This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Science TV

A blog over at Wired laments the lack of science news coverage on cable TV. In a recent study, science (or science related) coverage amounted to an average of only 6 minutes during a 5 hour viewing period. The blogger (Brandon Keim) mentions “the complexity of scientific topics and the superficiality of cable news” as one possible reason, but without much conviction. I suspect this is part of the answer, but I believe it’s more than that. The TV news industry has conditioned itself to thinking in terms of 10-30 second soundbites. It’s hard enough (impossible some would say) to fit non-science news items into these bites; trying to do that with science news is next to impossible. Newscasters often appear uncomfortable when discussing science, as if they’re afraid to say the wrong thing. And as SpongeBob’s friend Sandy puts it “Science makes everything sound painful.” (The kids were watching it, I swear!)

In a subsequent post on the subject, Keim also asks “Could the failure of cable news networks to cover science be a good thing?” Considering some of the problems associated with news reporting, it’s a valid question. If the reporter or journalist has no science background, just managing to get the story correct can be problematic.

Years ago I was a part of an NSF undergraduate research project studying the use of potassium ferrate (K2FeO4) as a water purification agent. Typically, FeCl3 is added to waste water to generate Fe(OH)3 (or FeOOH), which precipitates and sinks to the bottom of the tank, pulling out impurities. This is followed by the addition of chlorine to kill bacteria and other nasty critters. FeO42- also forms Fe(OH)3 but with the added bonus that it oxidizes organic compounds present in the water, removing them prior to the addition of chlorine, which supposedly results in the production of fewer chlorinated organic compounds which may increase the risk of cancer. At one point during that summer, a reporter from a local newspaper came by for an interview, and the advantages of ferrate was explained to him in what we thought were rather simple terms. There was much amusement in the lab a few days later when the newspaper article described how FeO42- destroys cancer causing bacteria.

But even science journalists can miss the boat on a science story. Consider this report on acupuncture in which the author (the health editor) totally missed the point of the results. “Acupuncture is best way to treat back pain, study finds” was the author’s conclusion, although the results clearly demonstrated that random insertion of needles produced just as good of results as traditional acupuncture.

Science will always be playing second fiddle to the rest of the news.

No comments: