First off, a short introduction. For those that don’t who I am, I’m Luke Gamon (@lgamon – twitter/instagram) and I’m currently doing a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Melbourne. Our research group focuses on free radical processes with a bit of a love for atmospheric and environmental pollutants. Simply speaking – we synthesise molecules, use them in radical reactions and either perform kinetics or do product analyses.
Spurred on by Renee Webster (@reneewebs) and @chemtacular I have decided to write my first chemistry blog post! This post is a response to the “blogversation” between @reneewebs and @chemtacular concerning the ongoing use of the word chemophobia.
Let’s continue the discussion by talking about words. Words like chemist, chemical or organic. It seems to me that we do a lot of talking about semantics. The word “organic” is derived from the Greek organikos meaning “of, or pertaining to an organ” and was later generalised to “from organized living beings” in the 1700s. Eventually the term was taken on by chemists to mean “carbon containing compounds” and then confusingly popularised to mean “free from peticides and fertilizers” in 1942. The definition is now purely contextual.
I feel we’re slowly losing the word “chemical”. To us chemists, it is a catch all for every material thing in the universe that is made of atoms. To the public it increasingly refers to synthetically produced materials. I’ve asked friends and family what they think when they hear the word “chemical” – you hear words like toxic, synthetic, dangerous. The rise and rise of “chemical free” cookware, teddy bears and assorted goods is capitalising on the growing negativity surrounding the word “chemical”. Don’t even get me started on the whole “made in a lab” thing – I know plenty of great things made in labs (antibiotics, IVF, solar cells, etc etc ).
So, what do we do? How can we improve the perception of chemistry and chemicals? Do we concede that we’ve lost the battle for the word “chemical” or do we fight on?
I see a lot of you fighting. When we see chemistry being referred to in a negative light it is very tempting to cry #chemophobia! However, we should avoid using such loaded language (i.e. irrational fear of chemicals) when it comes to individuals. Flippant use of the hashtag #chemophobia does little but to damage the “brand” of chemistry. That said, the targeted use of “chemical-free” by marketing departments is deplorable and should be highlighted (follow @chemfreebear on twitter!). If a corporation is making a false claim, we should make a complaint to the relevant authority (eg. ACCC).
Let’s not worry too much about finding the perfect hashtag or catch cry. The most important thing is that we all act in a well-reasoned, respectful way. We are all acting as “brand ambassadors” for Chemistry. If you see chemical ignorance – engage and discuss the science. Remind people of the virtues and successes of chemistry! Don’t denigrate, belittle or “punch-down” – remember to laugh with, not at – lest we lose the battle for the public perception of “chemicals”.