Brighten Up, There’s a Super Moon…

This week I’ve been told that my services as a freelance science news journalist were no longer needed for a science news outlet. I hadn’t been writing for them for several months because I was dealing with the aftermath of my grandfather’s death at the beginning of this year while juggling a full-time university study load. No big deal I suppose. I will even ignore being told that I could take all the time I needed. I really should have gotten that one in writing. I am living off cash reserves saved from working last year and can get through until December on $1000 a month. Lesson learned.

You know what people have been telling me this week over and over? That I should, “Brighten up because another opportunity will come along…”. If you are that opportunity, contact me. Really.

Where was I? Oh yes, “Brighten up…”. It was with much eye rolling when I happened across’s, (not a news outlet I have ever contributed any science article too and probably won’t ever because I’m critical of their “science coverage”) take on the super moon of 2013, “Brighten up, the super moon is on the way“. The journalist interviewed an astrologer for details of the astronomical event.

What’s the big deal? An astrologer isn’t a scientist. Astrology is a set of beliefs that astronomical events can explain world events. Yup. Events that happen so far away that the distances are measured in light years. One light year is equivalent to 9,460,730,472,580.8 km. That is, very very, very, VERY far away from Earth. Put it this way, it’s like believing an aphid feeding on the sap of rose bushes in the front yard will directly cause rain falling  on a drought-ridden farm that grows your favourite food 1000km away.

James Byrne of Disease Prone fame created a breakdown analysis of’s 2013 attempt at reporting on the super moon complete with graphs, (language warning).

Science Journalism: Doing it wrong

The journalists, (it required two journalists to write this article), did not interview an astronomer. An astronomer is a scientist who studies galaxies, stars, nebulae, gamma ray bursts, planets, and any other major body that makes up the universe that I have forgotten. They look at how these parts of the universe interact with one another. I have read of astronomical research that does link astronomical events to the daily activities on Earth. They include, an extinction event and tracking near earth objects, (it was just three months ago when a meteor broke up over Russia), to name two bits of ongoing research.

I don’t know who you would rather trust to talk about the universe. Someone who can provide evidence by studying and observing physical events around them or someone who links random events to the placement of celestial bodies in the skies. If this is what gets passed off as science journalism in Australia then perhaps it is a good thing I lost my freelance writing gig earlier this week.

On the bright side, it’s Friday so there’s nothing else that can go wrong for me this week. It can wait for next week.

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Filed under Opinionated Orations, Science Communication in Action, So Incredibly Lame

My Problem with PROSH

For 82 years in Perth, a group of students of at the University of Western Australia produce a satirical newspaper to raise funds for local charities working for the betterment of young people. An even bigger group of students dress in costumes and go throughout Perth’s CBD to sell the paper asking for a donation from people as they head into work and even from high school students heading to school. It’s known as PROSH Day. It hits the local airwaves and newspapers and occasionally makes the evening news.

I am 100% behind these ideals. I volunteer with organisations that aim to improve the lives of young people in WA and have done so for over a decade. I have bought editions of the paper over the years but it has been a long time since I’ve read through the pages and enjoyed it. In an era with satirical outlets like The Onion, The Daily Mash, and The NewsBiscuit, perhaps I’ve been spoilt for choice or expect too much from university students. Hang on, I write professionally and get paid for it. University students can do better and the majority of the population do so. Some even lead volunteer and non-profit organisations on top of a full time study load. Others sit on state committees. I am not expecting too much for wanting something better in quality.

This year I bought a copy of the PROSH paper and on a quick glance I noticed a lack of sexist material that had become normal fodder in recent years. After 5 minutes I sent out a tweet declaring it to be wittier than in recent years and in support of it. After all the proceeds of the sale this year are going to Miracle Babies, Huntington’s Western Australia, The Song Room, and the Indigenous Communities Education & Awareness Foundation, (ICEA). I could see past the students yelling through closed windows at drivers staring ahead in the morning commute especially when their compatriots reigned them in from such stupidity.

I had a good feeling about PROSH. I was thinking about leafing through my copy slowly tonight to read it. That is until I had a look at my Facebook and Twitter feeds. The headline, Drunk, naked West Australian uni students hit the streets to sell racist hate-speech… all in the name of charity summed it up. Not the headline I imagine the Vice Chancellor Professor Paul Johnson expected to come from this year’s PROSH activities.

Photos of the racist content is throughout my social media feeds with people expressing disgust and anger. It’s not outrageTM that the zeitgeist has grabbed hold of for this week or the complaints from people who don’t have a sense of humour as some people posting to the UWA Student Guild’s apology post on their Facebook page seem to be hinting at.

I no longer have any positive feelings about PROSH. The small disquiet I had has resolved itself into feelings of distaste. Just because the results of the activities results in benefits to the vulnerable members of the community, it shouldn’t be done so at the expense of those members. Nor should hateful material be excused simply on the grounds of satire and charity especially in the face of widespread criticism. This year unfortunately is not the exception when it comes to complaints. Perhaps it’s time to review the selection criteria for the PROSH Director which is currently scant.

Western Australia’s Opposition Aboriginal Affairs spokesman Ben Wyatt and former UWA student has spoken out on the racist material calling upon the need for reflection amongst the UWA Student Guild and the editorial team of this year’s PROSH. This year is the first that I have heard of one of the partner charities, ICEA, deciding to cease and refuse further sponsorship from the UWA Student Guild following the publication of the paper. This is not a badge of honour.

I am a UWA student and I have never spent any time involved with the production and publication of the PROSH paper. This does not preclude me from stating my opinion of the publication. An enrolment at UWA is not necessary to express disgust when a minority of UWA students decide to behave in a socially unacceptable manner. I just wish those students would just get it into their craniums in amongst the party schedules that their behaviour reflects back on the rest of the UWA community. It diminishes the positive impact of numerous academic and social achievements of UWA.

This year I am wearing a name badge with my full name in full display with the UWA logo and name. I want to be able to wear this without having to deal with the consequences of immaturity and selfishness of others. I am shocked at reading some of the vitriolic attitudes held by those attacking those criticising the latest round of idiocy; mostly because I know that a proportion of them attend UWA. I am not comfortable with this. It is disturbing that these students will never face any consequences and that I may end up sharing the graduation stage with them. It is a frightening prospect that they will enter the community with such hateful ideals.

There not only needs to be reflection at UWA. There needs to be a change. The sooner the better. It’s not enough to have one off cultural events. There should be no refuge for hate on campus, or indeed anywhere.


Filed under Life Observations, So incredibly lame that it needs a mention

Chemistry explosions are all bang and no buck

I am a chemist and I am heavily involved in science outreach especially in chemistry. I have built a library of demonstrations that I can pull out to demonstrate scientific principles. I also have an array of demonstrations that result in an explosion, not something to brag about when needing to board a flight. The explosions and flames are my least called upon demonstrations. I loathe these demonstrations and use them sparingly. Chemistry is so much more than pyrotechnics and it is an incredible tragedy that this is what it has become to not just people outside of science but also within science. As a chemist of 10 years, I have not once used an explosion in any of my work.

Well meaning science communicators and chemists have used them to grab the attention and awe from audiences in chemistry talks and demonstrations for who knows how long. I have seen too many to count in many guises and for a range of audiences, and all with the intention of telling people about the chemistry of matter. The bits that make up stuff around us and the chemical  reactions of the bits. This mode of chemistry outreach is a dismal failure at representing chemistry and inspiring future scientists. I say this because the vast majority of people whose only exposure to chemistry is demonstrations sum up chemistry with one word, “explosions”. Even students who have yet to step into a chemistry class will say this and then lament about the lack of explosions.

Chemistry isn’t a study of pyrotechnics. I may know the chemical components of what is needed in a firework and the chemical compounds in a number of explosives but I don’t know the first thing about firing them safely. I’m not a pyrotechnician. There needs to be an overhaul of chemistry demonstrations that are trotted out on stage before a switched on public. Let’s face it, people who turn up at these are already interested so they’re not a hostile audience. It’s time they got more than a scaled down fireworks display.

Instead of trying to design a show that encompasses the whole of chemistry, I think shows should focus on aspects of chemistry. This would mean a greater variety of demonstrations, (we’ve got the equipment so let’s flaunt it), and a better representation of what chemistry is and more importantly how pervasive it is throughout science and everyday life. Let’s see more chemistry shows with themes and targeted messages beyond, “Chemistry is awesome and exciting!”.

There are demonstrations involving dry ice beyond placing it in a bottle or an old 35mm film cannister and waiting for a big bang. Yes gases expand and this is an excellent demonstration but given that CO2 is now a much talked about gas, there is opportunity to show people some of its other properties. You could collect CO2 and pour it over a flame to demonstrate the fluidity of gases. It also shows that it doesn’t support combustion and the principle behind COfire extinguishers. Get an empty aquarium, throw in pellets of CO2 and blow bubbles into it and voila, floating bubbles.

Then of course there is the visual demonstration of bubbling CO2 through a solution to change the pH of a solution. The acidification of oceans has entered mainstream media reporting so why not get a sample of ocean water and experiment before a live audience? And with the advent of cheap webcams and livestreaming, leave a shell in acidified ocean water for the audience to monitor over time after the show to see what happens. Chemistry isn’t confined to laboratories and shows so why not encourage ongoing discussion?

Why not bring in some analytical instruments to analyse samples? There are so many handheld devices now and if you have access to them, show them off in action. I attended an open day at a chemical analytical lab and the most popular and busy stalls had working handheld devices. Bring it in and analyse something live in front of an audience in a themed show. Ask the audience for an everyday object they have on them and tie it into the show.

One of the most awe inspiring demonstrations I have seen did not have one explosion. It was a colour show showing off chemiluminescence accompanied with an informative talk. You know that CSI trick where they spray a bottle in a crime scene and then shine a UV light and suddenly the blood splatter can be seen? The chemists behind this talk took that right out of CSI, put it in front of the audience, and showed just how bright luminol can get and with more colour. It no longer remained in the domain of television magic. The speakers did finish off with an explosion but what everyone was talking about after was the much more complicated chemical reactions behind chemiluminescence.

This kind of discussion only comes if the chemistry has content beyond the flashes of light and colour. Content is king. Chemists are not magicians or performers in white lab coats. Every chemist I talk to has a story of intrigue and mystery about their work, and not just the forensic chemists. Each one of us has a mystery to solve and who doesn’t love a good detective story? Why don’t these stories get shared and in doing so shed the snap, crackle and pop impression of chemistry? After all, it’s not the study of a breakfast cereal.

I am not saying do away with explosions entirely but if it means that the rest of the chemistry show talk can’t stand alone without them, then what is the point? Demonstrations should highlight the content and show off the chemistry. No smoke, no mirrors, just the revealing of chemistry in everyday life which in itself is magical. Give people something to walk away with a real story of chemistry instead of memories of a big bang and no buck.


Filed under Life Observations, Opinionated Orations, Science, Science Communication in Action

We HAVE to Evacuate NOW!

  1. Last night before heading off to bed, I glanced at my Twitter feed to see what the other side of the world was chatting about when it came to science. After all, it was Valentine’s Day and a myriad of science news stories about the reproduction habits of animals other than humans were making headlines. I even found an economical analysis on the production of single stem roses.

    I found @Chemjobber, @SeeArrOh, and @DrRubidium chatting about the five most dangerous English words. Their examples were ones that I had heard while working as a scientist. Chaos ensued after five words were carelessly strung together.
  2. .@Chemjobber “what’s the worst that’ll happen?” #dangerous5
  3. I added my own tweet.
  4. Then things just grew…
  5. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had this exchange in the lab
  6. Then I made this innocent tweet.
  7. If you liked #overlyhonestmethods, check out #dangerous5. Five most dreaded words strung together in a lab.
  8. Scientists were chiming in from all over the place with their own #dangerous5 and I thought it would be great to commiserate. My #dangerous5 tweets were things that really did set off a chain of events. Some of them frightening.
  9. Unfortunately they didn’t know what they were doing. They were also winging it. Just 30 seconds after that declaration I experienced my first lab accident in my third year undergraduate lab session. It was serious. I copped a lungful of concentrated sulphuric acid fumes. It was awful.

    The person had placed a stopper on the end of his reflux column during a digest. You NEVER do this. Ever. Expanding gases need somewhere to go otherwise pressure builds up.
  10. If you have to ask this, you really shouldn’t be doing chemistry. Or cook.
  11. .@Chemjobber “Is this the right colour?” Especially worrying when there isn’t supposed to be a colour. #dangerous5
  12. I left a trainee to make up a standard solution of 0.05M hydrochloric acid. They had a degree in chemistry. Next thing I knew they were coming to me with a volumetric flask that was lurid yellow. I have no idea what happened. I do know that I ended up making the standard solution and put in a formal request that the trainee be sent to another department because their basics weren’t up to scratch.
  13. Never add a little more of anything especially to a superheated liquid. Ever. Hot liquid and gas goes everywhere and it burns. A lot. And that’s just water. When it’s a chemical, burns are much much worse.
  14. The bane of my existence. I label every beaker with permanent marker before use. Unfortunately not everyone labels glassware and some people think that while I’m focussed on my tasks, I know exactly what they’re doing as well. Well I don’t.

    Just as I was about to suggest using a bit of litmus paper to check, this bright spark decided to sniff their beakers. You don’t sniff in chemistry. You waft. Always waft. They got a noseful of acid fume and promptly dropped the beaker of acid onto the bench where some fairly expensive electronics were sitting.
  15. This introduction
  16. followed by this description of me
  17. has always negatively impacted my productivity and positively impacted on blood pressure, stress, and worst of all, levels of paperwork.
  18. This was said to me by someone who had taken it upon themselves to delete a method, (program to tell instruments what to do and when), from an analytical instrument without consulting anyone. Turn around time increased significantly and it was the first time I heard my then mild mannered supervisor swear.
  19. In a lab you get used to a certain level of smell. You live with it just so long as extraction hoods are working and there isn’t a catastrophe in progress. So when someone asks,
  20. Pay attention especially if they’ve been around longer than you in the lab because the next question could turn into,
  21. What had happened was that the hose carrying water in a distillation set up was touching the same spot providing heat. It had melted and water was being diverted to live electrical cables. It shorted. Spectacularly. The building was evacuated.
  22. There’s this thing about cyanide gas. It smells of almonds or at least that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve never been able to verify it even though I’ve worked extensively in gold analysis. Through a quirk of genetics, I can’t smell it. I need to rely on gas monitors, working fumehoods, and people not to pour acid waste into cyanide waste.

    I continued working in away until my supervisor who had forgotten his sunglasses came in. He swung into action and barked at me,
  23. Thankfully no damage done. I was made to sit outside in fresh air and given the rest of the day off after a medical check up. I was shaken for weeks after the incident because all the failsafes hadn’t triggered.
  24. “Did anyone else feel that?” (in reference to unexpected tremors & earthquakes) #dangerous5
  25. I worked in one lab that was literally down the road from the minesite. It remains as one of the favourite labs I’ve ever had the privilege to be part of. I didn’t believe that the working mine was just over there until I was knocked off my feet by a particularly large blast.

    Who would place a working laboratory with chemicals and expensive instrumentation so close? It doesn’t make sense, that is unless it’s decided to mine closer to the lab. The lab has since been moved.
  26. The person who said this received urgent first aid from me 5 minutes after. They got concentrated nitric acid in their eye. They cried like a baby. I got the task of filing paperwork.
  27. Wrong. There are a myriad of gloves made of different materials because they react and behave differently to various chemicals in the lab. That’s why there’s also often a glove safety chart to help out with choosing the right glove. Not everything is catered for sensitive skin and allergies.
  28. Said in the same lab to me. I became unemployed soon after. In retrospect, I should have taken the first statement as a warning. Lesson learned. I also promised to never work in academia again.
  29. Always, and I mean always ask to see what duct tape is being applied to. It could be to substitute glassware joins which is not a good idea. Some improvisations are never meant to be.
  30. Every experiment needs looking after. Every. Single. One.
  31. No other phrases can send chill the lab so efficiently. Think of your very worst rental inspection and then multiply it by a million. That comes close to the dread I felt every time I heard that there would be visitors.

    Every single one of them would expect an immaculate shiny lab with the latest gadgets as seen the previous night on CSI. I would have to be dressed in a lab coat even though uniform dictates that I wear other apparel in place of a lab coat. The problem was that I essentially worked with dirt. Ok, mineral samples for various metals but essentially they look like powdered dirt. The machines used for analysis don’t need to be the latest shiny instrument on the market so often they weren’t the top model.
    Total let down. Even worse was when they didn’t see an explosion. What am I? A magician?
  32. Unfortunately science has a lot of measuring. That in itself involves numbers. This is well before any statistical analysis needs doing.

    If you’ve never sat through the night and greeted dawn by the light of a monitor rectifying incorrect data analysis before a deadline that can’t be missed, consider yourself lucky. There is nothing more stressful and rage inducing.
  33. No. You’re in a lab. You do not head to Wikipedia. You know eight year olds can be editors right? You need to head to a science journal where scientists in your field are publishing their work. You know, the people who know stuff.
  34. This could lead to you spending hours (re)organising your reference library or it could mean you found a plagiarised journal article. The latter is less likely but it does happen resulting in headaches and embarrassing retractions.

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Filed under Awesomeness, Life Observations, Science Communication in Action, The Weird World of the Web

The Naked Scientists Need Your Help

The Naked Scientists have been part of my life for at least half a decade. Out of all podcasts on iTunes, the Naked Scientists has had better staying power than comedies, language lessons, movie reviews, and other science podcasts. I always go back to it.It isn’t just me who has noticed this weekly one hour podcast that is also a radio show on BBC. The Naked Scientists have won seven national and international awards since 2006. I will never forget when host Dr Chris Smith told me how monthly downloads of the podcast exceeds 6TB, (though now it’s 15TB), when he visited Australia a couple of years ago.

Given all this, it makes absolutely no sense to me that BBC East radio will cease broadcasting from January of the Naked Scientists in favour of country music and local content.

Mr Mick Rawsthorne, the person for local and regional programs for BBC East and the person who decides the fate of the Naked Scientists, thinks that the science program is of little value in Cambridgeshire despite by his own admission in a BBC 4 Feedback segment “is a very good programme”. Mr Rawsthorne also believes that science should only make it to radio in the form of news reports on local events and development.

While I agree that science should make it on air during the news, I do not believe that there is no air time for a science segment. In Australia, there are regular science radio segments on air. The Science Show and Doctor Karl on Triple J are two recognisable national science radio segments. This isn’t including local ABC, (BBC equivalent in Australia) radio with their own science segments. Some stations have a science segment in the morning and another one in the afternoon. I can’t imagine that Australians have a higher interest in science than their counterparts in the UK. I think people are interested in science when it is accessible to them. The Naked Scientists invites people to get involved with them to explore science.

The Naked Scientists secondary title is Stripping Down the Science and this is what they do in one hour. They take recently published peer review research, (often from scientists in the UK), and talk about it in plain English. More importantly, they make it interesting to listen to all while inviting listeners to comment on the research or ask their own science related questions. If that wasn’t enough the team at the Naked Scientists were busting myths before Mythbusters exploded successfully on television. My favourite is the chocolate teapot.

If that wasn’t enough for an hour, they even conduct live science experiments that listeners can take part in over the course of an hour. This has led to a collection of them published in a book, Crisp Packet Fireworks. It may also lead to a declaration that a there should be a microwave dedicated for science projects only but this may only be in my household on the opposite side of the planet to the Naked Scientists.

I suppose I can only talk about the Naked Scientists from an international perspective which may not be the focus of the BBC at a time when it is embroiled in a sex scandal and when budget cuts are being made. I am not arguing that the international audience be more important than the local audience. However, is this not a case where homegrown talent has become influential? Shouldn’t this be fostered especially when there appears to be nothing else in the arsenal that comes close to this? I am someone in Australia who regularly listens to a podcast that is very British. Hell, some weeks I listen to the livestream and even get a traffic update for a place on the other side of the world.

Chris isn’t going down without a fight. There is an ongoing discussion on Twitter that can be followed with the hashtag, #savethenakedscientists that is an expression of frustration and disbelief especially at the rumour that the Naked Scientists will be replaced with country music, (reportedly American country music). The Naked Scientists Facebook page has transformed into a war room with the latest updates on the progress and what listeners can do. And slowly, blog posts are appearing expressing disappointment in the decision.

If you want to tell the BBC or Mr Rick Rawsthorne how awesome the Naked Scientists is, the emails are and respectively.

I cannot believe that the BBC who has been responsible for producing science content that has played an enormous role in my science education is allowing the removal of a radio science programme. Science news stories based on current events is one part of science. The other part is that science is fascinating and full of wonder. Okay sure, there’s facts but there’s facts in other specialist areas like sports, gardening, pet care, history and so on. These are areas that make it onto radio and television regularly when they are inviting and understandable. Science is being presented in this manner by the Naked Scientists.

Disclosure: I have met Dr Chris Smith when he visited Perth as part of National Science Week in 2010. Even if I had not met him, I would have written this blog post anyway.

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What’s Your Science Story?

Science Jamboree

Science Jamboree (Photo credit: Raven Photographic)

Way back in September I had a conversation with Ben Lillie, a writer for TED and director/producer of The Story Collider, a delightful podcast about the human stories behind science. I adore it because it brings forth the different kinds of people who work in and around science. It’s one of the mainstays in my podcast subscriptions because I have a fascination with how people got into science.

We spoke about science stories. I love reading them. I get paid to write science news. However I struggle with the most important science story of all – my own. I am invited to classrooms and science outreach events to tell my story by people who have painstakingly put some pieces of the jigsaw together that fit in with their needs. I don’t mind at all if parts of my story resonates but what about all of it?

I suppose this has been what I have thought about since early September as I have struggled to collect my thoughts into a blog post. I am better at telling other people’s stories and events. As I have meandered through the fog of my science story over the past two months I have realised that my science story is one that needs telling and one that does inspire. More importantly I have accepted that my science story affects greatly how I do science and communicate science.

Thank you Ben Lillie. This is the blog post that I said I would write. It took me longer than expected.

I was born into a family with a non-English speaking background in an English speaking country. I grew up in small towns far away from the city, 3,500km north of it to be exact. That’s around 2200 miles away from the nearest city. This was a time before the internet reached homes. Having television reception in the home was like getting the super fast broadband today. We didn’t even have a phone in the house until I was 9 years old.

I will never be able to thank my teacher Mrs Knight enough for her patience in getting through to a stubborn four year old girl who had declared the English language to be stupid. It could not have been easy but it is because of this that I have been able to take part in learning at school. Looking back on my early school reports, I did not show much promise. I was average in most things and at the beginning, I was below average in reading and numeracy skills.

Given this start in life, the odds are stacked against me to finish school and head to university, let alone become a scientist.

This is where my parents came to the fore. My dad when he wasn’t working night shift would always be reading something, newspapers, magazines and maps. My mum always had a recipe book around and was always jotting things down as she worked out how to prepare an authentic Singaporean dish with limited variety of ingredients. The nearest Asian Grocer was 3500km away. They always made sure I finished my reading homework which was to read aloud from a book no matter how much I hated it.

I remember when I asked my dad what he was reading in the newspaper. Instead of summarising, he would read snippets of the newspaper to me. I suspect he read the parts that would interest me because I always found it fascinating what people around the world got up to when all I did was to go to school. Gradually I progressed to reading the newspaper by myself and discovering books.

As this is a moment of being truthful, I will admit to loathing science in primary school, all seven years of it. I never found it fun. It was hard. I despised science. There were unpronounceable words. It was something for the smart kids. I never got selected to be in accelerated science programs. Science in primary school made me feel dumb and it was something I had to work really hard at. Teachers assuming me to be naturally brilliant or to be quite dull in science compounded the issue.

At some point during the last few years of primary school, I became aware that my grandfather with minimal English skills had enrolled in a formal horticultural course. He explained that he wanted to learn how to grow plants well and wasn’t interested in the exams or qualifications. He wanted to learn to do something in his life better. This has always stayed in my mind. It’s possible to study and learn for pleasure. I didn’t realise that this would become a life defining moment for me.

I started to add popular science books to my reading choices. Books that had been written so that the science was easy to understand that I could read at my own pace and stop to look up words in a dictionary. I was able to explore pieces of the scientific world. I was lucky to have parents who let me read and emphasised the preciousness of education even though all I was concerned with was doing well enough to stay with my friends.

It was a heavily pregnant woman who encouraged me to explore science and made me feel confident enough to take risks and make mistakes in science to learn from. Hell, it was even okay to mispronounce scientific terms so long as you learned what they meant and pronounced them correctly the next time. Sniggering and exasperated looks were replaced with patience and enthusiasm. She was my Year 8 science teacher. I do not know what my life would have turned out had I not been in that class. It was in that class I discovered what parts of science were fun for me.

From that first day in that science class, I haven’t stopped taking risks in science to do new things. I may not have any sort of award to show for my work in science or have a paper in a prestigious scientific journal that only a few will read. I have something that no one can take away from me. I have a sense of enjoyment in science that I share freely. I come from a background where people have shared their knowledge and sense of fun. This has shaped who I am and how I do things.

I get frustrated with myself if I am unable to explain a concept to someone who is desperately trying to understand. I will make the time to explain it in as many ways as possible and when that doesn’t work, I seek help. If I am not of any help in the learning process than at the very least I can facilitate it. This sharing of information isn’t limited to classrooms and lessons. This happens in workplaces and laboratories. Learning new things is vital to achieving goals, especially the difficult ones.

I have a firm belief that part of doing science is communicating scientific work to everyone and anyone who may be interested. That communication should also be open and inviting. The effect of scientific work is not confined to the hallowed halls and rooms of research institutions. It impacts upon every part of everyday life.

As I have come to grips with my personal science story, I have become ever more thoughtful in my approach in science communication whether it be in science outreach or talking about a science topic with friends. In recognising where my approach and thoughts have developed from, I have become much better about talking about science because I know why I keep talking.

I want people to have fun with me.

What’s your science story?

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Chemistry Based Practical Jokes

Before I start this ranty post, I want to state up front that I make a habit of making chemistry fun. I’ve let off controlled explosions in demonstrations, used naked flames in demonstrations and have sent rockets so high in the sky, air clearance was obtained. I love doing this. It’s fun and demonstrates a lot of abstract ideas beautifully.

I also love it when chemistry gets a mention in mainstream media. No wait, I mostly like it when mainstream media covers chemistry. There are times when all I can do is yell obscenities at my computer monitor when I see articles titled, “How to Use Basic Chemistry to Scare the Hell Out of Your Neighbour” like I did over at Gizmodo. The only reason why I’m linking to it even though it irks me to do so is because it has high visibility and you have probably read it anyway. It is also what I’m about to rip into.

Halloween is around the corner. I live in Australia and in my neighbourhood with the absence of American expats, it’s mostly a non-event. However this doesn’t preclude me from filling with rage as I read some of the Halloween pranks that Eric Limer has suggested to Gizmodo readers. Rage because it’s ridiculously stupid purposefully harmful moronic pranks that make it that much more difficult to conduct a fun chemistry demonstration in schools in the name of education.

Let’s start with the suggestion of a sprayable stink bomb. A mixture of match heads soaked in household ammonia. Limer admits that ammonia is potent all by itself. No kidding. It’s so potent that I use gloves in a well ventilated space when using it around the home. I’m not even in a lab with extraction hood going when I take those precautions. Quite frankly, I don’t want to have red and runny eyes while wishing for clear air to breathe. It is absolutely nasty stuff and not something you want to get anywhere near your eyes.

There’s no logical explanation why anyone with any sense of responsibility would suggest soaking match heads in ammonia to create a smelly solution to load into a water gun to spray on other people. Every single time I have been involved in a water gun fight, water has gotten in my eyes and all over me. Think of all the areas with sensitive skin, eyes, nasal passages, ears, mouth. Awful huh? Now extend that to the nether regions. Yeah. I had to go there.

Try explaining those chemical burns in the emergency department to the attending doctors and nurses repeatedly because everyone will ask why you’re there. Maybe even one day, your story will become one of those emergency department stories told as a moral teaching to stave off acts of stupidity.

The prank that had me checking that I hadn’t slipped into an alternate reality accidentally where dangerous pranks are acceptable was Limer’s suggestion was to use methylene blue to change the colour of other people’s urine to blue. Just slip a tablespoon of the stuff into a 2L bottle of cola drink. I don’t even use a tablespoon of the stuff in titrations. I have only ever used drops.

Methylene blue has a wide range of applications. It’s an excellent fungicide in aquariums as well as treating fish infected with ich. It also has a wide range of medical uses and because of this, methylene blue has a list of medications that should not be used in conjunction with. Limer does point out,

“For the vast majority of people a tiny dose of methylene blue is harmless”.

True but how are you going to know whether someone else is on any of these medications:

  • meperidine (Demerol);
  • diet pills, stimulants, cold or allergy medicines, ADHD medication;
  • migraine or cluster headache medication such as almotriptan (Axert), frovatriptan (Frova), naratriptan (Amerge), rizatriptan (Maxalt), sumatriptan (Imitrex, Treximet), or zolmitriptan (Zomig);
  • medication to treat Parkinson’s disease or restless leg syndrome, such as carbidopa or levodopa (Lodosyn, Parcopa, Sinemet), pramipexole (Mirapex), or ropinirole (Requip);
  • an “SSRI” antidepressant such as citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem, Symbyax), fluvoxamine (Luvox), paroxetine (Paxil), or sertraline (Zoloft);
  • an “SNRI” antidepressant such as venlafaxine (Effexor), desvenlafaxine (Pristiq), or duloxetine (Cymbalta);
  • a “tricyclic” antidepressant such as amitriptyline (Elavil, Vanatrip, Limbitrol), clomipramine (Anafranil), desipramine (Norpramin), doxepin (Sinequan), imipramine (Janimine, Tofranil), nortriptyline (Pamelor), protriptyline (Vivactil), or trimipramine (Surmontil); or
  • other medications used to treat depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric conditions, such as bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyban, Aplenzin), buspirone (BuSpar), maprotiline (Ludiomil), mirtazapine (Remeron), nefazodone, trazodone (Desyrel, Oleptro), or vilazodone (Viibryd).

or have either of these conditions:

  • kidney disease; or
  • glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency.

Also, pregnant women should also avoid drinking methylene blue. It isn’t known whether methylene blue will harm an unborn baby. And nor is it known whether methylene blue passes through into breast milk.

Do you ask? (I would part with money to watch you ask all of the women of reproductive age whether they are pregnant.) Do you label your methylene blue laced 2L cola appropriately during the party? If there is alcohol at the party, how do you ensure guests or even yourself don’t mix up the bottle with innocent bottles? All these questions for one prank because if you don’t ask, you could well end up with a guest needing a hospital stay.

Then there is the suggestion to make a homemade dry ice powered PVC cannon. Do I need to point out that law enforcement agencies do not take kindly to homemade cannons? And even with the suggestion to aim skyward for safety, just how many people will keep to that operating advice?

If that’s not enough, you can finish the night with a bang by lighting a balloon filled with hydrogen gas for any remaining guests and neighbours to marvel at. Lighting up a hydrogen gas filled balloon is fun. I have done it but then I wasn’t on a mission to annoy everyone in my neighbourhood thinking no one would think to call the police over a loud bang and ensuing ball of fire.

Limer walks through how to make and collect hydrogen gas. No big deal but when you have to write,

“If you don’t know what hydrochloric acid is, or where to get it, then don’t try this in the first place.”

perhaps you shouldn’t write about this stuff in the first place. Regardless whether people know about it or not, they will now in all likelihood seek it out and probably not bother to read the MSDS before using it. I am even less thrilled with the suggestion of how to light a hydrogen filled balloon.

“Using a long fireplace match (and still wearing your gloves and glasses), ignite the balloon by poking it. You should experience a surprisingly brisant and startling explosion.”

Umm….no. Just no. A long fireplace match is NOT something I would use to light up a hydrogen filled balloon. What I’ve used in the past is a long pole where a match is attached to the end to light the balloon. That startling explosion Limer mentions is not one you want to be within arm’s length of.

And finally, how does one dispose of the acid?

“To dispose of the acid, keep your rubber gloves on, and pour the contents of the bottle into a toilet bowl or sink. Flush everything down the drain with water.”

Down the toilet? Really? No. A world of no. When handling acid, you want to know exactly where that acid is at all times to prevent injuries, namely burns. I mentioned sensitive areas earlier and it’s the same situation here. Your sensitive groin area is very much exposed on a toilet seat. Thanks to Murphy’s Law, any remnant of acid on the seat will be found most painfully.

It would be best to neutralise the acid first before disposal but if you don’t know how to do this, you really shouldn’t be handling acid in the first place.

And after all that, the only suggestion that Limer made that I don’t have a problem with is adding baking soda to a nearly empty bottle of ketchup sauce resulting in a spray of ketchup everywhere. It is rather lame. Then again, pranks are lame.

Would it not be better to use basic chemistry to spice up Halloween where no one was at risk of getting hurt or is that not the in thing these days?

If you do want to do chemistry at home without ending up in an emergency department or having the local law enforcement visit, it is possible. Check out Try This at Home.

[UPDATE]: Royal Society of Chemistry has just issued a press release condemning the methylene blue prank.


Filed under chemistry365