studies. Evidence-based chemistry should be our goal - not just anti-chemophobia.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Where do we go from here?

In April of last year Sam and I started a new project: Google Hangouts to talk chemistry. By July we had decided that a podcast was the best way to continue and The Collapsed Wavefunction podcast was born. We've had some really awesome guests:
  • Kevin Bonham joined us on the first episode to talk about GMOs. He also joined us later to talk about viruses.
  • The chemistry blogger See Arr Oh joined us to talk about science in the movies.
  • Zach Weinersmith taught us some amazing lessons on evolution - or at least bad ad hoc hypotheses about evolution.
  • We talked about food chemistry with our friend Aaron.
  • Dr. Zoe Waller taught us about alternate forms of DNA.
  • Dr. Chris Cramer came on the show to talk about computational chemistry.
  • Marc Abrahams shared his experiences with the Ig Nobel prizes.
  • Carmen Drahl shared the chemistry mystery surrounding "Into the Wild".
  • Patrick Wheatley (from the podcast Science, sort of) shared some amazing isotope ecology (did you know dino bones aren't just for looking? There's some serious science you can do with those!)
  • And just this last week we interviewed Pulitzer Prize winning author Deborah Blum about her book "The Poisoner's Handbook".
All of this to say we've been pretty lucky. We've had some amazing guests that were willing - even excited - to spend an hour talking to us about chemistry.

So where do we go from here?

Well, Sam and I are planning some great episodes. The Collapsed Wavefunciton is a podcast to talk about chemistry and demystify the scientific process, so that's what we're going to keep doing. 

From here on out though we won't be doing it alone. We've joined forces with some of the most amazing podcasts to ever exist - The Brachiolope Media Network

The Brachiolope Media Network includes:
  • Astrarium - An astronomy podcast hosted by James Silvester and David Warrington.
  • Science, sort of - A podcast about "things that are science, things that are sort of science, and things that wish they were science." If the name sounds familiar read above again. Patrick from the podcast has been on our show. 
  • Technically Speaking - An engineering podcast you won't want to miss. Jacob and Joe talk about engineering marvels and awesome technology. 
  • The Titanium Physicists - Ben Tippett, physicist extraordinaire, hosts this amazing podcast. It's education. It's funny. It's one of the best podcasts you'll ever listen to.
  • The Weekly Weinersmith - Come on. You know Zach Weinersmith. He's been on our podcast. He's written an article for this blog. He even drew a comic for said article. Oh ya, and he draws comics or something. Zach and his wife Kelly host an amazing show. Kelly is just finishing up her PhD at UC Davis where she infects fish’s brains with parasites and then measure how that changes their behavior. You can't make up science that cool. 
And the newest member of the network:

Yes. I am excited about this. Keep listening, The Collapsed Wavefunction is going to have some great episodes in the coming months. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Poisoner's Handbook: A Discussion with Deborah Blum

New podcast episode!

Sam and I interviewed Deborah Blum, author of "The Poisoner's Handbook". We had some audio problems, but it's worth a listen.

You can listen in the player below, or if you're an iTunes fanatic subscribe here. Or, you could just import the RSS if you use a different podcast directory.

Don't miss the film version TONIGHT on PBS!

Show Notes:

All times are approximate:

1:30 - What brought about Deborah's desire to write about poison? In her early days Deborah imagined herself being a chemist, but a few unfortunate accidents convinced her off that path.

4:00 - Some musings on the beauty of chemistry - whether or not you have great lab skills.

5:30 - Deborah sees poisons as devious - as devious as the poisoners that use them.

6:00 - What is "The Poisoner's Handbook" about?

9:00 - What was it like to do the research for this book?

12:00 - Strychnine: A poison that didn't make it into the book that has a really great story.

17:00 - A discussion on the narrative of Chemistry - in other words what is the story that Chemistry, as a science, tells. Here's a link to the chocolate chip post she mentions.

26:00 - A great quote "Science is a human story of people trying to understand the world"

27:00 - It turns out Deborah is as anxious to see the PBS adaptation as we are.