The Who, What, When, Where and Why of Chemistry
Chemistry is not a world unto itself. It is woven firmly into the fabric of the rest of the world, and various fields, from literature to archeology, thread their way through the chemist's text.
"A woman can recite the most complicated recipe, but how many can name the ingredients in a headache tablet? If you don't want drugs you know nothing about, take Bufferin...."
This short commercial by actress Joan Fontaine aired in the mid-1960s, an era when Tylenol (acetaminophen) was just gaining market share in the US as a painkiller for adults. I'm fascinated with the way in which it foreshadows the modern trope of avoiding chemicals you can't pronounce, already marketing the molecular fear that now fuels the largely unregulated, 12 billion dollar a year vitamin and nutritional supplement market in the US. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring had appeared in 1962, starting a shift towards seeing chemical as a synonym for poison.
Much like the material put out fifty years later by Jospeh Mercola, Dr. Oz and The Food Babe, this ad tacitly assumes people are incapable of understanding science and must rely on experts of some sort. Who you should not trust. And women, no matter how competent within their limited domestic sphere, are even less capable.
I steamed a batch of dumplings for lunch yesterday, which never had time to cool before being wolfed down by the spring break crowd in my kitchen. So I pulled another set from the freezer which someone in the scrum popped into the steamer. In the confusion, no one checked to be sure there was still water in the steamer. Fast forward eight minutes, the dumplings are stuck to the steamer and the smoke alarm is shrieking.
The dumplings were edible, but the bottom of the pan was pretty badly scorched. My mathematician spouse wondered if I had some special chemical that would magically clean the pan. I said I did and that I'd already applied it. "What did you use?" he said, peering into the blackened pot. "Water."
Water is sometimes called the universal solvent, and though many things will dissolve in water, it's not clear that more things are soluble in water than in any other solvent (or how you would undertake such an inventory). And it's absolutely a chemical, though it is so ubiquitous we have a hard time thinking of it as such. Even chemists.
The pot soaked overnight, and with the application of a bit of elbow grease (physics, not a chemical) and a finely ground mixture of low volatility chemicals (feldspar, limestone, sodium carbonates with a dash of soap - aka kitchen cleanser) is as shiny as ever.