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.