Let’s Get Smelling

It’s that time again people. Time to talk chemistry. Today I want to discuss a couple of articles I came across the fabulous site Compound Chem and what they got me thinking about.

First up I read “The Chemistry of Wild Garlic.” It talked about the compounds that give garlic its smell. These sulfoxides are the cause of that pesky garlic breath and a warning for the woodsman. The sulfur leaves a stench. However, garlic still is tasty. Some poisonous plants happen to look mighty similar to wild garlic. Fortunately for us they don’t share the production of sulfoxides making the garlic easily distinguishable.  But what good do they do the plants? Well in addition to all those fun features for humans they help the plants by serving as an antifungal and antibacterial compound. The sulfur in the compounds interferes with the biological processes in the cells. All around those sulfoxides sure are handy.

Next came an article about bearcats. These animals are endangered but given their delicious smell I can imagine why. Yeah, yeah my bad. I know it’s a little too soon to be joking about endangered species. Anyways I digress. Back to the topic at hand, these animals smell remarkably like buttered popcorn. In fact in a manner of speaking you could say they’re in the same family. Bearcats excrete fluids that contain the same compound, 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, that gives buttered popcorn its smell. But before you try to bring one to the movies for a never-ending supply of buttery goodness I should warn you. Those excretions I mentioned earlier are found in the bearcats’ urine. The good smell doesn’t have any concrete positive implications for the animal at this time but it’s hypothesized it might be some sort of method for communicating. Either way I personally hope they figure out a way to duplicate the process. It would certainly make cleaning out the kitty litter more bearable.

These articles got me thinking on smell. As a sense it seems sort of undervalued in today’s society. Everything is about audio and visual. But smell can be just as important. It lets us know what’s up when our other senses fail us. You can often smell gas before you can see it. Olfaction can save lives. For another example, although our own sense of smell is a little weak our companions are superior. Dogs and cats both will be able to smell something wrong like a fire long before we will and they can warn us accordingly. Those little bitty particles in the air that we detect are also a marvelous indicator of good food. If something smells good it usually is. With the exception of coffee in my opinion. This process of smelling recalls me to my last chemistry class when we discussed solutions. Solutions can even be mixtures of gases. The presence of one gas can sometimes be measured in extremely small units parts per billion for example. It would be interesting to find out just how sensitive the human nose is, if it could pick up on something in the parts per billion. In general, I guess it’s important to remember you have 5 senses and you should use them.

And as always we have something that relies on chemistry. Chemistry holds the world together from the smallest atom to the biggest person the discipline is at work. As I prepare to end my first chemistry class I look forward to the next one and learning more about a study so intertwined with everyday life.


Chemistry Matters Symposium

I recently had the pleasure of attending this year’s Chemistry Matters Symposium. My own presentation focused on reuse of old tires. However, there were a wide array of topics from dogs sniffing landmines to the chemistry of running a marathon. Out of all of these presentations there were three that really stood out to me. One dealing with the chemistry of coffee, another with kitty litter, and the third with clean drinking water.

The chemistry of coffee presentation discussed the various health benefits of the beverage. I found it particularly interesting how the caffeine from coffee is able to bind with the brain cells’ adenosine receptors because it shares a similar chemical structure with adenosine. The adenosine molecules, which regulate sleepiness, are replaced by the caffeine, which excites the brain cells, and this process helps people stay awake. The presentation then went on to discuss how other chemicals in coffee benefitted the body such as antioxidants protecting against free radicals. In general, I found the presentation very informative. Another reason why it stood out was I thought the presenter seemed particularly enthusiastic. In addition, they seemed well-rehearsed and knowledgeable about the topic. The conclusion was especially well done because it provoked further thought on coffee by questioning whether the beverage really is good for us.

The second presentation I thought stood out was one about kitty litter. This presentation went through a chronological progression of the advancements in cat litter. The graphic of bentonite clay, one common component, was well explained. The clay adsorbs the water and ammonia ions from the waste serving to trap the odor and wetness. The organization of this presentation was one of the things that made it stand out to me. It really flowed quite nicely. Also, I think for the most part they made good use of images. Unlike in some of the other presentations the presenter did a good job a fully explaining their images and tying them into the rest of the presentation.

The third presentation that caught my attention talked about various methods of cleaning drinking water. First, they gave some background information on problems with arsenic poisoning in India. They then discussed three potential solutions. The solution I found particularly interesting was a powder which served to both disinfect and rid the water of arsenic. The reaction with the arsenic and the ferric sulfate in the powder caused the arsenic to precipitate out of the water. This presentation stood out to me largely because its topic seemed so significant. I thought this project did the best job demonstrating why chemistry matters. It showed that chemistry can be used to save lives. Furthermore, I think this project did well explaining the chemistry involved in the various solutions.

Watching all of the presentations really made me think more about my own and what I could have done better. The three that most stood out to me really brought to my attention some of my weaknesses. I definitely could have been more enthusiastic like the chemistry of coffee presenter. My images could have been better tied into my presentation. I also  probably should have gone more in depth into the chemistry involved in my social issue. I think these are areas I will be able to improve upon for future presentations.

In conclusion, I think the symposium was a success. The various projects were able to show that chemistry makes problems, provides solutions, and plays a part in pretty much everything. Chemistry is all around us and even in us. It matters.

False Advertising

*A clip from the movie Elf

I wanted to start with this clip because I think it shows how truly ridiculous advertising has become. Just because you label something with a certain description doesn’t make it so. Clearly the world’s best cup of coffee is not actually found in that little shop. A good real-world example of this is labelling something healthy. Almost every food and beverage nowadays tries to portray itself as healthy in some way. Nutella recently got burned for its claims to be a health food losing a lawsuit and being forced to change its marketing. However, labelling and advertising methods continue to sell because people often forget to check that miniscule nutrition label on the back.

            The grocery shopper of my family has fallen victim to these tactics before. The world of juice seems to be a realm of particular treachery. Brands such as V8 that one thinks would be healthy end up containing very little juice and a lot of high fructose corn syrup. In general, there is a fad for all things natural right now. People are crazy these days for everything organic and chemical free.

Some “Chemical-Free soap” for your viewing pleasure:

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            As a chemistry student this label of chemical free is particularly amusing because at least from a chemistry standpoint it is preposterous. I was rather amused the other day when I saw a chemical free hand soap in Walmart. Soap is after all designed to kill bacteria so of course it has chemicals in it. Furthermore, from a chemist’s standpoint everything is made of chemical components. Everything is made up of atoms and molecules. What they really mean is that the soap contains all natural ingredients and is free of harsh chemicals. Even natural ingredients are made up of the elements though. Also, harsh chemicals definitely shouldn’t be used as a blanket for all chemicals. When I got back to my dorm I looked up the soap (Beesential Foaming Hand Soap). The ingredient list mostly contained a variety of plant extracts. Life is carbon based so aren’t those just natural chemicals?

            This brings me to another issue we mentioned briefly in my chemistry class. Are synthetic compounds different than natural ones? The general public certainly seems to think so. It seems to me that they may be wrong though. On the one hand this is true for things where different synthetic substances are substituted for healthier natural ones. For example, high fructose corn syrup used as a sugar substitute is much worse for you. However, with chemistry it is possible to produce compounds the same as those found in nature. If a chemist were to make water it would still be water. H2O is H2O no matter how it was made. Despite this ability to replicate questions are still often raised. Many livestock are treated with growth hormones. This greatly increases production but could potentially result in human health problems. One has to weigh the benefits and the risks.

            In general, chemicals seem to be misunderstood. Sure the family has a few bad cousins but should that give them all a bad reputation? The world around us and in fact including us are made up of chemicals.  Maybe the advertisers should be sued for their mistakes like Nutella. Personally, I’m willing to forgive them. After all perhaps not all of them have been enlightened by the intro chemistry course.