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.