myths & molecules

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By Dr Joe Shwarcz

“Let me sprinkle some of this magic chemical on these ropes,” the young magician said, reaching into his pocket. He then proceeded to unravel the three ropes he had tied together, and lo and behold, the knots had vanished and he was left holding one long rope! Although I was only twelve years old at the time and knew nothing about magic or chemistry, I did realize that the effect wasn’t accomplished by any invisible chemical. It did set me wondering, though, about why he had used these terms. I was intrigued enough to head for the school library and take out a book on magic and one on chemistry. And those two books would launch a career that began with teaching university students and eventually blossomed into a call to educate the general public on scientific matters through television appearances, newspaper columns, books, websites, Facebook and a radio show

.Magic and chemistry may appear to be strange bedfellows, but they actually snuggle together quite comfortably. A magician is really an actor playing the role of a real wizard who can accomplish feats that lie beyond the laws of nature. In truth, however, the effects are produced by a combination of skill and the clever use of scientific principles. The magic only exists until the secret is discovered. Similarly, chemistry, be it color changes in a test tube, or the production of electricity by a battery, may appear to be magical to the uninitiated. With a proper explanation, however, the magic turns into science. Magicians of course are careful not to disclose their secrets, but scientists relish in doing so. And so for some forty years now, I’ve taken great pleasure in trying to unravel the secrets of science both for students and the general public

At first my focus was on demystifying the science behind everyday products. What is in paint? How does aspirin work? Why should toilet bowl cleaner never be mixed with bleach? And then came a turning point that caused me to take up yet another challenge, namely dealing with the growing deluge of scientific nonsense. It was back in 1980 that two colleagues and I were approached to mount a science display at the annual “Man and His World” exhibition, a descendant of Expo 67, the hugely successful Montreal World’s Fair. One of our featured demonstrations involved mixing two reagents in a cup and generating a mountain of polyurethane foam that hardened into a mushroom-shaped blob. We had a lot of fun with it until one Monday morning a fly fell into the ointment.

As I picked up my morning newspaper, I began to glance through it in the usual fashion. The “city column” immediately got my attention because much to my surprise, it was all about our chemical escapades. It described how in spite of the great anxiety about foam insulation, some chemists were brewing the stuff in public and were singing its praises. That got me more than a little hot under the collar. True, there was indeed concern at the time about urea-formaldehyde, an insulating material that can release toxic formaldehyde if improperly applied. But we were not dealing with urea-formaldehyde! We were demonstrating the properties of polyurethane, a distinctly different material. The only common feature was that they were both foams!

By nine o’clock that morning I had delivered a letter to the columnist, along with a large egg formulated out of polyurethane, which I suggested he hang around his neck for penance. After all, he had laid a giant egg by not appreciating the difference between urea-formaldehyde and polyurethane! He had also created unnecessary concerns. Much to his credit, he wrote a “mea culpa” retraction, explaining that he had leaped to an inappropriate conclusion because he had missed too many chemistry classes in high school and had not learned that not all foams were alike!

I thought that would be the end of the story, but the next day I got a call from a local radio station asking if I would like to comment on this controversy, which of course was really a non-controversy. They must have liked the way I explained the matter because a couple of weeks later I was again asked to go on air and discuss some chemistry related issue that had arisen. Soon this evolved into a series of spots and eventually culminated in a regular weekly phone-in show entitled “The Right Chemistry,” which continues to this day and is now the longest running such program in history.

The radio show spawned requests to give public lectures, numerous television appearances and invitations to write newspaper columns and books. Finally, all these activities amalgamated in 1999 with the creation of the “McGill University Office for Chemistry and Society,” a unique university-based venture dedicated to providing accurate, unbiased scientific information on various issues of public concern, fostering critical thinking and separating sense from nonsense.

Interacting in this fashion with the public over so many years has been a fascinating, exciting, fulfilling and sometimes frustrating experience.  Above all, it has afforded insight into the public’s fears, concerns, hopes and dreams, both rational and irrational.  With the advent of the Internet and the extensive influence of the social media the battle against pseudoscience and confused science has become even more difficult. Information and misinformation is being dispensed by an array of bloggers, celebrities, scientists and physicians who often do not have the expertise to deal with the complex issues they broach.

A prime example is Vani Hari, who under the moniker of “The Food Babe” aims to blow the whistle on brands of foods and beverages that in her words “are trying to slowly poison us with cheap and harmful ingredients.” Hari does not have any sort of degree in food science or chemistry, but that does not seem to be an impediment when it comes to telling us that “we are getting conned by cheap, toxic chocolate” or that our beer is chock full of “shocking ingredients.”  Her target in chocolate is soy lecithin, used as an emulsifier. It may come from genetically modified soy beans, and as Hari exclaims, “we know that the consumption of GMO foods poses a serious threat to our health.” Actually, we know no such thing. Furthermore, lecithin contains no DNA, so even if it is isolated from genetically modified soybeans, it contains no vestige of that modification. And she says we better watch out for “isinglass” in beer. Why? Because it is produced from the swim bladders of fish. So what? It is just purified protein that is used to remove haziness from beer. Her game is guilt by association. Azodicarbonamide has no place in bread because it is also used to make yoga mats. Of course just because a chemical is used in a non-food item does not mean it cannot be used safely in food.

Then we have celebrity chef Jamie Oliver who is dedicated to improving the diet of school children, a noble effort. But it brings up the question of whether the means justify the ends. Jamie advocates against serving ice cream sundaes in school because they “contain bugs, beaver glands and hair.” The “bugs” is a reference to shellac, a secretion of the lac bug that in a purified form can indeed be applied as a coating on the candy topping that decorates sundaes. But implying that chopped live insects are an ingredient in sundaes is ridiculous.  As ridiculous as the theatrics with hair and feathers.  Here, the reference is to cookie dough that may be found in some ice creams and is often formulated with L-cysteine, an amino acid that improves texture.  This compound can be readily isolated from the mix of amino acids produced by chemically breaking down proteins.  Indeed, both hair and feathers are composed of proteins and can serve as the raw materials for the production of L-cysteine.  These days cysteine is actually made by a fermentation process, but its origin is really irrelevant.  What matters is what the final product is.  And L-cysteine is a harmless, approved food additive.  Any suggestion that duck feathers are added to ice cream is quackery.

On to the beaver glands. Beavers secrete a territorial marker called castoreum from two glands near their rear end, that in a purified, diluted form has a pleasant scent and is used in perfumery. It also has a vanilla-like flavour and is an approved food additive but is never used in ice cream. Even if it were, it would not be a case of “ice cream containing beaver glands.” Jamie Oliver strives to feed people a proper diet, which is great, but he is also putting their brains on a diet devoid of science.  In my view, teaching the wrong thing is never right.

Dr. Oz is another specialist in twisting facts. Claims of easy weight loss with raspberry ketone or green coffee bean extract do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Red palm oil has no magical properties and palm sugar is not healthier than any other sugar. You cannot eliminate harmful toxins, restore your system and reset your body” with Dr. Oz’s detox cleanse. The body is not some sort of network of pipes and storage vessels that periodically have to be flushed out like a cofpsychics who claim to talk to the dead. That is about as scientific as blending three ropes into one with “magic chemicals.” Leaves me fit to be tied.

Moves supports scientific accuracy as essential to human progression. However, the opinions held in this article are the author’s.