Clearing the Smoke (Page 3)

Clearing the Smoke (Page 3) McGill University

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ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
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Clearing the Smoke (Page 3)

The idea was radical for a university. "They just don't do this sort of thing," says Harpp. As a result, McGill's initiative is not merely "the best thing of its sort in southern Quebec," he stresses. "It's the only one in the world."

Not that other people don't believe they should exist. Indeed, in the August 26, 2002, issue of Chemical & Engineering News, Attila Pavlath, past president of the American Chemical Society, impresses upon his fellow scientists the need to be "continuously educating the general public about the benefits chemistry has brought and will continue to provide for our everyday life." He proposes a "Center for the Public Image of Chemistry," which would correct media misrepresentations of chemistry, follow new beneficial discoveries, create awareness about past inventions and discoveries, and serve as a reliable source for news media. In fact, Harpp points out happily, Pavlath is calling for something just like the OCS -- and, in September, he visited McGill to see exactly how such a thing is done.

This cookie didn't crumble. Joe Schwarcz performs a little magic in the lab.

For the three members of the OCS, their commitment to sharing the wonders of chemistry has brought a flood of recognition and awards, in addition to attention from peers such as Pavlath. In 1992 they shared the Royal Society of Canada's McNeil Medal for the Public Awareness of Science, and in 1993 the Beppo Award for Communicating Science to the Public, given by the Conseil de Développement du Loisir Scientifique du Québec. Fenster received the 1999 Raymond Gervais Award for Exceptional Contribution to Science Education, given by the Quebec Association of Science Teachers, while Harpp is the 2001 recipient of McGill University's Principal's Prize for Excellence in Teaching. A short selection of the accolades sent Schwarcz's way includes the American Chemical Society's prestigious Grady-Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public in 1999, and in June 2002, an honorary doctorate from Athabaska University in Alberta, where he also gave the convocation address.

Throughout the various media activities and presentations, teaching remains a priority. Schwarcz, Fenster and Harpp collaborate on "The World of Chemistry" credit courses for students from across the University. As with everything else they do, it is a state-of-the-art pedagogical performance, and is not surprisingly one of the most popular electives on campus.

Says Fenster, "Students don't have a chance to get bored." Images come fast and furiously -- some hardcore scientific information, some whimsical digressions (on a class on acid rain, Harpp takes his students through a brief commentary of Magritte's umbrellas and other art works). In addition, the three intersperse and trade off classes, so students arrive not knowing which of their three professors will be teaching on any given day. And they are on the cutting edge of educational technology: all classes are recorded and posted on the Internet so that students wherever they are can follow the course. Indeed, anyone can, simply by going to

As Fenster notes, "Students will register not only because it's an interesting course but also because it's got this important option. They're really happy with it." In addition, there are unexpected and delightful consequences of this technology, he points out. "We had a student in general chemistry -- another online course -- whose mother in Iran was going back to school and following the same course as her son in Montreal."

As the audience is broadening, so is the range of material the OCS presents. The team is slowly soliciting McGill professors from other areas of scientific endeavour -- physics, pathology and animal science so far. One day in the not-too-distant future, the OCS will subtly transform into something bigger: the Office for Science and Society. And it too will be the only one in the world.

Want to know more about pre-digested coffee? A home invasion by ants? The connection between your breakfast toast and Napoleon III? McGill Office for Chemistry and Society director Joe Schwarcz has the answers to some everyday chemical questions.

Is chicken soup really good for a cold?

The active ingredient in chicken soup may be the amino acid cysteine. There is some evidence that this compound can lead to thinning of the mucus in the lungs, making it easier to expel. This effect can be increased if the soup is spicy, since spices are also known to trigger mucus secretion.

What popular product was first made in the 19th century from beef tallow, skim milk, cow's udder, pig's stomach and sodium bicarbonate?

Margarine. Emperor Napoleon III had offered a prize to anyone who could find "a suitable substance to replace butter for the navy and less prosperous classes." The French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès had already been working on just such a project and quickly submitted his entry in the competition. He won!

What do Miss Piggy and the World Cup have in common?

Polyurethane. Both the glamorous Miss Piggy, everyone's favorite sow, and the ball used at the World Cup are made of this polymer. At the World Cup, plastic balls that feature polyurethane have replaced the traditional leather balls. The outer skin is made of multiple layers of polyurethane, which coats a layer of foamed polyurethane. The ball doesn't absorb water like leather and its behaviour is highly predictable.

Why do roosters crow in the morning?

Roosters crow to attract a hen. Chickens have been around for roughly 5,000 years and the evolutionary opinion is that back then roosters used to crow all the time because, like men, they were interested in carnal pleasures all day long. But the crowing sound attracted not only hens but predators as well, so roosters took to crowing when they wouldn't be so readily found. This was at times of low light, like dawn or dusk.

Kopi Luak coffee costs several hundred dollars a pound. What on earth makes it so expensive?

The coffee beans have been put through a living machine called the Javan civet cat. The luak is a species of civet cat found only on the island of Java in Indonesia. Like all civet cats it possesses anal scent glands which secrete a fluid with a characteristic odour. The luak apparently loves coffee. But it is very particular in its taste. It only eats the choicest beans. The luak's digestive system, however, cannot handle the coffee beans very well and most of them are secreted a few hours after being eaten in a partially digested form. Somehow the contact with the animal's digestive juices changes the chemistry of the beans. When these beans are roasted, the coffee they produce is extremely tasty and full-bodied.

What can be done about ants in the house?

Ant traps can be made by mixing a quarter cup of sugar, a quarter cup of baking yeast and a half cup of molasses and smearing this goop in a thin layer on index cards. The cards are then placed syrup side up where ants travel. To keep the ants from showing up in the first place, you can boil 2 tablespoons of sassafras leaves and 2 cups of water for five minutes and strain the mixture. Then paint where you have seen ants enter. Moldy lemons also repel ants, as do bay leaves. But perhaps the best repellent is cloves.

If all of this fails, just sit back and watch the ants. They are amazing little creatures and really don't do anybody any harm. They admittedly do like to scurry around everywhere, but that's understandable. As Ogden Nash said: "Would you be calm and placid, if you were filled with formic acid?"

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