The Chemical Me (2011 edition)

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In the last week, some of the best science bloggers in the country have put together lists of their favorite pieces done in 2011. My fellow PLoS blogger, John Rennie, has put together an astonishingly good compilation in a post on The Gleaming Retort.

In fact the complication is so good – not only John’s terrific work, but Jennifer Oullette, David Dobbs, Matthew Harper, Ed Yong, Ivan Oransky, Chris Mims…anyway, I spent so much time lost in reading their work that I suddenly realized that I had exactly one day (today) to pull together anything regarding my own brilliant efforts.

I’d like to start by reminding all that 2011 is the International Year of Chemistry.
Back in January, I suggested a New Year’s Resolution: ‘Let’s resolve to give up the ridiculous, the misleading, the this-is-simply-not-possible-so-just-let-it-go phrase “chemical-free”.’

Somehow, this idea has failed to catch fire (except among a few like-minded chemistry crusaders).  As I discovered during 2011, even Science magazine occasionally allows the chemical-free idea to seep into its news reporting.  As does The New York Times, which as I noted in this piece caused me to smack myself in the face with the newspaper.  That definitely showed them.

I have at least convinced my family that it’s ridiculous to call something chemical-free when everything on the entire planet, including ourselves, is created by chemicals. Of course, I may also have persuaded them that I’m a crank.

Recently, I was at a health food bakery with my younger son and, sure enough, painted on the window along with statements about sprouted wheat and unbleached flour was the phrase “chemical-free” products. I reached in my purse to whip out my phone and document the outrage.

“No, mom, no,” my son begged. “Can’t we just go in and buy the bread? Quietly?”

This is the same son who’s been studying the periodic table with me. I believe I called that post “Periodic Craziness.” I wrote it for every parent struggling to share academic enthusiasm but I also wrote it as a tribute to basic gorgeousness of the Period Table.

I’ve been a chemistry blogger for almost two years now. And as we live in a chemical word, that opens up a dizzyingly unlimited scope. So I’ve tended to focus on “chemistry and culture”, the way we navigate, alter, appreciate, and sometimes fear the intricately spun chemical web in which we live. Or sometimes just tried to illuminate the chemistry in news events. Probably the most high-profile post I wrote this year was done in response to the pepper-spraying of student protests at UC-Davis. Called  About Pepper Spray, it became a guest blog for Scientific American and was eventually picked up so many places that I ended up talking about it on the Rachel Maddow Show.

One of my personal blog favorites evolved unexpectedly from my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook. I’d told the story of a series of arsenic killings in 1922; the murderer was never caught. But the nephew of one of the victims wrote to me, saying that his aunt’s death had long been a family mystery and he was surprised and glad to find her in the book. With his permission, I told a longer story about Lillian Goetz, called A Lost Girl, Remembered. The poison, by the way, was arsenic. And in another favorite post, I wrote about the use of arsenic in a fictional murder story, Dorothy L. Sayer’s book, Strong Poison. That post, Instructions for A Deadly Dinner, was done a collaborative look at the science of murder mysteries, along with Ann Finkbeiner and Jennifer Ouellette.

We’re hoping to do it again in the year 2012.  Yes, another year of chemistry blogging, of poisons and politics and – yes, I resolve again to continue anyway on my chemical-free crusade. And if that becomes too frustrating, well there’s always the chemistry of cookies. That never fails to improve a year.

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The Chemical Me (2011 edition) by PLOS Blogs Network, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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