"Hey, aren't you somebody?" the teenager queried as I got into the elevator.
While I was pondering an appropriate answer to this deeply philosophical question, his crony spilled the beans: "Yeah, he's that guy who talks about chemistry on TV." This was just the ammunition the philosopher needed. "Oh, no, we're locked in an elevator with a scientist" he mocked, before volunteering the information that he got about 2 percent in chemistry in high school, and that "that was with cheating."
Sadly, I've heard such comments before. After many a public lecture I've been approached by people who somehow feel the need to unburden their soul and tell me, with some sort of perverse pride, how they slept through science classes, or that chemistry was the only course they ever failed. Little wonder that there is mental chaos about chemicals, or that "chemical-free" products are hot sellers. Of course, if you are buying a truly chemical-free product, you are not getting a good deal. You're buying nothing.
"It sounds more like a chemical than a food ingredient," began a recent newspaper report about hydrolyzed vegetable protein, a common flavoring agent in foods. Well, if a food ingredient isn't a chemical, what is it? Everything in the world is made up of chemicals, which are nothing other than the building blocks of all matter. The oxygen we breathe, the water we drink and the sugar we eat are all chemicals, as are the medications we swallow, the cosmetics we apply and the pesticides we spray. But somehow "chemical" has become a dirty word, synonymous with "toxin," and "chemical-free" is now a popular, albeit nonsensical, advertising slogan.
And what exactly does one food producer's promise to use only "real ingredients" in its pizzas mean? Were they using imaginary ingredients before? Or perhaps fake ones? Plaster of Paris instead of flour? Play Dough instead of cheese? "It's all about the ingredients," the ad proclaims, "and good food, frozen or not, starts with real ingredients. ... We know that when you look at an ingredient list you want to see familiar ingredients, not ingredients you can't pronounce." Makes scientists want to scream a few words that can be pronounced easily.
What ingredients are to be removed? Specifically mentioned are sodium steroyl lactylate and sodium ascorbate. Why remove these? Both are approved food additives and have undergone rigorous testing. Sodium steroyl lactylate is an emulsifier used in baked goods, such as pizza dough. It disperses the fats in the dough, allowing less fat to be used while softening the dough's texture at the same time. Since it is made from lactic acid, found in milk, and stearic acid, found in beef tallow, you could even call it "natural." Sodium ascorbate is just the sodium salt of vitamin C and is used as an antioxidant to prevent fat from going rancid. These additives actually make for a better dough. Removing them just caters to the current wave of chemophobia.
Chemical absurdity has even made it into the courtroom. The prosecutor in a gang fight trial in California described "a situation very much like nitrogen meeting glycerin; it was guaranteed that there would be an explosion of violence." He probably had some vague recollections about nitroglycerin being a potent explosive. But this substance is not made by combining glycerin with nitrogen. Actually, glycerin meets nitrogen all the time quite peacefully, since nitrogen makes up 80 percent of air!
In a more serious vein, cleanup crews dressed in decontamination suits descended on a small town of to deal with a toxic emergency caused by a mercury spill. The culprit was not some careless chemical company; the culprit was chemical ignorance! A couple of teenagers found a 20-kilogram batch of pure mercury in an abandoned neon light factory and proceeded to have some great fun with the shimmering substance. They played with it, distributed some to friends, spilled it on the floor at home and at school. As a result, eight homes had to be completely emptied of furnishings, and six students ended up in the hospital, where they had plenty of time to contemplate the dangers of mercury, dangers they should have learned about in high school chemistry class!
This mercury episode is pretty scary in terms of what is says about science education. But even more chilling is the story of young Nathan Zohner, who won the Greater Idaho Science Fair by getting 43 of 50 passersby to sign a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide because it can be fatal if inhaled, is a major component of acid rain and can be found in the tumors of terminal cancer patients. What was this horrible chemical? Water, of course (H2O)!
You've guessed by now that the preceding is an appeal for more and better science education at all levels. We are in trouble when a survey among 13- and 14-year-olds reveals that they view scientists as "nerds and losers who are not accepted by society because they do not want to be." We are in trouble when a magazine advises its readers to drink water frequently because "one third of water is oxygen and drinking it will keep you alert." We are in trouble when it is possible to graduate from high school without ever having had a full course in chemistry, physics or biology. We are in trouble when a university student describes his professor as "someone who talks in someone else's sleep."
But there are also some positive signs. Science fairs in high schools are mushrooming. Educational institutions now offer programs that emphasize everyday applied science instead of esoteric theory. And we have the Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, which exposes thousands to the wonders of science. It is always a thrill for me to accept an invitation to present at the festival, because it offers a chance to implant the seeds of science in some fertile minds, and to meet some students brimming with ingenuity. Last time I met one who had developed a way to paint a toilet seat with a luminous chemical so that it could be easily located in the dark! I suspect he won't be signing any petitions to ban dihydrogen monoxide.