« Older Entries


plastic bottles“I hate plastics. We should get rid of them.” So began an email I received. The correspondent went on to talk about how plastics are a plague on the environment, how they contain chemicals that contaminate our food supply, disrupt our hormones, cause autism and ADHD and use up valuable petroleum deposits. What prompted the email was some comments I made about different plastics having different properties and how there were some concerns with some but not with others. The disturbing part of the message was the insinuation that I must be in the pockets of the plastic industry since I did not agree that plastics were substances forged in hell. That allegation is easy to answer. I get zero funding from the petroleum or plastics industries. My allegiance is to the scientific method. Where that path leads, I go.

It is true that plastics can be an environmental plague. But plastic shopping bags don’t jump into rivers or trees by themselves, and empty bottles that should be recycled don’t leap into garbage cans unaided. People are the problem. As far as using up petroleum resources, only about 5% of oil goes towards plastic manufacture, and in North America the prime raw material is actually not petroleum but natural gas. I should add that while plastics are mostly made from fossil fuels, this is not the case exclusively. Polylactic acid, widely used today, is made from corn and there is extensive research in the area of “green chemistry” to produce a variety of polymers from plant products.

What about the bit about contamination of our food supply? Anytime two surfaces come into contact, there is an exchange of chemicals. Indeed, it is possible that trace amounts of plastic chemicals with endocrine disruptive properties may end up in our food supply, but the dose is so small that any sort of harmful effect is very unlikely. Heat increases the release of chemicals, so it is better to use glass or ceramic for warming up food, although plastics labeled as microwave safe contain no easily leached components. As far as ADHD and autism go, the fact is that nobody knows the cause. There is much speculation ranging from genetics and microbiome imbalances to environmental contaminants but plastic ingredients would come way down the list. It is true that we can definitely live without plastic microbeads in cosmetics and even without synthetic fabrics, although resorting to cotton poses a whole range of other problems. But the suggestion to get rid of plastics is simple-minded nonsense that amounts to lack of seeing the forest for the trees.

Our life today depends on plastics. They are vital components of our airplanes, our cars, our buildings, our TV sets, our food production and drug manufacturing equipment, as well as numerous consumer goods ranging from shampoo bottles to shower curtains and toothbrushes. Yes, you could make toothbrushes from wood and pig bristles, but nylon is a lot better. Modern medicine could not function without plastics. Intravenous tubing, blood bags, burn dressings, artificial limbs, heart-lung machines, artificial joints, pacemakers, MRI machines, CAT scanners and x-ray equipment and white dental fillings rely on plastics. And just try to make a computer without plastics. Right now you are reading this on a computer or cell phone that could not function without plastics. Mr. McGuire in the Graduate was right: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Benjamin: Yes, sir. Mr. McGuire: Are you listening? Benjamin: Yes, I am. Mr. McGuire: Plastics!”


Joe Schwarcz

A Tale of Two Bracelets

braceletThis is a tale of two bracelets. One brandishes flagrant nonsense, the other flirts with some clever science. We begin with a perplexing question I was asked while wandering through a mall in Phoenix. “How would you like to experience the benefits of nature captured in holographic frequencies?” Sniffing that some delicious twaddle was coming my way, I answered that I was keen to resonate with nature.

It turned out all I had to do was put on a “Power Balance” bracelet “imprinted with frequencies that would interact in a positive way with my body’s energy field.” I would feel better, aches and pains would resolve, my balance would improve and I would feel stronger. All because the unnatural vibrations produced by the likes of sugar, synthetic chemicals and cell phones would be neutralized by the frequencies embedded in the wristband’s hologram. Would I like proof, I was asked? Naturally!

I was then instructed to raise my right arm parallel to the ground and resist any attempt to push it down. I tried, but the salesman had no problem overcoming my resistance. He then slipped the bracelet on my left hand, and in spite of a convincing struggle on his part, my right arm hardly budged. “Energy is related to frequency,” I was informed.

My protagonist, who was a rather muscular young man, was also sporting a Power Balance bracelet which prompted me to ask how it was that its energy did not cancel out that of mine. This did seem to raise a point he had not previously considered, but he managed to mutter something about the benefits being greater if more unnatural frequencies had to be overcome. Do you eat only organic food, he asked? Not only, I answered somewhat ambiguously. His contended nod suggested the matter had been resolved.

Now it was my turn. I didn’t think there was much point in discussing how it was indeed true that energy was proportional to frequency through Planck’s constant, but that the frequency referred to was that of electromagnetic radiation and had nothing to do with the human body which does not have any innate “resonance.” Instead of trying to dam the river of the rapidly flowing pseudoscientific guck with scientific explanations, which I suspected would get us nowhere, I proposed my own experiment. I asked if the position of my left hand mattered, eliciting a chuckle. No, all that mattered was whether I was wearing the wristband or not. Good!

We would follow the same procedure as before, but this time I would put my left hand, which would either be sporting a bracelet or not, behind my back. His task was to determine if I was energized or not! Given our chat, he didn’t have much choice but agree. I suggested ten trials. He guessed right four times. Yes, “guessed” is the right term because there is no science here. But neither is there necessarily fraud. Perhaps in his eagerness to make a sale the young man didn’t realize that he was subconsciously exerting less effort when I was wearing the bracelet.

How then do we explain the legions of athletes and celebrities who claim all sorts of benefits? Mind over matter is the real power in the Power Balance Bracelet! As I subsequently learned, the marketers of the bracelet in Australia actually admitted as much after experiments, much like my ad hoc one, unmasked the product. Sales quickly went belly up. The bracelets are still sold here, but the claims are of the weasel variety: “Power Balance is a favourite among elite competitors, weekend warriors, and everyday fitness enthusiasts. The hologram is designed based on Eastern philosophies. Many Eastern philosophies contain ideas related to energy.”

I’m more in favour of ideas related to science. And a new company, MyExposome, run by real scientists, has a good one. Supported by published proof of principle, the plan is to furnish people with a silicone bracelet that absorbs chemicals with which it comes in contact either from the air or from bodily secretions. Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, the bracelets will then be analyzed for some 1400 chemicals, including controversial ones like flame retardants and phthalates. The company will not offer any advice on whether a particular chemical has any specific benefit or harm because presently there isn’t enough known to make such judgments. Hopefully, though, the data collected can eventually determine levels of exposure and any possible risks. MyExposome’s scientific approach may give us real “power” to “balance” chemicals in our lives.

Joe Schwarcz

Seeds of Hope

seeds of hopeWhy would anyone oppose a technology that dramatically increases crop yields and protects farmers from excessive exposure to pesticides? Because of irrational fears about the technology involved, which is of course genetic modification. A battle is now brewing in India and Bangladesh over the planting of eggplant that has been genetically modified to resist attack by insects. Eggplant is a staple in many dishes in India and Bangladesh but unfortunately the plant is susceptible to attack by the fruit and shoot borer and farmers have to spray to prevent infestation on a regular basis.

Most farmers are poor and are not well trained in pesticide use and put themselves at risk. But a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis can be incorporated into the eggplant’s genome and the plant will then secrete a protein that kills insects but is harmless to humans. Activists have organized protests with people dressed up like giant eggplants carrying placards about Indians being lab rats and companies putting poison into the food supply. Their cause is championed by environmentalist Vandana Shiva who suggests that GMO means God Move Over. She also claims that with genetically modified seeds giant corporations are trying to control all of agriculture. In fact the genetically modified eggplant seed is being donated for free by Monsanto and farmers will be allowed to propagate Bt eggplant using seeds from plants they have grown without having to pay any royalties. It is estimated that the technology could raise yields by about a third through controlling pests and go a long way towards solving the malnutriton and hunger problems that plague India and Bangladesh.

Of course hunger isn’t limited to these countries. In Africa cassava is a staple crop for some 250 million people. But two viruses can ravage the crop. One destroys leaves, the other, called brown streak virus, destroys the roots, something that isn’t evident until harvest time. These viruses are transmitted by the whitefly whose range is expanding due to climate change. Researchers are working on developing genetically modified strains of cassava that are immune to the brown streak virus. Of course, nobody is suggesting that genetic modification is the only answer to the whitefly problem. Planting rows of Tithonia diversifolia, a wild sunflower that whiteflies prefer, can also draw these pests away from cassava. Modern farming technology should be based on using the best combination of practices and in many cases that means the appropriate use of genetically modified seeds. Why deter farmers from using methods based on sound facts by promoting mythical fears?


Joe Schwarcz

The oPhone

ophoneYour cell phone wakes you up in the morning. No big deal. You reach over to turn off the alarm, touch another button, and suddenly the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts into your nose. But no point reaching for the cup, there isn’t one. The scent is drifting out from the phone! If you would rather wake up to the odour frying bacon and toast, that’s possible too. Welcome to the wonderful world of the “oPhone.” And we are not talking science fiction here; the oPhone already exists and will be hitting the market soon. Not only will you be able to entertain your nasal passages with a multitude of fragrances, you will also be able to send scent messages. Imagine irritating your friends back home with the scent of tropical fruit along with a picture of yourself swinging in a hammock and sipping a pina colada somewhere in the tropics. Of course your friends will have to be equipped with an oPhone.

So what makes this magic happen? A set of eight replaceable chips, each containing four “building-block scents” that can be dispensed in response to an electronic signal. The 32 basic smells can be combined to dispense a fantastic array of aromas. Select “meaty,” “cheesy” and “grilled toast,” and you’ll conjure up the odour of a cheeseburger. And of course you can experiment. Who knows what sort of a whiff you’ll get by pushing the “cocoa beans” and “meaty” buttons?

It sounds like the oPhone could be a lot of fun, but can this technology be put to some useful purpose? Maybe. You just finished dinner and there is that delectable dessert staring you in the face. You know you shouldn’t indulge, but it looks so good. Perhaps you’ll whip out your oPhone, push a button and the unpleasant smell of rotting meat will kill your appetite. There is even the possibility of diagnosing early Alzheimer’s disease. The inability to recognize certain scents has been linked with the early stage of this disease. And maybe the oPhone can even deal with the situation by helping with memory. Studies have shown that reading something while being exposed to a scent can lead to improved recall in the presence of the same scent. Trigger a smell from your phone as you put down your keys. When you want to find them again, push the button for the same scent and you’ll remember where you put them. Maybe. Of course this method won’t work to find a lost oPhone.

Joe Schwarcz

Space molecules are branching out

molecule found in spaceIn a paper published in this week’s issue of Science, astronomers from the Max Planck institute, the University of Cologne (Germany) and Cornell University (USA), announced to have for the first time detected, in interstellar space, a carbon-containing molecule with a branched structure. The molecule, isopropyl cyanide (i-C3H7CN), was discovered in a gas cloud called Sagittarius B2 close to the center of our galaxy. This region of ongoing star formation is heavily scrutinized by astronomers as it has been shown to be especially rich in hydrogen-containing, carbon-bearing (organic) molecules that are most closely related to the ones necessary for life on Earth. “Understanding the production of organic material at the early stages of star formation is critical to piecing together the gradual progression from simple molecules to potentially life-bearing chemistry,” says Arnaud Belloche from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, the lead author of the paper. Previous research had revealed the presence of a variety of molecules, (including ethylformate, the molecule responsible for the flavor of raspberries!) but until now they all consisted in a backbone of straight chain carbon atoms. The branched isopropyl cyanide (i-C3H7CN) is of special interest as this type of molecular arrangement is a key characteristic of amino acids, compounds associated with life

It is not only the structure of the molecule that surprised the team but also its abundance. It is almost half as plentiful as its sister molecule, normal-propylcyanide (n- C3H7CN). According to one of the coauthors, Robin Garrod, an astrochemist at Cornell University, “…the enormous abundance of iso-propyl cyanide suggests that branched molecules may in fact be the rule, rather than the exception, in the interstellar medium”. The two molecules, each consisting of 12 atoms, are also the joint-largest molecules yet detected in any star-forming region.

The molecule was identified from its spectroscopic fingerprint using the newly established radio telescope station in the Atacama Desert in Chile. The area, the driest spot on earth, is especially suited for this type of observation. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), consisting of 66 radio antennas, most 12 meters in diameter, can create images that would require a 14,000 m single dish. Costing about US $1.4 billion it is the most expensive ground-based telescope on earth. It became fully operational in March 2013.

Find out more about ALMA, and interstellar science, by coming to the 2014 Trottier Symposium “Are We Alone”, Monday October 6 and Tuesday October 7th, “… it will be out of this world.”

 Ariel Fenster

Thomas Donaldson and cryonics

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 12.32.34 PMMost people would like to keep their heads. But don’t count Thomas Donaldson among them. This mathematician and computer consultant wanted his cut off.  And he wanted it to be done while he was still alive. In one of the most bizarre court cases in history, Donaldson petitioned the State of California to allow him to be anesthetized and then be frozen solid with liquid nitrogen. He then wanted his head removed and placed in a stainless steel thermos bottle while the rest of his body was discarded.

Donaldson was not mad, not completely anyway. In the 1970s he had become interested in cryonics, the study of the behavior of matter at low temperatures. He had read about the potential of frozen tissues to be thawed out for future use and when he heard of a company that was looking for people to be frozen with hopes of future resuscitation, he jumped. Alcor was founded in the 1970s in California, where else, with hopes of enlisting people who would be flash frozen after death and stored in liquid nitrogen until technology evolved to the degree that not only could they be brought back to life, but whatever disease they died of, could be cured. In 1975 Donaldson signed up for the program. Unfortunately, thirteen years later he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He concluded that if he waited to die, his brain would be so ravaged by the tumor that any hope of bringing him back to life at some future date would be lost. But if he were immediately frozen, the tumor would be stopped in its tracks.

Only his head needed to be kept, Donaldson maintained, because by the time he would be “reanimated” scientists would easily be able to clone the rest of his body from his cells. The only problem was that the authorities made it clear that any technician who took part in this weird experiment would be charged with murder. Hence Donaldsons’s court petition to allow himself to be frozen. It was his constitutional right, he claimed, to determine when and how he would die. The court did not agree and neither did the California Superior court which denied the petition. So Donaldson grumbled and waited to die, which he did in 2006. His body was frozen and now is stored in a cryogenic container at Alcor. As far as we know his head is still attached. That’s unlike baseball great Ted Williams whose head sits in a neighbouring much smaller container…


Joe Schwarcz


exoplanetsI’ve long been fascinated by space travel. I think I was first turned onto the idea back around 1957 with one of the first television shows I remember watching. “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger” was a kind of space policeman who would blast off from Earth and travel to other heavenly bodies where wicked aliens needed to be taken care of. There was no explanation as to where these worlds were, or how it was that the aliens always spoke English. I think the only concession to science was that Rocky’s spaceship looked like a German V-2 rocket which was also the prototype for the Redstone rocket that allowed Alan Shepard to become the first American in space in 1961. By that time I was hooked on space travel and was riveted to the TV set as Shepard was launched into his suborbital flight.

Then in 1965 along came Lost in Space, a television series that actually had smidgens of science. The plot centered around a family who set out from an overpopulated Earth to colonize a planet circling the star Alpha Centauri. At the time the show was produced no planets outside the ones that orbit our sun had been discovered. But the show was actually set in 1997, which is interesting because the first planeting orbiting a sun other than our own was discovered in 1995. More than 300 “exoplanets” as they are called have been discovered since. The show also paid some attention to the huge distances involved in space travel by having the travelers be frozen in some sort of state of suspended animation, only to be reanimated when approaching their target which had been chosen because space probes had revealed that the planet possessed ideal conditions for human life.

Lost in Space overlapped with the most successful of the TV science fiction shows which of course was Star Trek, debuting in 1966. The show was set in the twenty-third century so as to allow for ample passage of time to have developed the scientific wonders like phasers, beamers and travel at warp speed. The latter was necessary because it allowed travel faster than the speed of light which would be needed to travel to the diverse planets visited by Captain Kirk and his crew. Watching all these shows was great fun. And still is. But how far are they from reality? Unfortunately very, very far. That’s because the distance that would have to be travelled to get to a planet outside our solar system is almost unimaginable. Tremendous publicity was given this year to the discovery of the first planet, Kepler-186f, that may be sort of a cousin to Earth because it may have liquid water. How far is it? About 490 light years away. So when we see Kepler-186f we are really seeing that planet as it was 490 years ago, that is how long it took for the light to reach us. And how far have we travelled in space? We have made it to the moon. That is 1.2 light seconds away! So visiting other planets or being visited by aliens that may be out there remains firmly entrenched in science fiction.

Joe Schwarcz

Electronic Waste

electronic wasteSome people are concerned about radiation from cell phones possibly causing brain tumours. Others worry about exposure to wi-fi causing cancer. And now I’m getting questions about whether cell phones are toxic because they contain benzene. No, cell phones do not contain benzene. Where does this notion come form? A misinterpretation of a quest by some environmental groups to have Apple in China stop using benzene along with another solvent, hexane, in the production of electronic equipment such as cell phones. This is a very legitimate endeavour but it is not the cell phone user who is at risk, it is the workers involved in the production of the equipment.

Proper functioning of the circuitry embedded in electronic chips requires that they be free of any dirt, and the same goes for touch screens. Benzene is an excellent solvent for cleaning chips and hexane is used to rinse touch screens. But there is a problem. Benzene is a carcinogen and hexane can affect the nervous system. As I often say, there are no safe or dangerous chemicals, only safe or dangerous ways to uses them. And unfortunately in China safety standards are lax and workers are commonly exposed to dangerous amounts of benzene and hexane. The incidence of leukemia due to benzene is unusually high, as are neurological symptoms due to hexane. Instituting proper safety systems with specialized ventilation is not likely to happen, but safer alternative solvents are available. Rubbing alcohol can be used instead of benzene and heptane is safer than hexane. This might add a little extra cost but would save a great deal of misery.

The solvents used in production are only one of the problems associated with our massive reliance on electronic goods. What to do with discarded equipment is a huge issue. Recycling usable parts is an obvious goal, but it only pays if cheap labour can be found. And that is available in China. There is valuable gold in microchips, as well as silver. There’s lots of copper in electronics, as well as palladium, platimun and ruthenium. There’s also iron, zinc, aluminum, cobalt, indium, gallium and selenium. All these have recyclable value. And then there are the hazardous metals suc as mercury, lead, beryllium, arsenic, cadmium and antimony. There’s also glass and various plastics.

The problem of course is to separate all these components which is a requirement for recycling. Workers often use bare hands to break the equipment apart and then heat the circuit boards to remove chips and solders, burn wires to get at copper and use strong acids to extract gold. Plastic parts are often incinerated to leave metals behind. Since polyvinyl chloride is a common plastic, there is a serious issue with the release of dioxins, highly toxic chemicals that form when chlorine containing organic compounds are heated to a high temperature. Nearby water get polluted and children are found to have high levels of lead. By law China is not supposed to import electronic garbage but nevertheless this happens routinely. And for what sort of pay do workers, many of them children, risk their health? About 17 cents and hour with an average workday being sixteen hours. This is something to think about next time you trade in that phone for one that you don’t really need.


Joe Schwarcz

« Older Entries
Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.