Let’s change the way we talk about changes

It’s nearly the end of the school year here in the U.K., traditionally a time for reflecting on what’s gone before and planning ahead for the shiny, new September coming in a mere nine weeks (sorry, teachers!). With that in mind, let’s talk about something that comes up early in most chemistry syllabuses, and which bothers me a little more each time I think about it.

Chemical reactions occur when a match burns.

It’s the concept of chemical and physical changes. For those who aren’t familiar, this is the idea that changes we observe happening to matter fall into two, broad categories: chemical changes, where new substances are made, and physical changes, where no new substances are made.

Examples of chemical changes include things like burning a match, cooking an egg, or the reaction between vinegar and baking soda. Physical changes are largely changes of state, such as melting and boiling, but also include changes such as dissolving salt in water, or grinding limestone chips to powder.

So far, so good. Except… then we start to put descriptors on these things. And that’s when the trouble starts.

multiple choice exam questionThe first problem comes with the idea that “chemical changes are irreversible.” This is often taught in early secondary science as a straight-up fact, and is so pervasive that it’s even appeared in multiple choice exam questions, like the one shown here. The student, for the record, was expected to choose option C, “the change is irreversible.”

Except. Argh. I can tell you exactly why the student has opted for D, “the change is reversible,” and it’s not because they haven’t done their revision. Quite the opposite, in fact. No, it’s because this student has learned about weak acids. And in learning about acids, this student met this symbol, ⇌, which literally indicates a reversible chemical reaction.

Yes, that’s right. Not too long after teaching students that chemical reactions are not reversible, we then explicitly teach them that they are. Indeed, this idea of chemical reversibility is such a common one, such an important concept in chemistry, that we even have a symbol for it.

Now, of course, I can explain this. When we say chemical reactions are irreversible, what we mean is “generally irreversible if they’re carried out in an open system.” In other words, when the wood in that match burns out in the open, the carbon dioxide and water vapour that form will escape to the atmosphere, never to return, and it’s impossible to recover the match to its original state.

The problem is that many chemical reactions occur in closed systems, not least a lot of reactions that happen in solution. Hence, the whole acids thing, where we talk about weak acids “partially dissociating” into ions.

Then there’s that entire topic on the Haber process…

Can I be the only one to think that this is rather a lot of nuance to expect teenagers to keep in their head? It’s nothing short of confusing. Should we really be saying one thing in one part of a course, and the literal opposite in another? To be clear, this isn’t even a GCSE vs. A level thing – these ideas appear in the same syllabus.

Melting is a change of state, in this case from (solid) ice to (liquid) water.

All right, okay, let’s move along to the idea that physical changes are reversible. That’s much more straightforward, isn’t it? If I melt some ice, I can re-freeze it again? If I boil some water, I can condense it back into the same volume of liquid… well… I can if I collect all vapour. If I do it in a closed system. The opposite of the condition we imposed on the chemical reactions. Er. Anyway…

We might just about get away with this, if it weren’t for the grinding bit. If physical changes are truly readily reversible, then we ought to be able to take that powder we made from the limestone lumps and make it back into a nice single piece again, right? Right?

See, this is the problem. What this is really all about is entropy, but that’s a fairly tricky concept and one that’s not coming up until A level chemistry.

Okay. Instead of talking about reversible and irreversible, let’s talk about bond-breaking and bond-forming. That’s fine, isn’t it? In chemical changes, bonds are broken and formed (yep) and in physical changes, they aren’t.

Except….

Let’s go back to water for a moment. Water has the formula H2O. It’s made up of molecules where one oxygen atom is chemically bonded to two hydrogen atoms. When we boil water, we don’t break any of those bonds. We don’t form hydrogen and oxygen gas when we boil water; making a hot cup of tea would be a lot more exciting if we did. So we can safely say that boiling water doesn’t involve breaking any bonds, right? We-ell…

Water molecules contain covalent bonds, but the molecules are also joined by (much weaker) hydrogen bonds.

The trouble is that water contains something called hydrogen bonds. We usually do a bit of a fudge here and describe these as “intermolecular forces,” that is, forces of attraction between molecules. This isn’t inaccurate. But the clue is in the name: hydrogen bonds are quite, well, bond-y.

When water boils, hydrogen bonds are disrupted. Although the bonds in individual H2O molecules aren’t broken, the hydrogen bonds are. Which means… bonds are broken. Sort of.

But we’re probably on safe ground if we talk about the formation of new substances. Aren’t we?

Except….

What about dissolving? If I dissolve hydrogen chloride gas, HCl, in water, that’s a physical change, right? I haven’t made anything new? Or… have I? I had molecules with a covalent bond between the hydrogen and the chlorine, and now I have… er… hydrochloric acid (note, that’s a completely different link to the one I used back there), made up of H+ and Cl- ions mingled with water molecules.

So… it’s…. a chemical change? But wait. We could (I don’t recommend it) evaporate all that water away, and we’d have gaseous HCl again. It’s reversible.

Solid iodine is silvery-grey, but iodine vapour is a brilliant violet colour.

Hm. What about the signs that a chemical change is occurring? Surely we’re all right there? Fizzing: that’s a sign of a chemical change. Except… are you sure you know the difference between boiling and fizzing? It’s basically all bubbles, after all. Vapour? But, steam is a vapour, isn’t it? Although, on the other hand, water is a product of several chemical reactions. Colour changes? Check out what happens when you heat a small amount of solid, silvery-grey iodine so that it sublimes (spoiler: there’s a colour change).

Is anyone else really confused by now?

You should be. Your students almost certainly are.

There are, in short, more exceptions to every single one of these rules that there are for that “i before e” thing you learned in English (a rule, incidently, which is particularly galling for scientists who constantly have to deal with weights and heights).

Where do we go from here? I think it’s probably time we asked ourselves why we’re even teaching this concept in the first place. Really, it’s there to get students to think about the difference between changes of state and chemical reactions.

I suspect we need to worry about this rather less than we are: most children are very good at identifying changes of state. They do it instinctively. They only start getting confused about it when we teach them a lot of rules which they then try to apply. I’m pretty sure that’s not the way teaching is supposed to work.

A complicated arrangement of chemical glassware

This could definitely be simpler.

If I had my way, I’d ditch the physical and chemical change labels altogether and, instead, just talk about changes of state and chemical reactions. There is precisely one differentiator between these two, and it is: have we made any new stuff? If the answer is no, it’s a change of state. If the answer is yes, then a chemical reaction has occurred. Job done. (And yes, this would squarely define gaseous hydrogen chloride dissolving in water to form hydrochloric acid as a chemical reaction, and I have no problem at all with that.)

I say we change the way we talk about changes: chemistry has a reputation for being tricky, and this sort of confusing, contradictory thing is part of the reason why.


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A tale of chemistry, biochemistry, physics and astronomy – and shiny, silver balls

A new school term has started here, and for me this year that’s meant more chemistry experiments – hurrah!

Okay, actually round-bottomed flasks

The other day it was time for the famous Tollens’ reaction. For those that don’t know, this involves a mixture of silver nitrate, sodium hydroxide and ammonia (which has to be freshly made every time as it doesn’t keep). Combine this concoction with an aldehyde in a glass container and warm it up a bit and it forms a beautiful silver layer on the glass. Check out my lovely silver balls!

This reaction is handy for chemists because the silver mirror only appears with aldehydes and not with other, similar molecules (such as ketones). It works because aldehydes are readily oxidised or, looking at it the other way round, the silver ions (Ag+) are readily reduced by the aldehyde to form silver metal (Ag) – check out this Compound Interest graphic for a bit more detail.

But this is not just the story of an interesting little experiment for chemists. No, this is a story of chemistry, biochemistry, physics, astronomy, and artisan glass bauble producers. Ready? Let’s get started!

Bernhard Tollens (click for link to image source)

The reaction is named after Bernhard Tollens, a German chemist who was born in the mid-19th century. It’s one of those odd situations where everyone – well, everyone who’s studied A level Chemistry anyway – knows the name, but hardly anyone seems to have any idea who the person was.

Tollens went to school in Hamburg, Germany, and his science teacher was Karl Möbius. No, not the Möbius strip inventor (that was August Möbius): Karl Möbius was a zoologist and a pioneer in the field of ecology. He must have inspired the young Tollens to pursue a scientific career, because after he graduated Tollens first completed an apprenticeship at a pharmacy before going on to study chemistry at Friedrich Wöhler’s laboratory in Göttingen. If Wöhler’s name seems familiar it’s because he was the co-discoverer of  beryllium and silicon – without which the electronics I’m using to write this article probably wouldn’t exist.

After he obtained his PhD Tollens worked at a bronze factory, but it wasn’t long before he left to begin working with none other than Emil Erlenmeyer – yes, he of the Erlenmeyer flask, otherwise known as… the conical flask. (I’ve finally managed to get around to mentioning the piece of glassware from which this blog takes its name!)

It seems though that Tollens had itchy feet, as he didn’t stay with Erlenmeyer for long, either. He worked in Paris and Portugal before eventually returning to Göttingen in 1872 to work on carbohydrates, going on to discover the structures of several sugars.

Table sugar is sucrose, which doesn’t produce a silver mirror with Tollens’ reagent

As readers of this blog will know, the term “sugar” often gets horribly misused by, well, almost everyone. It’s a broad term which very generally refers to carbon-based molecules containing groups of O-H and C=O atoms. Most significant to this story are the sugars called monosaccharides and disaccharides. The two most famous monosaccharides are fructose, or “fruit sugar”, and glucose. On the other hand sucrose, or “table sugar”, is a disaccharide.

All of the monosaccharides will produce a positive result with Tollens’ reagent (even when their structures don’t appear to contain an aldehyde group – this gets a bit complicated but check out this link if you’re interested). However, sucrose does not. Which means that Tollens’ reagent is quick and easy test that can be used to distinguish between glucose and sucrose.

Laboratory Dewar flask with silver mirror surface

And it’s not just useful for identifying sugars. Tollens’ reagent, or a variant of it, can also be used to create a high-quality mirror surface. Until the 1900s, if you wanted to make a mirror you had to apply a thin foil of an alloy – called “tain” – to the back of a piece of glass. It’s difficult to get a really good finish with this method, especially if you’re trying to create a mirror on anything other than a perfectly flat surface. If you wanted a mirrored flask, say to reduce heat radiation, this was tricky. Plus it required quite a lot of silver, which was expensive and made the finished item quite heavy.

Which was why the German chemist Justus von Liebig (yep, the one behind the Liebig condenser) developed a process for depositing a thin layer of pure silver on glass in 1835. After some tweaking and refining this was perfected into a method which bears a lot of resemblance to the Tollens’ reaction: a diamminesilver(I) solution is mixed with glucose and sprayed onto the surface of the glass, where the silver ions are reduced to elemental silver. This process ticked a lot of boxes: not only did it produce a high-quality finish, but it also used such a tiny quantity of silver that it was really cheap.

And it turned out to be useful for more than just laboratory glassware. The German astronomer Carl August von Steinheil and French doctor Leon Foucault soon began to use it to make telescope mirrors: for the first time astronomers had cheap, lightweight mirrors that reflected far more light than their old mirrors had ever done.

People also noticed how pretty the effect was: German artisans began to make Christmas tree decorations by pouring silver nitrate into glass spheres, followed by ammonia and finally a glucose solution – producing beautiful silver baubles which were exported all over the world, including to Britain.

These days, silvering is done by vacuum deposition, which produces an even more perfect surface, but you just can’t beat the magic of watching the inside of a test tube or a flask turning into a beautiful, shiny mirror.

Speaking of which, according to @MaChemGuy on Twitter, this is the perfect, foolproof, silver mirror method:
° Place 5 cm³ 0.1 mol dm⁻³ AgNO₃(aq) in a test tube.
° Add concentrated NH₃ dropwise untill the precipitate dissolves. (About 3 drops.)
° Add a spatula of glucose and dissolve.
° Plunge test-tube into freshly boiled water.

Silver nitrate stains the skin – wear gloves!

One word of warning: be careful with the silver nitrate and wear gloves. Else, like me, you might end up with brown stains on your hands that are still there three days later…


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No need for slime panic: it’s not going to poison anyone

This is one of my favourite photos, so I’m using it again.

The school summer holidays are fast approaching and, for some reason, this always seems to get people talking about slime. Whether it’s because it’s a fun end-of-term activity, or it’s an easy bit of science for kids to do at home, or a bit of both, the summer months seem to love slimy stories. In fact, I wrote a piece about it myself in August 2017.

Which (hoho) brings me to the consumer group Which? because, on 17th July this year, they posted an article with the headline: “Children’s toy slime on sale with up to four times EU safety limit of potentially unsafe chemical” and the sub-heading: “Eight out of 11 popular children’s slimes we tested failed safety testing.”

The article is illustrated with lots of pots of colourful commercial slime pots with equally colourful names like Jupiter Juice. It says that, “exposure to excessive levels of boron could cause irritation, diarrhoea, vomiting and cramps in the short term,” and goes on to talk about possible risks of birth defects and developmental delays. Yikes. Apparently the retailer Amazon has removed several slime toys from sale since Which? got on the case.

The piece was, as you might expect, picked up by practically every news outlet there is, and within hours the internet was full of headlines warning of the dire consequences of handling multicoloured gloopy stuff.

Before I go any further, here’s a quick reminder: most slime is made by taking polyvinyl alcohol (PVA – the white glue stuff) and adding a borax solution, aka sodium tetraborate, which contains the element boron. The sodium tetraborate forms cross-links between the PVA polymer chains, and as a result you get viscous, slimy slime in place of runny, gluey stuff. Check out this lovely graphic created by @compoundchem for c&en’s Periodic Graphics:

The Chemistry of Slime from cen.acs.org (click image for link), created by Andy Brunning of @compoundchem

And so, back to the Which? article. Is the alarm justified? Should you ban your child from ever going near slime ever again?

Nah. Followers will remember that back in August last year, after I posted my own slime piece, I had a chat with boron-specialist David Schubert. He said at the time: “Borax has been repeated[ly] shown to be safe for skin contact. Absorption through intact skin is lower than the B consumed in a healthy diet” (B is the chemical symbol for the element boron). And then he directed me to a research paper backing up his comments.

Borax is a fine white powder, Mixed with water it can be used to make slime.

This, by the way, is all referring to the chemical borax – which you might use if you’re making slime. In pre-made slime the borax has chemically bonded with the PVA, and that very probably makes it even safer – because it’s then even more difficult for any boron to be absorbed through skin.

Of course, and this really falls under the category of “things no one should have to say,” don’t eat slime. Don’t let your kids eat slime. Although even if they did, the risks are really small. As David said when we asked this time: “Borates have low acute toxicity. Consumption of the amount of borax present in a handful of slime would make one sick to their stomach and possibly cause vomiting, but no other harm would result. The only way [they] could harm themselves is by eating that amount daily.”

It is true that borax comes with a “reproductive hazard” warning label. Which? pointed out in their article that there is EU guidance on safe boron levels, and the permitted level in children’s’ toys has been set at 300 mg/kg for liquids and sticky substances (Edited 18th July, see * in Notes section below).

EU safety limits are always very cautious – an additional factor of at least 100 is usually incorporated. In other words, for example, if 1 g/kg exposure of a substance is considered safe, the EU limit is likely to be set at 0.01 g/kg – so as to make sure that even someone who’s really going to town with a thing would be unlikely to suffer negative consequences as a result.

The boron limit is particularly cautious and is based on animal studies (and it has been challenged). The chemists I spoke to told me it’s not representative of the actual hazards. Boron chemist Beth Bosley pointed out that while it is true that boric acid exposure has been shown to cause fetal abnormalities when it’s fed to pregnant rats, this finding hasn’t been reproduced in humans. Workers handling large quantities of borate in China and Turkey have been studied and no reproductive effects have been seen.

Rat studies, she said, aren’t wholly comparable because rats are unable to vomit, which is significant because it means a rat can be fed a large quantity of a boron-containing substance and it’ll stay in their system. Whereas a human who accidentally ingested a similar dose would almost certainly throw up. Plus, again, this is all based on consuming substances such as borax, not slime where the boron is tied up in polymer chains. There really is no way anyone could conceivably eat enough slime to absorb these sorts of amounts.

These arguments aside, we all let our children handle things that might be harmful if they ate them. Swallowing a whole tube of toothpaste would probably give your child an upset stomach, and it could even be dangerous if they did it on a regular basis, but we haven’t banned toothpaste “just in case”. We keep it out of reach when they’re not supposed to be brushing their teeth, and we teach them not to do silly things like eating an entire tube of Oral-B. Same basic principle applies to slime, even if it does turn out to contain more boron than the EU guidelines permit.

In conclusion: pots of pre-made slime are safe, certainly from a borax/boron point of view, so long as you don’t eat them. The tiny amounts of boron that might be absorbed through skin are smaller than the amounts you’d get from eating nuts and pulses, and not at all hazardous.

Making slime at home can also be safe, if you follow some sensible guidelines like, say, these ones:

Stay safe with slime by following this guidance

Slime on, my chemistry-loving friends!


Notes:
* When I looked for boron safety limits the first time, the only number I could find was the rather higher 1200 mg/kg. So I asked Twitter if anyone could direct me to the value Which? were using. I was sent a couple of links, one of which contained a lot of technical documentation, but I think the most useful is probably a “guide to international toy safety” pamphlet which includes a “Soluble Element Migration Requirements” table. In the row for boron, under “Category II: Liquid or sticky materials”, the value is indeed given as 300 mg/kg.

BUT, there is also ” Category I: Dry, brittle, powder like or pliable materials” and the value there is the much higher 1,200 mg/kg. Which begs the question: does slime count as “pliable” or “sticky”? It suggests to me that, say, a modelling clay product (pliable) would have the 4x higher limit. But surely the risk of exposure would be essentially the same? If 1,200 mg/kg is okay for modelling clay, I can’t see why it shouldn’t be for slime. In the Which? testing, only the Jupiter Juice product exceeded the Category I limit, and then not by that much (1,400 mg/kg).

Also (the notes are going to end up being longer than the post if I’m not careful), these values are migration limits, not limits on the amount allowed in the substance in total. Can anyone show that more than 300 mg/kg is able to migrate from the slime to the person handling it? Very unlikey. But again, don’t eat slime.

This is not an invitation to try and prove me wrong.

I suppose it’s possible that someone could sell slime that’s contaminated with some other toxic thing. But that could happen with anything. The general advice to “wash your/their hands and don’t eat it” will take you a long way.


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Spectacular Strawberry Science!

Garden strawberries

Yay! It’s June! Do you know what that means, Chronicle Flask readers? Football? What do you mean, football? Who cares about that? (I jest – check out this excellent post from Compound Interest).

No, I mean it’s strawberry season in the U.K.! That means there will be much strawberry eating, because the supermarkets are full of very reasonably-priced punnets. There will also be strawberry picking, as we tramp along rows selecting the very juiciest fruits (and eating… well, just a few – it’s part of the fun, right?).

Is there any nicer fruit than these little bundles of red deliciousness? Surely not. (Although I do also appreciate a ripe blackberry.)

And as if their lovely taste weren’t enough, there’s loads of brilliant strawberry science, too!

This is mainly (well, sort of, mostly, some of the time) a chemistry blog, but the botany and history aspects of strawberries are really interesting too. The woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) was the first to be cultivated in the early 17th century, although strawberries have of course been around a lot longer than that. The word strawberry is thought to come from ‘streabariye’ – a term used by the Benedictine monk Aelfric in CE 995.

Woodland strawberries

Woodland strawberries, though, are small and round: very different from the large, tapering, fruits we tend to see in shops today (their botanical name is Fragaria × ananassa – the ‘ananassa’ bit meaning pineapple, referring to their sweet scent and flavour.

The strawberries we’re most familiar with were actually bred from two other varieties. That means that modern strawberries are, technically, a genetically modified organism. But no need to worry: practically every plant we eat today is.

Of course, almost everyone’s heard that strawberries are not, strictly, a berry. It’s true; technically strawberries are what’s known as an “aggregate accessory” fruit, which means that they’re formed from the receptacle (the thick bit of the stem where flowers emerge) that holds the ovaries, rather than from the ovaries themselves. But it gets weirder. Those things on the outside that look like seeds? Not seeds. No, each one is actually an ovary, with a seed inside it. Basically strawberries are plant genitalia. There’s something to share with Grandma over a nice cup of tea and a scone.

Anyway, that’s enough botany. Bring on the chemistry! Let’s start with the bright red colour. As with most fruits, that colour comes from anthocyanins – water-soluble molecules which are odourless, moderately astringent, and brightly-coloured. They’re formed from the reaction of, similar-sounding, molecules called anthocyanidins with sugars. The main anthocyanin in strawberries is callistephin, otherwise known as pelargonidin-3-O-glucoside. It’s also found in the skin of certain grapes.

Anthocyanins are fun for chemists because they change colour with pH. It’s these molecules which are behind the famous red-cabbage indicator. Which means, yes, you can make strawberry indicator! I had a go myself, the results are below…

Strawberry juice acts as an indicator: pinky-purplish in an alkaline solution, bright orange in an acid.

As you can see, the strawberry juice is pinky-purplish in the alkaline solution (sodium hydrogen carbonate, aka baking soda, about pH 9), and bright orange in the acid (vinegar, aka acetic acid, about pH 3). Next time you find a couple of mushy strawberries that don’t look so tasty, don’t throw them away – try some kitchen chemistry instead!

Peonidin-3-O-glucoside is the anthocyanin which gives strawberries their red colour. This is the form found at acidic pHs

The reason we see this colour-changing behaviour is that the anthocyanin pigment gains an -OH group at alkaline pHs, and loses it at acidic pHs (as in the diagram here).

This small change is enough to alter the wavelengths of light absorbed by the compound, so we see different colours. The more green light that’s absorbed, the more pink/purple the solution appears. The more blue light that’s absorbed, the more orange/yellow we see.

Interestingly, anthocyanins behave slightly differently to most other pH indicators, which usually acquire a proton (H+) at low pH, and lose one at high pH.

Moving on from colour, what about the famous strawberry smell and flavour? That comes from furaneol, which is sometimes called strawberry furanone or, less romantically, DMHF. It’s the same compound which gives pineapples their scent (hence that whole Latin ananassa thing I mentioned earlier). The concentration of furaneol increases as the strawberry ripens, which is why they smell stronger.

Along with menthol and vanillin, furaneol is one of the most widely-used compounds in the flavour industry. Pure furaneol is added to strawberry-scented beauty products to give them their scent, but only in small amounts – at high concentrations it has a strong caramel-like odour which, I’m told, can actually smell quite unpleasant.

As strawberries ripen their sugar content increases, they get redder, and they produce more scent

As strawberries ripen their sugar content (a mixture of fructose, glucose and sucrose) also changes, increasing from about 5% to 9% by weight. This change is driven by auxin hormones such as indole-3-acetic acid. At the same time, acidity – largely from citric acid – decreases.

Those who’ve been paying attention might be putting a few things together at this point: as the strawberry ripens, it becomes less acidic, which helps to shift its colour from more green-yellow-orange towards those delicious-looking purpleish-reds. It’s also producing more furaneol, making it smell yummy, and its sugar content is increasing, making it lovely and sweet. Why is all this happening? Because the strawberry wants (as much as a plant can want) to be eaten, but only once it’s ripe – because that’s how its seeds get dispersed. Ripening is all about making the fruit more appealing – redder, sweeter, and nicer-smelling – to things that will eat it. Nature’s clever, eh?

There we have it: some spectacular strawberry science! As a final note, as soon as I started writing this I (naturally) found lots of other blogs about strawberries and summer berries in general. They’re all fascinating. If you want to read more, check out…


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A Dash of Science, Social Media and VARD

Yesterday I recorded a podcast with Matthew Lee Loftus (from The Credible Hulk) and Christopher El Sergio for A Dash of Science, all about science communication and social media. It was a brilliant chat – I won’t go into lots of details of what we covered, but if you’d like to hear it (you know you do!) the direct link is: Communicating Science on Social Media. You can also pick it up on iTunes and/or Tune In.

After our conversation ended I remembered something I developed little while ago, after marking a particularly infuriating research homework where a quarter of the class wrote down that Mendeleev was awarded a Nobel prize for his work on the Periodic Table. For the record: he never received the honour. He was recommended for the prize but famously (at least, I thought it was famously!) the 1906 prize was given to Henri Moissan instead, probably due to a grudge held by Svante Arrhenius of Arrhenius Equation fame (it’s a good story, check it out).

Mendeleev was never awarded a Nobel prize.

Does it really matter if a few students believe that Mendeleev won a Nobel prize? That’s not really harming anyone, is it? Maybe not, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s part of a long and slippery slope greased with ‘alternative facts’ which is leading us to, well, shall we say, situations and decisions that may not be in our best interests as a society.

How to encourage students to do at least a little bit of fact-checking? Of course, you could produce a long list of Things That One Should Do to check information, but I reasoned that while students might read such a list, and even agree with the principles, they were unlikely to get into the habit of applying them and probably quite likely to immediately forget all about it.

Instead I tried to come up with something short, simple and memorable, and here it is (feel free to share this):

Fact-checking isn’t easy; it’s VARD

The four points I focused on spell out VARD, which stands for…

Verify

V is for verify, which means: can you find other sources saying the same thing? Now, chances are, you can always find something that agrees with a particular piece of information, if you look hard enough. There are plenty of sites out there that will tell you that lemons ‘alkalise’ the body, for example (they don’t), that it’s safe to eat apricot kernels (it’s not) and that black salve is an effective treatment for skin cancer (nope).

However, if you’re reasonably open-minded when you start, chances are good that you’ll find both sides of the ‘story’ and that will, at the very least, get you thinking about which version is more trustworthy.

Author

A is for author. I often hear swathes of content being disparaged purely based on its nature. You know the sort of thing: “that’s just a blog,” or “you can’t trust newspaper articles”. I think this is wrong-headed. What matters more is who wrote that piece and what are their qualifications? I’d argue that a blog post about medical issues written by a medical doctor (for example, virtually anything on the marvellous Science Based Medicine) is likely to be a pretty reliable source. Conversely, there’s been more than one thing that’s made it into the scientific literature which has later turned out to be flawed or even flat false (such as Wakefield’s famous 1998 paper). It’s also worth asking what someone’s background is: Stephanie Seneff, for example, is highly qualified in the fields of artificial intelligence and computer science, but does that mean we should trust her controversial opinions in biology and medicine? Probably not.

You may not always be able to tell who the author is, or have time to dig into their motivations, but it’s nevertheless a good question to keep in the back of your mind.

Reasonableness

Be honest: is that story really likely? Or is it just shocking?

R is for reasonableness. Which is a pain to spell or even say, but it’s important so I’m sticking with it. It’s a sense-check. Human beings love a good story, and the best stories have unexpected twists and turns. That’s why medical scare-stories pop up in newspapers with such depressing regularity. No, ketchup isn’t giving you cancer. No, our children really aren’t being poisoned by plastics. But the truth doesn’t always make a good headline. In fact, when it comes to science, the more some ‘exciting finding’ is plastered over news sites, the less you should probably trust it – because the chances are that the exciting version being reported bears almost no resemblance to the researchers’ original conculsions.

Be honest and ask yourself: does this really seem likely? Or would I just like it to be true because it’s a great story?

Date

If a surprising story has just appeared, give it twenty-four hours – chances are if there are major issues with the information someone else will come forward.

D is for date. The obvious situation is when information is so old that it’s been superseded by something else. This is easy: just look for something more recent. However, the other side of this coin is probably more relevant in these days of rolling news and instant sharing of articles: something can blow up at short notice, especially something topical, and it later turns out that not all the facts were known. Take, for example, the famous green swimming pools in the 2016 Olympics, which more than one writer attributed to copper salts in the pool water before the full facts were revealed a few days later. Inevitably, the ‘corrected’ version is far less interesting than the earlier speculation, and so that’s what everyone remembers.

If something controversial and shocking has just appeared, give it twenty-four hours. If there’s something terribly wrong with it, chances are someone will pick up on it in that time.

It’s not easy; it’s VARD

And that’s it: Verify, Author, Reasonableness, Date. It doesn’t cover every eventuality, but if you keep these points in the back of your mind it will definitely help you to separate the ‘probably true’ from the ‘almost certainly bollocks’.

Good luck out there!

Now why not go and listen to that podcast 🙂


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Puking pumpkins: more hydrogen peroxide

It was Halloween yesterday and, unusually for the UK, it fell in school term time. As it turned out, I was teaching chemistry to a group of 12-13 year olds on that day which was too good an opportunity to miss.

Time for the puking pumpkin!

A side note: there’s loads of great chemistry here, and the pumpkin isn’t essential – you could easily do this same experiment during a less pumpkin-prolific month with something else. Puking watermelon, anyone?

Carve a large mouth, draw the eyes and nose with marker pen.

First things first, prepare your pumpkin! Choose a large one – you need room to put a conical flask inside and put the pumpkin’s “lid” securely back in place.

Carve the mouth in the any shape you like, but make it generous. Draw the eyes and nose (and any other decoration) in waterproof marker – unless you want your pumpkin to “puke” out of its nose and eyes as well!

Rest the pumpkin on something wipe-clean (it might leak from the bottom) and put a deep tray in front of it.

To make the “puke” you will need:

  • 35% hydrogen peroxide (corrosive)
  • a stock solution of KI, potassium iodide (low hazard)
  • washing up liquid

The puking pumpkin!

You can also add food colouring or dye, but be aware that the reaction can completely change or even destroy the colours you started with. If colour matters to you, test it first.

Method:

  1. Place about 50 ml (use more if it’s not so fresh) of the hydrogen peroxide into the conical flask, add a few drops of washing up liquid (and dye, if you’re using it).
  2. Add some KI solution and quickly put the pumpkin’s lid back in place.
  3. Enjoy the show!

Check out some video of all this here.

What’s happening? Hydrogen peroxide readily decomposes into oxygen and water, but at room temperature this reaction is slow. KI catalyses the reaction, i.e. speeds it up. (There are other catalysts you could also try if you want to experiment; potassium permanganate for example.) The washing up liquid traps the oxygen gas in foam to produce the “puke”.

The word and symbol equations are:

hydrogen peroxide –> water + oxygen
2H2O2 –> 2H2O + O2

There are several teaching points here:

  • Evidence for chemical change.
  • Compounds vs. elements.
  • Breaking the chemical bonds in a compound to form an element and another compound.
  • Balanced equations / conservation of mass.
  • The idea that when it comes to chemical processes, it’s not just whether a reaction happens that matters, but also how fast it happens…
  • … which of course leads to catalysis. A-level students can look at the relevant equations (see below).

Once the pumpkin has finished puking, demonstrate the test for oxygen gas.

Some health and safety points: the hydrogen peroxide is corrosive so avoid skin contact. Safety goggles are essential, gloves are a Good Idea(™). The reaction is exothermic and steam is produced. A heavy pumpkin lid will almost certainly stay in place but still, stand well back. 

But we’re not done, oh no! What you have at the end of this reaction is essentially a pumpkin full of oxygen gas. Time to crack out the splints and demonstrate/remind your students of the test for oxygen. It’s endlessly fun to put a glowing splint into the pumpkin’s mouth and watch it catch fire, and you’ll be able to do it several times.

And we’re still not done! Once the pumpkin has completely finished “puking”, open it up (carefully) and look inside. Check out that colour! Why is it bluish-black in there?

The inside of the pumpkin is blue-black: iodine is produced which complexes with starch.

It turns out that you also get some iodine produced, and there’s starch in pumpkins. It’s the classic, blue-black starch complex.

Finally, give the outside of the pumpkin a good wipe, take it home, carve out the eyes and nose and pop it outside for the trick or treaters – it’s completely safe to use.

Brace yourselves, more equations coming…

The KI catalyses the reaction because the iodide ions provide an alternative, lower-energy pathway for the decomposition reaction. The iodide reacts with the hydrogen peroxide to form hypoiodite ions (OI). These react with more hydrogen peroxide to form water, oxygen and more iodide ions – so the iodide is regenerated, and hence is acting as a catalyst.

H2O2 + I –> H2O + OI
H2O2 + OI –> H2O + O2 + I

The iodine I mentioned comes about because some of the iodide is oxidised to iodine by the oxygen. At this point we have both iodine and iodide ions – these combine to form triiodide, and this forms the familiar blue-black complex.

Phew. That’s enough tricky chemistry for one year. Enjoy your chocolate!

Trick or treat!

 


 

 


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Unsafe slime? How bad is borax, really?

Slime is a fun bit of chemistry that anyone can do – but how safe is it?

Edit, December 2018: I’ve written another, more recent, slime post which specifically addresses some of the recent safety claims made in the media. Read it here.

It’s August, which means it’s the school summer holidays in the UK and, as is traditional, it’s been pouring with rain. This has left many a cabin-fevered child searching for ways to amuse themselves.

Start hunting around the internet for things to do and it’s not long before the concept of the “kitchen science” experiment turns up. There are actually loads of these, and it’s even possible to do some of them without permanently damaging anyone’s eardrums, dusting every surface with cornflour and leaving a parent rocking in the corner muttering “why did I encourage this?” over and over to themselves.

Which brings me to slime – surely the go-to fun science experiment. What’s not to love about taking some of that white, runny PVA glue found in gallon bottles in school classrooms everywhere and magically turning it into glorious, gloopy slime? Add some food colouring and you can even have coloured slime! Add glitter and… well you get the idea.

Many YouTubers love this stuff. A quick search for “make your own slime” turns up pages and pages of videos, giving instructions as to how to do just that.

In fact, it seems that slime-making is currently a bit of a craze, with children all over the world making all kids of different types. There’s unicorn slime, rainbow slime, fluffy slime – you name it. Brilliant, you might think, a whole generation of youngsters interested in chemistry. What’s not to like about that?

Well, as a few news reports have recently pointed out, there might be a problem if children are handling lots of borax, or certain other chemicals.

Polyvinyl alcohol

Slime, you see, is a really nice example of polymerisation – the same process that goes on when plastics are made. PVA glue, the usual starting material, is a polymer itself. The letters PVA stand for polyvinyl alcohol (its systematic name is poly(1-hydroxyethylene)), but literally no one calls it that, not even A-level chemistry teachers forced, kicking and screaming, to follow IUPAC naming conventions).

PVA is a long chain of carbon atoms with alternating CH2 groups and alcohol, OH, groups. As anyone who’s ever handled it will know, it’s quite runny. Thick, yes, but still runny. Basically, it’s a liquid.

But if you mix it with borax, aka sodium tetraborate, some magic happens. And when I say magic, I mean chemistry. The chains of atoms become linked together (edit July 2018: I originally said via hydrogen bonds but turns out that’s not quite right – check out this page on c&en for more info), and as a result the new substance is a lot more solid. But it’s not quite solid. At least, not in the sense of something that keeps its own shape. No, this is weird, peculiar, stuff that sits somewhere in between solid and liquid.

Borax joins the chains of PVA together.

There’s something tactilely pleasing about slime. Put it in your hands and it feels cool and slightly moist – your fingers slide over and through it with a sort of squeaky sensation. Leave it alone for a few minutes and it flows to take the shape of its container, forming a perfect, mirror finish on its surface. Tip the pot over, and it will gradually creep toward the edge.

It is safe to handle. Here are my hands, handling it (we made this at the March for Science in Bristol back in April). You will notice that my skin is not falling off.

It’s white unless you dye it. We went for red, which is pleasingly disturbing.

I did, though, wash my hands after I took that photo. And that’s because, while the PVA is pretty harmless (as you know if, like me, you spent your primary school days painting your hands with glue just so you could peel it off later) the borax isn’t. At least, not entirely.

Before I go any further, let’s be clear: lots of things aren’t “entirely” safe. Most of the cleaning products in the average kitchen and bathroom have warning levels of varying degrees of severity on them, and we don’t think too much about it. Even things that are designed to be in contact with skin, like hand soap and shampoo, usually have warnings about eye irritation and statements like “if irritation occurs, discontinue use”. Even water is deadly in the wrong context (don’t try inhaling too much of it, for example). So when I say not entirely safe, I don’t mean to suggest that panic needs to ensue if your child has so much as looked at a borax solution.

Borax has traditionally been used in several household products, although admittedly more in the US than in the UK. Most people know it as a laundry additive, where it softens water, brightens whites and inhibits the growth of the bacteria and fungi which can make clothes stinky.

It’s not considered a lethal compound, in the sense that you’d have to eat a large quantity – far more than anyone might reasonably consume by accident – before it became deadly, and you’d almost certainly throw up long before then. Borax can irritate the skin (but see note at the end), and inhalation of the dust is well known to irritate the lungs. This is more of a concern for people working with borax on an industrial scale day in and day out – but it could become an issue if, say, someone were making slime every single day using large quantities of borax (not recommended).

Then there’s another concern. If borax is exposed to hydrochloric acid, it forms boric acid. Long-term exposure to boric acid can cause kidney damage and fertility problems, both in men and women. It’s also potentially teratogenic, which means it could cause harm to an unborn child. Borax and boric acid are not the same thing but, of course, our stomachs contain hydrochloric acid. Therefore, if you swallow borax, you’re effectively exposed to boric acid.

Frequent exposure to borax might cause skin irritation (see note at end)

These risks are the reason borax was added to the Substance of Very High Concern (SVHC) candidate list on 16 December 2010, which is the first step in restricting use of the chemical within the European Union. As far as I can establish, it’s still a “candidate”, but the European Chemicals Agency substance information card does state that borax may “damage fertility or the unborn child”.

Now, the chances of achieving the levels involved in “long-term exposure” from occasionally handling borax solutions are slim to none. It’s safe to handle dilute borax solutions (see notes at the end). Indeed, borax is even approved as a food preservative in the EU (E285). To put it into context, alcohol (ethanol) also causes organ damage and is a known teratogen and a carcinogen (which borax isn’t) and that turns up in all sorts of things we’re regularly in contact with, everything from antiseptic hand gels to mouthwashes to drinks (and it’s also approved as a food additive, E1510 – which is good news if you like liqueur chocolates).

I personally have no concerns about handling dry borax in small quantities to make up solutions myself. However, I wouldn’t let children do that part. Once made I’d consider the solution safe, so long as children were supervised and weren’t doing anything really silly like drinking it. I’d also tell children to wash their hands after handling the slime and, if I thought they had sensitive skin for any reason (eczema, say) I’d suggest plastic gloves.

Borax is easy to buy online.

Because of the European Regulations, it theoretically shouldn’t be that easy to get hold of borax in the UK. But I found it for sale on Amazon.co.uk. The listing says that it “can only be purchased by Professionals and by trade and business users,” (sic) but I ordered some and there were no checks. A plastic bag full of borax powder (the decahydrate, Na2B4O7.10H2O) arrived within a few days.

Most of the news reports doing the rounds have involved children suffering from severe skin irritation. For example, in February this year a woman from Manchester posted photos of chemical burns on her daughter’s hands online as a warning to other parents. However, looking into the details of that story it turns out that she wasn’t using borax. In fact, she used fabric detergent “as an alternative”.

Take a look at pretty much type of fabric detergent and you’ll find hazard warnings, usually indicating it’s corrosive and definitely saying “keep out of reach of children”. Those are there for a reason. Fabric detergent is designed to remove grease and  stains. In other words, to break down fats and proteins, and guess what your skin is made of? Yep. Don’t get neat fabric detergent on your hands. Even if your skin isn’t particularly sensitive, it’s almost certainly going to irritate it.

Fabric detergents are usually labelled corrosive.

Bottom line: don’t use fabric detergent as a borax alternative to make slime, because there’s a real risk that enough of it could get onto your (or your child’s) skin that it could irritate.

When it comes to borax itself, if I understand things correctly, it’s not actually restricted in the EU – including the UK – yet. (I might have this wrong – do correct me if you think I have.) It’s not something you can pop to the supermarket and buy, but as we’ve established you can buy it online fairly easily.

Borax solutions are extremely unlikely to cause harm, if used sensibly (boron chemist David Schubert agrees, see note at the end). But, once again: if you’re doing this experiment it’s best not to let children make up the solution – an adult should do that part.

A sensible quantity is about 1 gram of borax in 25 millilitres of warm water (for those without a metric scale: one level teaspoon of borax in half a cup measure of water). This will actually polymerise quite a bit of PVA – you don’t need that much. I recommend making the borax solution in a labelled plastic cup which you should throw away afterwards. Don’t leave it anywhere where someone might mistake it for their drink! Once the solution is made just add a little bit to some PVA in another plastic cup, give it a good stir with a spoon or a lolly stick, and the magic (chemistry) will happen. Add food colouring if you like (be aware that it can stain!) and enjoy the slimy goodness. (See additional note for teachers & technicians at the end.)

Do supervise any and all slime-making, don’t let children handle slime all day, every day, and if you know they have sensitive skin, make them wear plastic gloves. Make them wash their hands before they eat or drink anything.

If a child has made slime somewhere else, at a party or a science club, say, and they bring it home, again, there’s no need to worry. They can play with it perfectly safely. Don’t let them leave it on a radiator, though. That will end in disaster.

I am not a fan of the “it might be a bit dangerous, so no one should ever try it” mentality. I mean, that’s just no fun, is it? But I’m also not a fan of unnecessary risks – because trips to hospital are equally no fun. So if you want to try this experiment, I’ve summarised my guidance in this graphic.

Stay safe with slime by following this guidance

And if you want a even safer slimy experiment, and you can bear the mess, I suggest mixing cornflour with just enough water to make a thick paste in a shallow tray. Then let your kids stick their fingers in it, bounce things off it, and generally play with it. (Check out this link to find out more about why it behaves as it does.) I’m told it makes an even better mixture if you add basil seeds.

Have fun this summer, stay safe, and don’t eat the slime!

Note for teachers and technicians:
This post is aimed at people who might be making slime at home, and hence not have easy access to CLEAPSS guidelines. Anyone doing the experiment with students in school should, of course, refer to their department’s risk assessments and policies. For the record, at the time of writing, CLEAPSS classify 0.2M or 40g/dm³ (or more dilute) borax solutions as “low hazard”.

Edit: 15th August 2017:
After I wrote and published this post I was contacted by someone who specialises in boron chemistry, David Schubert. Now, if anyone knows about boron safety, it’ll be the guy who spends all day working with boron-based chemicals! He told me that borax has been shown to be safe for skin contact. He also said that you absorb less boron through intact skin than you consume by eating a normal, healthy diet (boron is a naturally-occurring trace-mineral – nuts and pulses are good sources), and even provided me with a link to a research paper on the subject. I asked him about the high pH of boron solutions, since alkaline solutions can be irritating in general, and he told me that borax solutions are less alkaline than sodium carbonate and not at all irritating to skin. At this point I will stress that when we’ve seen reports of children suffering skin irritation after making slime, it hasn’t been clear exactly what they’ve been handling. It’s very likely they were adding other chemicals to their slime, and it was actually one of those causing the irritation. Perhaps they developed an allergy to something. It’s impossible to say. Either way, the bottom line is that borax solutions are pretty safe – there’s no need to worry. (Still don’t drink them though!)


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