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The right chemistry at last.

The International Year of Chemistry! What a great opportunity to infect the apathetic multitudes with our passion for the science that ties all the other sciences together. It's a chance to take a shot at dispelling the myth that chemicals are synonymous with toxins and that the chemical industry is responsible for the ailments of society. It's also a chance to reflect upon what triggered our interest in chemistry.

My first skirmish with the intricacies of the science came in grade four. In those days we wrote with fountain pens. If a mistake was made, there was only one way to correct it: You used an "ink eradicator." It was a pretty involved process. First, you applied a solution with a little eye dropper and then used a blotter to dry the paper. Then a couple of drops of a second solution were dripped onto the paper and the ink disappeared as if by magic. If you were quick with the blotter you could prevent the paper from yellowing and the appropriate correction could be made. I was amazed by this little bit of chemistry and wondered what was going on. My teacher told me that eventually when I studied chemistry in high school, I would understand. I could hardly wait.

Well, high school came and went and I was no closer to understanding ink eradicators. In fact, the classes were uniquely uninspiring. We mostly memorized formulas and drew endless diagrams of flasks, Bunsen burners and gases being collected in "pneumatic troughs." Where were the discussions of paints, cosmetics and rocket propellants which I had been reading about under "chemistry" in my encyclopedia? These were not topics for high school, the teacher informed me, I would learn about them in university.

So I waited for my first university course in chemistry where we would surely get to the good stuff. We didn't.

Oh, it's not that the course wasn't challenging. There were plenty of quantum mechanical calculations and determinations of ionization potentials and studies of trends in electronegativity to keep me burning the midnight oil. But not a word about where that oil may have come from or why it burned or why the flame was yellow. Wait till organic chemistry, I was told.

And then it finally happened. Professor David Harpp at McGill had the right touch. He talked of blister beetles and antibiotics and insect sex attractants. Everyone in the class just ate it up. But why did I have to wait so long to get to some interesting chemistry? And how many students had been completely turned off along the way?

These notions swirled through my mind when I first started teaching. I resolved to tackle the problem. I knew that students would become just as fascinated by chemistry as I was if only they could be made to see the connections to their daily lives. So we connected a discussion of freezing point depression to the making of ice cream. We linked the concept of solubility with stain removal. And of course, when we talked about oxidation, we talked about ink eradicators.

I'd had the idea of putting all this interesting stuff into a book for a long time. I had long wanted to dispel the image of chemistry as a dangerous, stinky science. I even knew what the book was going to be called. It was going to be "The Right Chemistry." I liked the ring of that title because it had a positive connotation.

I put it all together with a mock-up cover page complete with some stylized chemical concepts. Then I got a call from the publisher. He had been speaking with his salespeople and the consensus opinion was that the title had to be changed. Having the word "chemistry" in the title would not be good for sales.

I was not keen to change the title. I did not want to cater to chemophobia. But I did want to sell books.

So here I am, 11 years and 11 books later: Eleven failed attempts to use the title "The Right Chemistry." I'll give it another shot this year. After all, it is the International Year of Chemistry.

Joe Schwarcz is the director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society. Read his blog at

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Title Annotation:CHEMFUSION
Author:Schwarcz, Joe
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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Next Article:From the editor/De la redactrice en chef.

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