by Preston MacDougall
December 16, 2004
Californians, ever the vanguard of environmental protection, were not about to wait for the E.P.A. in Washington to take action. On March 14 of this year, the Orange County city of Aliso Viejo was all set to ban the use of certain plastics at public events. It wasn't the plastics themselves that were cited as the immediate danger to the public, it was the fact that large amounts of DHMO were used to produce them, and there was bound to be residual amounts left on the plastic.
Even though passage was virtually assured, before the City Council could vote on the measure someone pointed out that "dihydrogen monoxide" is an absurdly formal way to name water, which has the well-known chemical formula with two hydrogens and one oxygen - H2O! Sure enough, the municipal government staff had fallen for an internet hoax. Yes, people can die if they inhale water, it's called drowning. Water and carbon dioxide are the normal chemical products of the combustion of hydrocarbons. Everything that is stated on the website is literally true. But it is mischievously written so as to lead those who are so-inclined to press "send", alerting others that the sky is falling. To fall for this ruse, however, there must have been a dearth of scientific literacy on the city staff. When the L.A. Times brought the story national attention, the City Manager, David Norman, passed the buck and blamed the embarassing event on "a paralegal who did bad research."
Instead of sweeping it under the rug, I am inclined to examine the situation to see if there is any way it can serve as a means of encouraging greater scientific literacy among the public. To understand why this would be a good thing, one only needs to visit a newsstand. With every Tuesday, the prize-winnning Science Section of The New York Times delivers us the latest breakthroughs in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and whatsotechnology. In the twenty-first century, scientific literacy has become equally important to blue-collar, pink-collar and white-collar workers.
Consider another example during a refreshment break. Phosphorus and sulfur are next-door neighbors on the periodic table, below nitrogen and oxygen, respectively. Both of their industrially important oxoacids are produced in enormous quantities annually, tens of millions of tons in the US alone. One of these acids is added to Coca-Cola for tartness, the other is also known as battery acid. Nasty stuff. One is an essential nutrient for plants and animals, the other usually comes with a skull and cross-bones on the package. Can you guess which is which? Are you comfortable guessing, or would you rather know? On the side of a can of Coca-Cola, phosphoric acid is listed along with caffeine and carbonated dihydrogen monoxide, I mean water, and a few other chemical substances. While sulfuric acid is the only ingredient of battery acid.
This is the kind of information students will glean from the "Chemistry for Consumers" course that is offered at MTSU. It is open to all students and satisfies one-half of the Tennessee Board of Regents general studies requirement in the natural sciences. If your classroom days are long behind you, or if you have no idea where Murfreesboro is, the internet can quickly bring you up to speed on the chemistry of everyday objects - from self-tanners to chocolate. As folks in Aliso Viejo discovered, the internet can also bring you shame. To avoid any chance of a hoax, or "bad research", I recommend the "What's that stuff" website maintained by the American Chemical Society. A Google search for "whatstuff" (all one word) will take you right there.
English literacy is more than being able to read and write, and to command a large vocabulary. It involves familiarity with the use of irony, metaphors, and the significance of references to things like Ahab's obsession and a siren song. Similarly, scientific literacy is more than naming chemical substances and memorizing chemical safety data, such as toxicity and flammability. Knowing the experimental origins of key scientific concepts and theories is akin to the etymology of words. Science too has its own literary references, such as Newton's apple and Pavlov's dog. These are both well-known, but how about Schrodinger's cat and Heisenberg's uncertainty?
Reading is the key to all types of literacy, and I am happy to recommend a new book by the former science writer in residence at Cambridge University, Dr. John Emsley. "Vanity, Vitality, and Virility" was published this year by Oxford University Press, and it is about "The Science Behind the Products You Love To Buy."
I am also inclined to think that the word "educated" should never be used, because it is in the past tense. Whether one is a paralegal or a chemistry professor, education is a process with no clear stopping point. It's a matter of degree, not just degrees.
Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (www.wmot.org).