Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Monday, 25 March 2013

In defense of chemphobia

#chemphobia is a pretty popular topic at the moment, and for good reason. We're often confronted with examples of people selling 'chemical-free' products, or articles scare-mongering about the terrible 'chemicals' lurking in everyday life. The anti-vaccine movement often takes this angle, blaming traces of chemicals such as mercury for all kinds of horrible effects they attribute to vaccines.

One typical response to this is the claim that all matter is chemical! or something to that effect, accompanied by much eye-rolling. I see the appeal of this response: in the lab, we don't typically discriminate between different materials. They're all chemicals to us. I regularly use water as a solvent and SDS as a catalyst - effectively, I do my reactions in shampoo! In the fume hood next to me, exotic Zr complexes and whiffy ethers are routine. Both of us are chemists, both of us are studying chemical reactions. It seems contrived to declare that, say, gold is not a chemical merely because it is familiar to non-chemists.

Naturally, I'm sympathetic to this response, and I find chemphobia as frustrating as anyone - but I think caution is warranted. However, I think this reaction is too strong and unhelpful. Of course, I am not including in this criticism some of the excellent responses to chemphobia out there - such as this by Michelle Francl. I am aiming specifically at the dismissive "all matter is chemical" response, for two reasons:

Chemphobia is reactive
Look at the history of our profession - from tetraethyl lead to thalidomide to Bhopal - and maintain with a straight face that chemphobia is entirely unwarranted and irrational. Much like mistrust of the medical profession, it is unfortunate and unproductive, but it is in part our own fault. Arrogance and paternalism are still all too common across the sciences, and it's entirely understandable that sections of the public treat us as villains.

Of course it's silly to tar every chemical and chemist with the same brush, but from the outside we must appear rather esoteric and monolithic. Chemphobia ought to provoke humility, not eye-rolling. If the public are ignorant of chemistry, it's our job to engage with them - not to lecture or hand down the Truth, but simply to talk and educate. Given that the audience of this blog is largely composed of people who actively engage with the public, I suspect I'm preaching to the converted here. Regardless: I feel like the "water is a chemical!" response risks falling into condescension.

Material does not equal chemical
As I noted above, a common response to chemphobia is to define "chemicals" as something like "any tangible matter". From the lab this seems natural, and perhaps it is; in daily life, however, I think it's at best overstatement and at worst dishonest. Drawing a distinction between substances which we encounter daily and are not harmful under those conditions - obvious things like water and air, kitchen ingredients, or common metals - and the more exotic, concentrated, or synthetic compounds we often deal with is useful. The observation that both groups are made of the same stuff is metaphysically profound but practically trivial for most people. We treat them very differently, and the use of the word "chemical" to draw this distinction is common, useful, and not entirely ignorant. Even Wiktionary agrees.

This definition is of course a little fuzzy at the edges. Not all "chemicals" are synthetic, and plenty of commonly-encountered materials are. Regardless, I think we can very broadly use 'chemical' to mean the kinds of matter you find in a lab but not in a kitchen, and I think this is how most people use it.

Crucially, this distinction tends to lead to the notion of chemicals as harmful: bleach is a chemical; it has warning stickers, you keep it under the sink, and you wear gloves when using it. Water isn't! You drink it, you bathe in it, it falls from the sky. Rightly or wrongly, chemphobia emerges from the common usage of the word 'chemical'.

Dismissing critics of our profession as ignorant, as fear-mongering, or as having an agenda is essentially a grand ad hominem. It's a sure way to alienate non-chemists, come across as smug and condescending, and to lose the argument. Defining "chemical" as "all stable matter" is begging the question: of course chemphobia is silly under this definition, but nobody actually uses it! Peddlers of chemphobia rightly reject this.

What about responses along these lines that avoid these traps? I think SeeArrOh's recent post about dyes is exemplary. Confronted with a case-study in chemphobia, SeeArrOh doesn't facepalm and groan "idiots". Instead, he engages directly with the authors. He finds common ground and understands their perspective, attacks the weak logic of the petition, and points out the lack of evidence for toxicity. He doesn't chastise them for being averse to lab-made chemicals, but simply points out the inconsistency of that position, and the poor analogy between these dyes and gasoline.

Anyway. My two cents. Let the rebuttals commence.

Updates: Marc has shared a thoughtful post of his own along similar lines. It and the ChemBark post linked therein are worth reading if (like me) you've missed them.

This post has been featured over at Grand CENtral, which is hugely flattering. If you've found your way here from there, hello!

At Scientific American, Janet D. Stemwedel has responded with some criticisms and further thoughts.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

#chemclub Roundup: week 4

Some highlights from #chemclub Twitter feed this week. Featuring aryl fluorides, self-replication, and a bit of blogroll. Not sure what #chemclub is? Have a gander here.

Friday, 8 March 2013

A Chemistry of Errors

Chemist @clay_owens is having trouble with his students:
As you might expect, this has prompted the hashtag #undergradfail for stories of those endearing questions that inevitably arise. Such as this budding crystallographer:
To balance things out slightly, I thought I'd try to collect some 'grad fails' here.

Naturally, I've had a perfect lab career; ever since I made my first intractable mixture at the age of 7 by boiling milk in the kettle, I've managed not to create any hilarious anecdotes for my colleagues. If you don't count the time I accidentally melted a round-bottomed flask filled with activated molecular sieves and it went right up my manifold. Or the time I put a tap onto a freshly-opened canister of trimethylamine but forgot to add teflon to seal it. Or that time I got a faceful of methanolic ammonia...

Go on - what's the stupidest thing you've done in the lab?

Monday, 4 March 2013

#chemclub Roundup: week 2

It's been a productive week for #chemclub, with 20 papers posted for discussion. Here are some highlights - leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

If you're not sure what #chemclub is, have a look here.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Chemistry... in the space future!

While searching for something entirely unrelated, I came across this paper:

Naturally, I immediately set about procrastinating and gave it a quick read. As the title suggests, it predicts major research themes for the next 40 years of organic research.

The (numerous) authors highlight six key questions:
1. Can we do "simple"?
2. Physics, a promising tool to reach total selectivity?
3. Artiļ¬cial cell, a chemist’s creation?
4. CO2: a versatile organic building block?
5. Can we design the "magic bullet"?
6. Chemists: inventors and creators of their own tools? Towards an intelligent NMR?
It's an interesting mix. Some of these are obvious and timeless: Ehrlich's "magic bullet" dates back to 1900 and has haunted most every medicinal chemist of the past century, I imagine.  The artificial cell sounds modern and sexy, but has venerable roots in Oparin's ideas about the  role of coacervates in the origins of life. Given my own research project, naturally I'd like organic chemistry to continue to study this question!

What of the other questions? The notion of simplicity in synthesis bundles together several ideas: atom economy, green chemistry, systems chemistry, and 'ideal synthesis'. Simplicity, it transpires, is quite complex. 

The authors suggest that "physics" could allow for exquisite selectivity through the differential activation of bonds based on physical principles, particularly the use of electromagnetic pulses. They support this with a handful of examples of reactions controlled by external fields, and suggest that this technique be generalised into a useful synthetic strategy. Similarly, they look at Soai's absolute asymmetric autocatalysis - which can be triggered by very weak chiral sources such as circularly polarised light - and call for generalisation, such that absolute asymmetric synthesis could be performed without molecular sources of chirality such as auxiliaries or ligands.

The fourth question refers to the growing shortage of traditional sources of carbon - fossil fuels. They point out that the depletion of crude oil resources will radically change the face of synthesis and demands new sources of organic reagents. Their solution: use CO2 to produce hydrocarbons, methanol, and other vital chemical resources. This question's answer can be summarised in the word catalysis.

The final question points out that chemists have at their disposal powerful analytical tools such as NMR, but do not use them to their full potential, and calls for chemists to fully integrate computational and analytical techniques into daily practice. By way of illustration, they describe a scenario in which an NMR machine not only gives you your spectrum, but automatically provides multiple 1D and 2D spectra of multiple elements, identifies known compounds, and offers possible structures for unknown compounds. Amongst other things, this would involve a global NMR database akin to those used by crystallographers.

I quite liked this article: I think it hits on important themes, although not necessarily anything unexpected, and proposes sensible solutions for the most part. I'm not sure that the principles described in question #2 are generalisable: it would be really quite remarkable if absolute asymmetric autocatalysis became routine, for example.

What do you think the major themes of the next 40 years will be? Which are important, and which are under-appreciated?