Jul 13, 2008

Hey! There Are Cockroaches in my Chocolate Ice Cream! (Part 4/4)

At the end of the presentation, Dr. Schwarcz demonstrates a reaction where he reacts calcium carbide with water to produce flammable gas- acetylene. When a burning splinter was introduced through a tiny opening, an explosion in the flask took place. However, when the same experiment was repeated, by introducing a burning splinter in a tiny opening in the flask, the flask acted as a lamp due to absence of oxygen. The moral of the whole exhibition was that the same thing used for explosion could also be used as a lamp. It completely depends on the way one uses the knowledge one possesses.

The End :)

Hey! There Are Cockroaches in my Chocolate Ice Cream! (Part 3/4)

Later on in the presentation, Dr. Schwarcz introduced his firm and its objectives, which are to demystify science. He articulates that the firm has many goals that need to be achieved. Some of them include; keeping people up-to-date with scientific progression, fostering critical thinking, separating sense from nonsense and keeping people out of clutches of impostors. He speaks about the importance of communicating science, adding that there is a huge amount of confusing information roaming around the world. There are many information sources, confusing people on a daily basis.

Dr. Schwarz also added a lot of fun and hilarity to his presentation. The following was one way of showing that humour and at the same time scaring the audience. A person learns that eating fish is good for health as it contains omega 3 fatty acids, which is very good for the human body. The next day the person learns that farmed salmon is contaminated with PCBs. So he leaves the fish and goes to eat French fries. Yet again he learns that French fries contain high amounts of Tran’s fat, which is harmful. Switching his diet to meat, only finding that meat contains Dioxins. Eating buns is not safe either as baking those releases acryl amide, which is an animal carcinogen. Corn contains Lutein, which cannot be consumed either. Then that person learns that corn is genetically modified which makes him panic-stricken. However, there is no evidence that genetically modified substances have harmful effect; that is a concern due to illiteracy. Then the person opts for spinach. He finds out that latest studies show spinach containing E-coli 0157. Even drinking is not safe as just two glasses a day can increase the risk of breast cancer. Then, if a person wants to give up alcohol and drink water, tap water contains chlorine, forming trihalomethanes, which are carcinogens. He then goes to buy a filter, which contains polycarbonates, which lead to bisphenol A. If he gets bottled water, he may intake traces of antimony, behaving like arsenic. Then that person learns that toxins are not just in food items. Deodorants are responsible for breast cancer among females, hair dyes give rise to lymphoma and balloons contain nitrosamines. In conclusion to the whole dilemma, Dr. Schwarcz states that, “If you are hungry, thirsty, smelly, unkempt and bored, you will have a longer life”. : P

Dr. Schwarcz admits that all the above statements are true, but the dosage is not enough to cause the harmful effects. For example, apples contain Acetone and Formaldehyde. However, the traces are very small among the other contents. Carcinogens are everywhere; coffee contains six major carcinogens. Nevertheless, the amount is very low and inadequate to be harmful. Furfural contained in buns, is so little that a person need to eat 6000 buns a day to get enough harmful content. This does not mean low quantities are not harmful. Pituitary gland produces one microgram of hormone per day, which is adequate for the body. Another example is of a toddler who swallowed some beads of a toy and fell sick. The toy contained gamma hydroxy butane in small quantities, which was sufficient for its harmful effect. Even small amounts can be very harmful; but life is full of risks, there by, eliminating one cause with the other.

Jun 18, 2008

Hey! There Are Cockroaches in my Chocolate Ice Cream! (Part 2/4)

No, there really are no cockroaches in chocolate ice cream, but as it turns out, Dr. Schwarcz often speaks on the radio and one of his listeners misunderstood a concept about a certain food dye (now a days people would believe anything).

Dr. Schwarcz has some fascinating insight into the public's perception of science. Though not to draw any similarities between him and Carl Saigon but he is also one of those scientists whose most commendable work doesn’t happen in the laboratory but in the public sphere. They distill science to a level where its just right for the consumption by the general populous.

Though unlike Carl Saigon, where the Cosmos was his subject of interest, Dr. Schwarcz has an interest in consumer goods ranging from nutrition, medications and cosmetics to pesticides. His highly visual and entertaining presentation examined some serious as well as some frivolous experiences in dealing with the public perception of these things. The presentation also emphasized the importance of fostering critical thinking.

Sitting in this lecture was more like watching an episode of myth busters, here are a few highlights from the lecture that I found interesting:

1- sales people make a remarkably surprising claim that water filter removes the chemicals from the water and makes it pure and drinkable. For this claim, electrodes were set up in a glass of regular drinking water. Passing electricity turns the water yellow, which was due to the presence of harmful chemicals. However, filtered water formed no residue. To disprove his theory, when common salt was added to the water, the yellow residue was back. The filter removed all the minerals present in the water, reducing its conductivity. The addition of salt helped water conduct electricity to react with the electrode made of iron. The residue formed was simply ferric hydroxide, a good supplement of iron for the body. The water filter did not, by any means, purify the water but it took away the minerals present in it.

2- One of the widely selling products through Internet, the footbath, claims to remove toxins from the body. These toxins are said to be responsible for problems, like arthritis, joint pains, kidney and liver function, circulatory disorder, fatigue and irritability. In veracity, when looking at the real picture, the footbath is following the principle of electrolysis. When plugged in, the colour of water changes to yellow, by ferric hydroxide reaction, due to presence of iron electrodes. The relationship between magic and chemistry was shown by a simple demonstration. An unknown chemical was engaged in a Styrofoam cup as water was added to it. The water solidified to become artificial snow. From this demonstration the presenter wanted to prove that people jump to conclusions before analyzing the facts, representing scientific illiteracy.

3- As mentioned above, Mr. Schwarcz used to come on radio, answering peoples misconceptions regarding science. Once, he received a question on Sodium Tripolyphosphate (STPP). A lady found this chemical in her dishwasher; it was marked as hazardous. She also found the same chemical in Kraft dinner, which was used to feed her son. In order to clear this misunderstanding, Mr. Schwarcz stated that the chemical, Sodium Tripolyphosphate has many tasks. STPP is used in many cleaning agents for better cleaning. In macaroni, it is used to increase water retention capacity. The biggest misconception among people is that chemicals in food are dangerous. The word chemical is mistaken by toxin in many cases.

4- Mr. Schwarcz reports that several advertisements by companies try to fool people through the use of illogical explanations of science. One of the famous commercial is about a type of underwear, claiming to have high absorption capacity. The claim is that the underwear does so, by dissociating the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, due to the material of the cloth.

5- Another such illogical advertisement was about Lulu lemon designer clothing showroom. This claims that the clothes are made from seaweeds that release marine amino acids, minerals and vitamins into skin upon contact with moisture. When analysed in a laboratory, no trace of any such amino acids, vitamins and minerals were found.

6- Another example given by Dr. Schwarcz relates to a cosmetic, claiming to be “made by nature, not a chemist”. This statement creates misconception amongst people regarding chemistry. Dr. Schwarcz continuously repeated the statement that all chemicals are not hazardous. Advertising companies often make proclamations without supporting it. One such statement by Lulu lemon states that pops shall be known as the cigarettes of the future. Personally, I agree with the statement. Although the effects of pop are different from cigarettes, the fact that both of them are harmful cannot be ignored.

7- Another extremely ridiculous claim made by a pipes company states that the sudden right angle turn of water molecules, when gushing through straight pipes, changes the bond angle of the water. This change kills water molecules. Therefore, the water we drink and bathe in is actually dead water. The company proclaims that pipes made by that specific company revamps the changed bond angle of water, hence, supplying “pure” water. Although the whole idea is preposterous, the most absurd issue is that people actually claim a positive change in their lives, through the products use. They assert the feelings of betterment after bathing and drinking water from that specific pipe. Dr. Schwarcz Quotes Einstein in conclusion to this example. “Only two things are infinite: universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the former.” This quote blew the audience in hysterics.

Jun 16, 2008

Hey! There Are Cockroaches in my Chocolate Ice Cream! (Part 1/4)

Its summer and school is over, even though there is still some time before the freshman year at U of T commences, me and my friends have decided to get a leg up on the rest of the class by attending lectures open to public at the St. George campus. I had known about this particular lecture for some time and when finally the day arrived, we all headed out to the venue using the all too convenient TTC.

University of Toronto St. George Campus offers not only one of the best education (if not the best) in Canada but it also has a rich architecture and history, not to mention its ideal location in downtown Toronto, visiting the campus is always fun, even if you are not a student here.

As the weather was dry and the leaves very colorful, the pictures we took actually came out pretty well, which is still a surprise to me. Anyway, in the auditorium we got front row balcony seats. I have always been fascinated with the theater sound system, no matter how you set up a home theater system, technology is still not good enough to miniaturize the grandeur of true theater sound.

Dr. Joseph A. Schwarcz spoke for about an hour and eight minutes on the topic of scientific illiteracy, amongst the general population; presenting well over a hundred slides (phew!).

The Dr. presented with quite a bit of humor, which made the lecture quite interesting (I would say down right entertaining). The lecture hall was pretty full, must have been the unusual title of the lecture. The name might lead one to believe that its something to do with food hygiene but as it turned out it wasn't, I guess people will pay attention if you tell them they have cockroaches in their chocolate ice cream.

To be continued...