Keep on Marching

I’m going to let you in on a devastating secret.

You ready?

Are you sure?

You may not want to keep reading if you’re not 100% absolutely, positively certain.

Alright. Here it goes.

You are made of chemicals.


I’m dead serious. Not only are you made up of chemicals, but also they are essential to your day-to-day functioning. Most of what you breathe in is necessary to keep you alive; those are chemicals. Dihydrogen monoxide is a chemical, and it’s EVERYWHERE. It’s in the oceans, lakes, the air, your home, your body.


But when I call it by its chemical name, it sounds a bit scary, no? There’s this hype going on about avoiding chemicals. “I don’t want to eat that; it’s full of chemicals.” Surprise! IT’S MADE UP OF CHEMICALS.

I’m not saying every chemical on the face of the earth is harmless. I would not suggest hanging around sulfuric acid that isn’t in a fume hood unless you really want to stop your lungs from functioning. Carbon monoxide is known as the silent killer. (And you thought that was your uncle after eating broccoli.) Carbon dioxide in large quantities is environmentally unfriendly. (Keep in mind that you breathe out carbon dioxide and that it is a necessary reactant for photosynthesis. Believe me, it’s not all bad. Don’t read this and think that you have to do your part to save the environment by holding your breath and then killing all plant life.)

The point is that if you see an advertisement for something that is “chemical free,” don’t pay for that product because clearly the people at that company either a) don’t know what they’re talking about or b) are just playing to useless fear. Heck, even the containers that products are sold in are chemicals.

I have no problem with people who want to live natural lifestyles as much as possible. In fact, I think that’s commendable.

However, in the midst of people pushing for going au naturale in regards to medicine and food, many of them have decided to jump on bandwagons and “educate” others about the evils and dangers of traditional medicine and scientific progress. And when people start attacking this field I love so much, I have a problem.

In a previous post “Fortuitous Screw-Ups, Acceptable Risk, and Heartless Machines,” I said that science is perfect but scientists are not. Part of advancement is trying something, observing the outcomes, and using that data to make that product even better. And yet scientists, engineers, and doctors come under a lot of fire for not being able to do things 100% perfectly all the time. We make mistakes, just like every other human being. And, yes, sometimes those mistakes can be costly, and that is a risk we take all the time. But I can guarantee you that most of us are motivated by trying to make this world a better place.

I have actually heard of people spending thousands of dollars on a filter that can alter the pH of water and claimed that it could cure just about anything, including cancer. It apparently “neutralizes” the overly acidic parts of your body that became so acidic from eating the wrong food and drinking the wrong liquids.

Let me give you a little background in pH. In mathematical terms, pH is the negative logarithm of the concentration of the hydronium ion. In other words, pH tells you how acidic or basic something is depending on how much hydronium is available. The range of 0-6 is classified as acidic; 7 is neutral; and 8-14 is basic. (The pH can also be less than 0 or greater than 14.)

Water is not just H2O; it has -OH (hydroxide) and H3O+ (hydronium) floating around as well via a reversible reaction. The higher the concentration of hydronium, the lower the pH, and the more acidic the water (or other chemical being tested). Keep in mind that pH is a logarithmic scale, not a linear one. If the pH is decreased by 1 (going from 7 to 6), the concentration of hydronium has increased by a factor of 10. If the pH is decreased by 2 (going from 7 to 5), the concentration of hydronium has increased by a factor of 100.

For any relatively healthy person, your body monitors its pH levels and is designed to offset any fluctuations completely on its own. Your body has a natural filtration system; and it all stems just from going to the bathroom! There’s no need to spend thousands of dollars (unless you need a new toilet).

I came across a website that promoted one of these magical water filters and tried to “educate” people on the dangers of a fluctuating pH. While a significant change in body pH is dangerous (but as I pointed out earlier, your body takes care of that for you), this person made some incorrect statements that anyone who’s taken a chemistry class would have pointed out within 30 seconds of reading. When I emailed the guy, his response was that he wasn’t a scientist so he didn’t know all the ins and outs.

No. Freaking. Way.

These are the same types of people who claim that doctors are deliberately trying to keep the American public sick so that they can keep making money. They don’t want to put anything on the market that can help cure people because then they’d be out of jobs.

Yep. Makes total sense. Every doctor, pharmacist, scientist, and engineer deliberately throws out useful data that can point us in the right direction for a cure that will work for 99.99% of the population.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think natural methods are great…to an extent. I never knew anyone who could stop a heart attack with a cup of herbal tea. Many people with chronic illnesses have found that traditional medicine doesn’t work for them and so resort to holistic healing. On the flip side there are those with chronic illnesses that tried natural methods that didn’t work so well (such as yours truly). So we went with traditional methods.

Science works with statistics, and while it’s true that each body is vastly different from another, statistically the drugs and therapies that are available will work for the majority of patients. And still, most doctors are willing to work with you to streamline a treatment plan that is optimal for your system. There are now genetic tests that can determine what classes of medications are compatible with your body. And how did we get to this point?

Science, baby.


Anyway, this is not an attack on natural methods and holistic healing. What bothers me is when people make natural methods seem like the answer to all life’s trouble and try to “educate” people on why it’s so much better than traditional medicine when they’re not qualified to do so.

I knew this one woman, one of the sweetest people in the world, who sadly was diagnosed with throat cancer. She tried chemotherapy, but her energy tanked and she found it hard to function. So she consulted a naturopath and they put her on a very strict diet with herbs and supplements – and she improved! It was really amazing!

However, she also tried to “educate” people around her and even started a class for people on the pros of natural medicine and the terrible results of chemotherapy. She said that as a teacher she is always doing research so she tries to be knowledgeable on the subject, which is commendable. It’s great to make an informed decision. Now, nothing against first-grade teachers; some of the smartest people are elementary-school teachers. It takes a very special gift to teach basic material that is second-nature to adults to antsy children with gnat-like attention spans in a fun and creative way that inspires them to learn. However, they are not healthcare providers. I can do my own research on super spiral galaxies but that won’t make me an astrophysicist.

She said that one of the chemicals used was just one atom away from being plastic. As a chemist, that comment raises a red flag, and not because the chemical was so similar to plastic. It was because that one atom makes a huge difference.

Let’s use everyone’s nemesis as an example: fat. The difference between saturated and unsaturated fats is based on one element: hydrogen. The smallest element with the fewest electrons is the determining factor between these two types of fats. Saturated fats contain single bonds along the carbon chain and, therefore, have as many hydrogens as possible. Unsaturated fats lack some hydrogens because double bonds appear along the carbon chain.

The elimination of one atom or the replacement of that atom with a different one will affect so many things. The bonding is altered; the inter- and intramolecular forces are re-calibrated; the spatial orientation is shifted just to name a few. In fact, two molecules can have the same number of atoms; the same types of atoms; and the exact same bonding; but if the orientation in one region of the molecule is just slightly different, the properties between the two differ significantly. Spatial orientation can be the difference between one of those molecules being completely safe and the other being carcinogenic.

Now why have I spent so much time on this diatribe?

This past weekend, we had a march for science that allowed people to demonstrate how important science is in their lives. And why shouldn’t they do that? Science IS important. It is amazing and fascinating and 100% perfect. Scientists strive to achieve that same status, but we have a long way to go still. But one of the truly amazing things about science is that there is always room to question and formulate a well-thought-out opinion. There is no question that doesn’t have an answer; we just haven’t discovered all the answers….yet. 😉

So question. Do your research. If there are opposing views, consult experts on both sides. Facts can be disputable because our methods for obtaining the data aren’t 100% foolproof. Be informed so you can create educated opinions. But also keep in mind that unless you work in that field with the credentials and the experience to back you up, that’s all they’ll be – opinions. Not gospel.

And fellow scientists of the world: let’s unite! Let’s keep marching for this field we hold so dear, for which we’ve made many, many sacrifices. Let’s keep demonstrating how important science is and all the advancements that have greatly benefited society as a whole. You’re doing great work. Don’t let the haters drag you down. Chances are, they’re benefiting from many of your projects.

But, people, don’t take our word for everything. Ask questions. Extract all the information you can. And challenge us.

We enjoy a good debate. 😉

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

Unwept, Unhonored, and Unsung

Today, forty-nine years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered.

One of the greatest leaders of the Civil Rights Movement was killed because he dared to believe that the world was capable of change. And he acted on those beliefs.

Slavery had been abolished for almost one hundred years when Dr. King helped lead the infamous March on Washington in August of 1963. Amazing how even after one hundred years, equality still had not been realized for African-Americans. Even Virginia was still turning up its nose well into the 1960s at the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v Board of Education, which declared public school segregation unconstitutional. African-American men had had the right to vote since 1870 with the ratification of the 15th Amendment, but yet there was still a need to pass the Voting Rights Act – in 1965!

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act “ended” discrimination against anyone based on race, gender, nationality, religious beliefs, or color.

African-American men could be drafted into the military. But they couldn’t use the same drinking fountain or use the same bathroom or sit in the same area of a bus as their white counterparts until change started to take root in the 1960s.

And it only took almost one hundred years since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

Rosa Parks is another famous example of the need for the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine being ARRESTED just because you didn’t give up your seat to someone who demanded it, even though you were sitting in the “appropriate” section of the bus. The 1950s were a time where, yes, women didn’t have much say in anything (which is why I’m glad I live in today’s world); but in that day and age, men were expected to stand up and offer their seats to ladies. How humiliating is that to be a lady in the ’50s and have a law that says you can’t sit wherever you please on a public transit – something for which you help pay.

Today, these amazing people, among many others, are remembered and honored for their heroic work, and we are grateful to them for being radical enough to bring about change.

But what about those who were also pioneers but are hardly ever mentioned?

I finished reading the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, quite serendipitously, on International Women’s Day. (This is now one of my top five favorite books of all time; if you haven’t read it, you MUST. It should be an item on your bucket list.) She brought a piece of forgotten history to the forefront of American minds: the significant impact of African-American women on the conception and continuing success of NASA.

However, she brings to light an important paradox in the lives of African-Americans and other minorities before and during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. These men and women were willing to sacrifice for their country, whether it be fighting on a battlefield or the home front; but it was a country that didn’t want them. And yet they were still willing to fight not only for their country but also for their place in it. Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson went unrecognized for years for their work until Ms. Shetterly’s book was published.

And there’s another African-American woman whose story went untold for decades until 2010 when the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot was published. (Another of my top five favorite books and a definite bucket-list-must-read.) Have you ever heard of the HeLa cell line (for Henrietta Lacks)? It is the first immortal cell line where the cells keep reproducing, and because of this line, the polio vaccine and advancements in cancer and AIDS research have been made possible.

But the original cells were taken without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent (a common practice in the 1950s) when she went in for treatment for cervical cancer (from which she tragically died at the age of 31). And no one knew for decades who the original source was. This woman helped pave the way for major leaps and bounds in medical research, and yet history made her an obscurity for nearly 60 years.

In a previous post, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun(ding)!,” I discussed how women have also been struggling for their rights and have been waiting with bated breath when equality will mean exactly what it was intended to mean: EVERYONE has equal rights.

Do we remember Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel Prize winner who discovered the nerve growth factor, paving the way for more advanced immunology research?

What about Dr. Lise Meitner, the discoverer of nuclear fission and for whom the element Meitnerium is named?

Or Mary Sherman Morgan, the first American female rocket scientist who found a way to create the fuel that helped Explorer 1 launch into space?

There are many heroes whose recognition has lain dormant for decades. We praise great men like Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, and deservedly so. But there are so many others who have left their own mark on societal progress.

Perhaps we, as a society, should start catching up.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak