Blowing Apart Stereotypes

Google chemistry.  Go to the images tab. What do you see?

Probably a variety of pictures but I’m guessing a significant majority involve laboratory glassware (which is not the sole property of the chemists) filled with brightly coloured liquids.  There’s probably also a couple of your mad professor types in there, and a few images of childhood chemistry sets (ah those were the days…).

It is a load of crap.

Some of the most interesting and exciting chemistry in the world produces the dullest white powders imaginable.  You’ve all experienced them, many people take those chemicals every day in the form of medications.  Other incredibly elegant aspects of chemistry manifest themselves in liquids, gases, solutions and solids of a variety types.  Again, all around us  – we wear them, cook with them, wash ourselves in them and are entertained by them.

I do not understand why a subject of such universal usefulness and elegance must constantly be reduced to a series of food dyes in oddly shaped bottles.  Yes there are coloured chemicals.  Yes, the colour of certain compounds are incredibly beautiful, but if I were to take a poll in my department, I would be able to establish that something like 80+% of the research that goes on involves colourless substances.  I understand that its ‘visually appealing’ and even ‘photogenic’, but look closely at those photos – the majority make no sense at all.  There is no logical scientific reason why those items of glassware have been filled with those concoctions and placed together, and it is not an accurate portrayal of the subject (some may even say it is as much a betrayal as the ‘mad chemist’ stereotype).

When I say I’m a chemist, many people say ‘oh I did that at high school’.  They will follow it up by asking what the pretty blue stuff was.  It is usually copper sulfate.  Then they’ll wistfully recall the moments when an experiment went wrong in a dramatic or amusing way.  Then they’ll say it was too hard for them so they did subject X instead.  I have to get out of the habit of replying to that with ‘I found it easy’ because its a real conversation stopper.

Anyway, I’d like to ban the coloured liquid filled lab-ware nonsense but I’m not sure what it should be replaced with. Any suggestions?

10 thoughts on “Blowing Apart Stereotypes

  1. As an organic chemist, I can agree that most of my compounds are white or yellow, with the black sludge developing when something bad happens. That being said, one of my favorite columns I ever ran consisted of 8 fractions, each a different color, including red, green, yellow, and the product (pyocyanin) which was blue. All this was due to the conjugated double bonds in the materials, rather than any metals. I’ve used it in several lectures to undergrads.

  2. I do not understand why a subject of such universal usefulness and elegance must constantly be reduced to a series of food dyes in oddly shaped bottles

    damn, doesn’t fit into 140 characters, so I can’t retweet it.

  3. It’s just a shorthand symbol, nothing else. Not all artists use oil paints, but most are probably happy to have ‘art’ represented by a pallet. Many musicians improvise or play by ear, but they probably don’t worry about ‘music’ being represented by written musical notation.

    Chemists, be happy that there is any image to connect with you: the existence of such a shorthand would suggest that you’re reasonably high in the public consciousness.

  4. @beckyfh We have a suitable shorthand symbol: its called a molecule. Any chemically accurate small molecule would do.
    In the UK, strange glassware filled with coloured liquids have long been displayed in chemists (as in pharmacies). There is therefore little distinction between a pharmacist or a chemist with regard to the symbol. You wouldn’t class interior designers and painters together with a pallet so why assume that chemists and pharmacists would be content to be similarly grouped?

  5. @ Joe Have you seen this clip on Chem Toddler . It is a really elegant chromatography demonstration that does use pretty colours, but illustrates the technique very well.

  6. @ KJHaxton – It’s interesting that you should suggest a molecule as a symbol. Something that is a model rather than reality, and, as a model, probably liable to change in the future. At least lab glassware has always been part (if only part) of chemistry’s long history, and is likely to remain in use for a long time to come. If you show most people a row of test tubes in a rack (with coloured liquids in, if course) they will say ‘chemistry’. I’d be genuinely interested to know what they would say if you showed them a molecule. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it, of course.

    As for the chemistry/pharmacy confusion – don’t most people (in UK at least) call the shop that sells make-up and medicines a chemist?

  7. Molecular structure is a model and in many cases a convenience, however with recent research like the AFM of Pentacene, the model is getting very close to that which is observable.

    My problem with glassware is also that it is not the sole property of chemistry. Molecules aren’t either but the synthesis of small molecules is well within chemical territory. Part of me would also like to reclaim the term ‘chemical’ as a positive thing rather than the nasty cancer causing toxin so often reported in the media!

    The chemist/pharmacist thing is getting a wee bit better now that ‘Boots the Chemist’ is simply ‘Boots’. I’ve been asked a couple of times by folk, on hearing that I’m a chemist, when I plan to get my own shop!

  8. Ha! Though it’s perhaps not quite as bad as the perennial astronomer/astrologer confusion…

    Couldn’t agree more about countering the idea that chemicals=bad.

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