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…


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.


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.


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?


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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The Chronicles of the Chronicle Flask: 2017

We’ve made it! Not only to 2018 (which was starting to look doubtful earlier in the year), but also to the Chronicle Flask’s 100th post. Which doesn’t seem that many, really, but since posts on here frequently run to 1500 words, that adds up to a rather more impressive-sounding 150,000 words or so. I mean, that’s like… half a Brandon Sanderson novel. Oh.

Anyway, it’s time for a yearly round-up. Here goes!

Last January I began with a post about acrylamide. We’d all been enjoying lots of lovely crispy food over Christmas; it was time to tell us about the terrible dangers of such reckless indulgence. The newspapers were covered with pictures of delicious-looking chips, toast and roast potatoes alongside scary headlines such as:  “Crunchy toast could give you cancer, FSA warns”. The truth was not quite so dramatic. Acrylamide does form when foods are cooked to crispiness, and it is potentially harmful, but the quantities which form in food are tiny, and very unlikely to cause you any serious harm unless you literally live on nothing but burnt toast. The FSA (Food Standards Agency) hadn’t significantly revised their guidelines, it turned out, but were in fact only suggesting that the food industry should be mindful of acrylamide levels in food and seek to reduce them as much as possible. That wouldn’t have made for quite such a good “your food is going to killllll you!” story though, I suppose.

In February the spikey topic of vaccination came up. Again. Vaccines are awesome. They protect us from deadly diseases. No, I don’t want to hear any nonsense about “Big Pharma“, and I definitely don’t want to hear how “natural immunity” is better. It’s not. At best, it might provide a similar level of protection (but not in every case), but it comes with having to suffer through a horrible, dangerous disease, whereas vaccination doesn’t. It ought to be a no-brainer. Just vaccinate your kids. And yourself.

It was Red Nose Day in the UK in March, which brought some chemistry jokes. Turns out all the best ones aren’t gone, after all. Did you hear about the PhD student who accidentally cooled herself to absolute zero? She’s 0K now.

April brought a post which ought to have been an April Fool’s joke, but wasn’t. Sceptics often point out that homeopathy is just sugar and water, but the trouble is, sometimes, it’s not. There’s virtually no regulation of homeopathy. As far as I’ve been able to establish, no one tests homeopathic products; no one checks the dilutions. Since a lot of the starting materials are dangerously toxic substances such as arsenic, belladona, lead and hemlock, this ought to worry people more than it does. There has been more than one accidental poisoning (perhaps most shockingly, one involving baby teething products). It really is time this stuff was banned, maybe 2018 will be the year.

In May I turned to something which was to become a bit of a theme for 2017: alkaline water. It’s not so much that it doesn’t do anything (although it really doesn’t), more the fact that someone is charging a premium for a product which you could literally make yourself for pennies. It’s only a matter of dissolving a pinch of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) in some water.

June brought a selection of periodic tables because, well, why not? This is a chemistry blog, after all! And now we’ve finally filled up period seven they do have a rather elegant completness. 2019, by the way, has just been announced as the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, to coincide with IUPAC’s 100th anniversary and the 150th anniversary of Mendeelev’s discovery of periodicity (his presentation, The Dependence Between the Properties of of the Atomic Weights of the Elements, was made on 6th March 1869). Looks like 2019 will be an exciting year for chemists!

In July it was back to the nonsense of alkaline diets again, when Robert O. Young was finally sentenced to 3 years, 8 months in custody for conning vulnerable cancer patients into giving him large sums of money for ineffective and dangerous treatments. Good. Moving on.

August brought me back to a post that I’d actually started earlier in the year when I went to a March for Science event in April. It was all about slime, and August seemed like a good time to finally finish it, with the school holidays in full swing – what could be more fun on a rainy day at home than making slime? Slime was a bit of a 2017 craze, and there have been a few stories featuring children with severely irritated skin. But is this likely to be caused by borax? Not really. Turns out it’s actually very safe. Laundry detergents in general, not so much. In short, if you want to make slime the traditional way with PVA glue and borax, fill your boots. (Not really – your parents will be uninpressed.)

In September it was back to quackery: black salve. A nasty, corrosive concoction which is sold as a cancer cure. It won’t cure your cancer. It will burn a nasty great big hole in your skin. Do not mess with this stuff.

October carried on in a similar vein, literally. This time with a piece about naturopaths recommending hydrogen peroxide IVs as a treatment for lots of things, not least – you guessed it – cancer. Yes, hydrogen peroxide. The stuff you used to bleach hair. Intraveneously. Argh.

The puking pumpkin!

The end of the month featured a far better use for hydrogen peroxide, that of the puking pumpkin. Definitely one to roll out if, for any reason, you ever find yourself having to demonstrate catalysis.

November brought us, somewhat unseasonally, to tomatoes. Where is the best place to store them? Fridge or windowsill? Turns out the answer involves more chemistry than you might have imagined.

And then, finally, December. Looking for a last-minute Christmas gift? Why not buy a case of blk water? I mean, other than it’s an exorbitantly priced bottle of mysterious black stuff which doesn’t do any of the things it claims to do, and might actually get its colour from coal deposits, that is.

And that, dear friends and followers, is it for 2017! Happy New Year! Remember to be sceptical when the inevitable “deadly food” story appears in a few weeks….

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Effective elements: some great periodic tables

My all-time favourite scarf (made by Rooby Lane on Etsy from a periodic table by Science Notes)

I’m a chemist (no, really? I hear you cry) and like all chemists, I love the periodic table. Why do we love this weird grid of boxes and letters and numbers? Because it’s awesome, that’s why.

No, really, it is. Can physics or biology summarise pretty much everything important about their subject with one, single page of information? (Hint: nope.) But chemists have been able to do just that for the best part of 150 years.

The person we have to thank (mostly) for this brilliant bit of insight is one Dmitri Mendeleev. He was born in Siberia in February 1834 (there’s a bit of an issue with the exact date due to the Russian switch to the Gregorian calendar in 1918 but most sources seem to have settled on the 8th). He was the youngest of more than 10 children, but the really incredible bit about his story is that when he was just 15 years old his mother took him to Moscow, a journey of best part of 1000 miles. There were, at this time, some freshly-built stretches of railway, but make no mistake, it would’ve been a long and difficult trip.

Mendeleev’s mother wanted her youngest son to attend the University of Moscow. But when they got there, the University refused to accept him. So they moved on to the Main Pedagogical Institute in Saint Petersburg, which fortunately had more sense.

Mendeleev’s life is actually pretty colourful and makes for a great story (why is there no film??), but I won’t go into any more detail here, except to say that he gave a formal presentation on his periodic table of the elements in 1869. (Oh, and he also helped to found the first oil refinery in Russia, and did a lot of work on the technique of industrial fractional distillation, which literally no one ever seems to mention.)

So the periodic table is amazing, and if anything its creator was even more so. But what I actually want to do in this post is list some of my most favourite periodic table sites. There are few out there, and they contain a host of useful information above and beyond the standard atomic weight, atomic mass type-stuff. So, without further ado…

  • Sir Martyn Poliakoff recording for Periodic Videos

    Periodic Videos – produced by Nottingham University, this has a video for each element in the periodic table, including the newest ones. The videos all feature the gloriously-haired Sir Martyn Poliakoff and are great fun to watch.

  • Science Notes periodic tables – if you ever need a high-resolution periodic table, fancy making your laptop background into a periodic table (surprisingly handy, actually), or just want to refer to their simple-but-effective interactive version, this is a great place to start (my scarf, pictured above, was made from a print of Science Notes’ 118 Element Periodic Table Poster with Hubble Stars and Nebula). 
  • The Royal Society of Chemistry’s Periodic Table – particularly useful for students, as you can mouseover each element and key information such as electronic configuration appears in a little box on the same page – no clicking required. It’s really fast and easy to use. And if you do click on an element, a host of extra information appears above and beyond the usual history and uses, such as links to podcasts, videos and information about supply risk.
  • MPSE: Merck’s Periodic Table of the Elements – if you want a periodic table app for your mobile device, this is a great one. It’s quick to load to beautiful to look at. Available for Apple and Android devices.
  • Nature Chemistry: In Your Element – a periodic table of interesting and insightful essays (and I’m not just saying this because I wrote one of them) about the different elements.The most recent piece is on vanadium.
  • The Periodic Table of Tech – this one is particularly focused on what the elements are used for. You might learn, for example, that californium isotopes are used to detect landmines, or that zirconium isn’t just good for making cubic zirconia gems; it’s also used in nuclear fuel rods. What I particularly like about this is that it has all the information on one page, so it’s particularly easy to browse.

There will be many others which I haven’t mentioned. If you have a different favourite, do comment below!

Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. All content is © Kat Day 2017. You may share or link to anything here, including the images, but you must reference this site if you do.

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No element octarine, but Nanny will be pleased…

After lots of speculation over the last few months, the names of the new elements were finally announced by IUPAC yesterday. There will now be a five-month public review, ending on 8 November 2016, but it looks likely that these names will be accepted. They are:

  • 113: Nihonium, Nh, from ‘Nihon’, meaning Japan or ‘The Land of the Rising Sun’, home of RIKEN;
  • 115: Moscovium, Mc, in recognition of the Moscow region, where JINR is based;
  • 117: Tennessine, Ts, for the Tennessee region, home of ORNL;
  • and 118: Oganesson, Og, named after a very important individual*.

New Element Names, by Compound Interest (click image for more info)

As you can see, octarine sadly didn’t make the cut. Perhaps the million to one chance rule just doesn’t work so well on roundworld. Oh well.

But look, they didn’t completely forget about us! They just misspelled ‘Ogg and Son’. It’s easily done. I’m sure Nanny will still be pleased.


Nanny Ogg. Image byHyaroo, http://hyaroo.deviantart.com/

*Oganesson actually recognises Professor Yuri Oganessian (born 1933) for his pioneering contributions to transactinoid elements research. But perhaps he’s a distant relative?

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Name element 117 Octarine, in honour of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

Sign the petition to name element 117 Octarine

UPDATE: Nature Chemistry have recently released a list of odds for the suggested new element names. Octarine is 1,000,000:1. And since, as we know: “Magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten,” that makes it practically a dead cert!


Octarine can famously only be seen by wizards (and witches) and cats and perhaps, now, some scientists. (Image: Discworld.com)

As you will have heard, the periodic table’s seventh row has finally been filled as four new elements have been added. Atomic numbers 115, 117 and 118 have been credited to the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Element 113 has been credited to a team of scientists from the Riken institute in Japan.

Period 7 is finally filled (image credit, IUPAC)

Period 7 is finally filled (image credit: IUPAC)

These elements were discovered a little while ago, but the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) – who’s in charge of such things – have only recently verified these discoveries and asked the scientists responsible to suggest names to replace their existing temporary names of ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium and ununoctium.

IUPAC does have rules about naming. Namely: “Elements can be named after a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property or a scientist.”

Now, mythological concept… that might be a bit flexible, mightn’t it? What’s the definition of mythology? Well, according to dictionary.com, it’s: “a body of myths, as that of a particular people or that relating to a particular person.” And the definition of myth is “a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.

I can work with that!

Terry Pratchett Terry Pratchett at home near Salisbury, Wiltshire, Britain - 04 Jun 2008

The late Sir Terry Pratchett at home near Salisbury, Wiltshire, Britain – 04 Jun 2008
(Image Credit: Photo by Adrian Sherratt/REX, (770612f), via theguardian.com)

So I propose that element 117, falling as it does in group 17 (the halogens), be named octarine, in honour of the late, great, Terry Pratchett and his phenomenally successful Discworld books. I’m also proposing the symbol Oc (pronounced, of course, as ‘ook’*).

As a halogen, 117 ought to have an ‘ine’ ending, so octarine makes perfect sense. Over 70 million Pratchett books have been sold worldwide, in 37 different languages, and lots of them concern heroes, gods and monsters. Ok, they’re not quite as old as the Greek myths, but they will be one day, right? Time is relative and all that.

Octarine, in the Discworld books, is known as ‘the colour of magic’, which also forms the title of Pratchett’s first ever Discworld book. According to Disc mythology (see, mythology), octarine is visible only to wizards and cats, and is generally described as a sort of greenish-yellow purple colour. Something that’s difficult to find and hard to observe; what could be more perfect?

So pop along and sign my petition. Maybe the Russian and American scientists are Discworld fans? You never know. If nothing else I’m absolutely certain that Sir Terry, the author of the Science of the Discworld series of books, would have a little chuckle at the idea.

“It is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done” — Terry Pratchett

* with thanks to Tom Willoughby for the pronunciation suggestion).


Since I started this, one or two devoted Discworld fans have commented that I should have suggested that element 118 be named octiron instead. This is because in Discworld the number 8 has special significance, and also because octiron is the metal which is the source of magical energy, and hence leads to octarine, which is just the colour of magic.

But I’m sticking with 117 and octarine. The greenish-yellow purple description seems perfect for a new halogen, and the ‘ine’ ending is just right for group 17. Although octiron also has the right ending for group 18 (‘on’), it doesn’t quite fit since it’s a metal and group 18 is technically made up of noble gases (admittedly, when you’ve only got a couple of atoms of a thing, metal vs. noble gas might be a bit irrelevant). Plus, the fact that octarine is ‘the colour of magic’ makes it seem like a more fitting tribute, this being, as I mentioned above, the title of Terry Pratchett’s first ever Discworld book.

It’s possible I’ve spent a little too long thinking about this…

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Merry Chemistmas!

It’s December! All that American Black Friday/Cyber Monday nonsense aside, like it or not once the calendar turns to the 12th month it’s time to stop putting off the Christmas shopping. So with that in mind, here are some present ideas for the chemist(s) amongst your family and friends:

  1. anandamide necklace
    This beautiful necklace represents the anandamide molecule. It’s a little bit simplified (can you pick out the nitrogen?) but we can forgive that. After all, to paraphrase the late, great Terry Pratchett (badly, sorry): Taint what anandamide looks like, it’s what anandamide be. This particular neurotransmitter takes its name from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means “joy, bliss, delight” and, of course, ‘amide‘ (which means a molecule that contains a nitrogen atom joined up to some other stuff). Anandamide is important for all sorts of functions in the body: it’s linked with pleasurable reward systems (hence the ‘bliss’), ovulation, and may even inhibit breast cancer. Fabulous all round, and it looks very pretty too.


    Anandamide necklace, from store.madewith.molecules

  2. the Compound Interest book
    If you follow my Facebook and Twitter feeds you’ll know I’m a huge fan of Andy Brunning and his beautiful Compound Interest graphics (don’t forget to check out the Chemistry Advent Calendar). His book, Why Does Asparagus Make Your Wee Smell?, is equally gorgeous, and it’s really much nicer to flick through the glossy, full-colour pages than squint at them on a screen. It would make a lovely pressie and it’s (currently) less than a tenner on Amazon. What’s not to like?


    Why Does Asparagus Make Your Wee Smell book, available from Amazon.co.uk

  3. Wirdou ‘Be Like Him’ t-shirt
    Wirdou is an extremely talented graphic artist who specialises in all things geeky and sciency. His work is so good I’ve even forgiven him for choosing a name that’s impossible to type without Google, Amazon, WordPress and every spell checker ever insisting on changing it to ‘weird’ or ‘word’. Anyway, he has many, many fabulous designs that are well-worth browsing through, but if I had to choose one, it’d be this. The non-chemists will probably spot the reference to neon lights. Chemists will enjoy feeling super smart about understanding the octet rule.


    Be Like Him t-shirt, from neatoshop.com

  4. periodic table lunch box
    No list of chemistry presents would be complete with a periodic table-emblazoned item of some sort, and I’ve plumped for this one. It’s delightfully industrial in appearance, looking like it might just contain a collection of questionable substances rather than sandwiches, so you never know – it may even deter your co-workers from nicking your lunch for fear of accidental poisoning.


    Periodic table lunch box, available from amazon.co.uk

  5. science lab beaker pinafore
    For the little (future) chemist in your house, here’s a lovely dress from the wonderful Sewing Circus. All their clothes are handmade, unisex, and promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) themes. I can vouch for the fact that, although they are a little more expensive than some children’s clothes, they are excellent quality, wash brilliantly and last really well. Plus, not a bit of sparkly pink in sight. Well worth it.


    Science lab beaker pinafore, from sewingcircus.co.uk

  6. Chem C3000 chemistry set
    Of course you can wander into a toy shop or even, possibly, a supermarket and pick up a chemistry set for a tenner. But, I’m gong to paraphrase again (hey, why stop once you’ve started): Those aren’t chemistry sets. THIS is a chemistry set. Yes indeed, while those cheap sets consist of little more than baking soda and PVA glue, if that, this one has proper good stuff in it, such as luminol, potassium permanganate, sodium thiosulfate, copper sulfate and ammonium chloride. And something called ‘litmus power’, which I suspect is a typo, but you never know. Yes it’s pricy, but if you have a interested child of pretty much any age at home it would be marvellous. Unlike school experiments, which necessarily have to stop at the end of the lesson, with this you could mix things together for hours. It also comes with a detailed experiment manual, so parents can reassure themselves that the kitchen table will still be (mostly) in once piece at the end of the day. Go on, you know you want to.


    The Chem C3000 chemistry set, from sciencemuseumshop.co.uk

Merry Christmas from The Chronicle Flask! Follow me on Facebook for regular updates and other interesting bits and pieces.

Are we really wasting a valuable natural resource at parties?


This particular inert gas was discovered by an astronomer observing a solar eclipse.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a (tongue in cheek) post about a very inert gas, nitrogen. Silliness aside though, nitrogen is a bit, well boring. I mean, we’ve known about it for nearly 250 years, it makes up nearly 80% of our atmosphere and it mostly just sits around doing nothing. Even plants, who’ve mastered the spectacular trick of making solid stuff out of sunlight and carbon dioxide, can’t do much with it in its gaseous form (with a few exceptions).

There are much more interesting inert gases. There’s one that wasn’t even discovered on Earth. In fact, it was first spotted on the Sun by Jules Janssen, an astronomer who was taking advantage of a total solar eclipse to study the Sun’s atmosphere. After some more experiments astronomer Norman Lockyer and chemist Edward Frankland named the element after the Greek word for the Sun. It was the first element to be discovered somewhere other than Earth.


Spectral lines of helium

As it turns out, this element is the second most abundant element in the universe (after hydrogen), but one of the least abundant elements on Earth – with a concentration of just 8 parts per billion in the Earth’s crust.

Today, almost all of us meet it as very young children. In balloons.

It’s helium, the second-lightest element in the periodic table and also, perhaps, the ultimate non-renewable resource.

Most of us meet this element as children.

We all learnt what ‘non-renewable’ means in school: it refers to something we’re using up faster than we can ever replace it. Almost anyone can tell you that crude oil is non-renewable. But the thing is, there are alternatives to crude oil. We can use bioethanolbiodiesel and their cousins to power vehicles and provide power. Bioethanol can act as a route to plastics, too. Scientists are also investigating the potential of algae to produce oil substitutes. These alternatives may (at the moment) be relatively expensive, and come with certain disadvantages, but they do exist.

We have no way to make helium. At least, no way to make it in significant quantities (it’s a by-product in nuclear reactors, but there we’re talking tiny amounts). And because it’s so light, when helium escapes into the atmosphere it tends to float, well, up. Ultimately, it escapes from our atmosphere and is lost. Every time you get fed up with that helium balloon that’s started to look a bit sorry for itself and stick a pin in it (perhaps taking a few seconds to do the squeaky-voice trick first) you’re wasting a little bit of a helium.

But so what? We could all live without helium balloons right? If we run out, balloons will just have to be the sinking kind. What’s the problem?

Liquid helium is used to cool the magnets in MRI machines.

Liquid helium is used to cool the magnets in MRI machines.

The problem is that helium has a lot more uses than you might realise. Cool it to -269 oC – just 4 degrees warmer than absolute zero, the lowest termperature there is – and it turns into a liquid, and that liquid is very important stuff. It’s used to cool the superconducting magnets in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners in hospitals, which provide doctors with vital, non-invasive, information about what’s going on inside our bodies. MRI techniques have made diagnoses more accurate and allowed surgery to become far more precise. Nothing else (not even the lightest element, hydrogen) has a lower boiling point than helium, so nothing else is quite as good for this chilly job. Scientists are working hard on developing superconducting magnets that work at warmer temperatures, but this technology is still in its infancy.

There’s another technology called NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) which chemists use all the time to help them identify unknown compounds. In fact, MRI was born out of NMR – they’re basically the same technique applied slightly differently – but the medical application was renamed because it was felt that patients wouldn’t understand that the ‘nuclear’ in NMR refers to the nuclei of atoms rather than nuclear energy or radiation, and would balk at the idea of a ‘nuclear’ treatment. Possibly imagining that they’d turn into the Hulk when they went into the scanner, who knows.

Since it works in essentially the same way, NMR also relies on superconducting magnets, also often cooled with liquid helium. Without NMR, whole swathes of chemical research, not to mention drug testing, would run into serious problems overnight.

It doesn’t stop there. Helium is also used in deep-sea diving, in airships, to cool nuclear reactors and certain other types of chemical detectors. NASA also uses massive amounts of helium to help clean out the fuel from its rockets. In summary, it’s important stuff.

But if we can’t make it, where does all this helium come from?

The Earth’s helium supplies have largely originated from the very slow radioactive alpha decay that occurs in rocks, and it’s taken 4.7 billion years to build them up. Helium is often found sitting above reserves of natural oil and gas. In fact that’s exactly how the first helium reserve was discovered: when, in 1903, an oil drilling operation in Kansas produced a gas geyser that wouldn’t burn. It turned out that although helium is relatively rare in the Earth overall, it was concentrated in large quantities under the American Great Plains.

The National Helium Reserve

Show me the way to… The National Helium Reserve

Of course this meant that the United States quickly became the world’s leading supplier of helium. The US started stockpiling the gas during World War I, intending to use it in barrage balloons and later in airships. Helium, unlike the other lighter-than-air gas hydrogen, doesn’t burn. This made things filled with helium safer to handle and, of course, more difficult to shoot down or sabotage.

In 1925 the US government set up the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas. In 1927 the Helium Control Act came into force, which banned the export of the gas. At that point, the USA was the only country producing helium, so they had a complete monopoly (personally, I’d quite like to see a Monopoly board with ‘helium reserves’ on it, wouldn’t you?). And that’s why the Hindenburg, like all German Zeppelins, both famously and tragically had to use hydrogen as its lift gas.

Helium use dropped after World War II, but the reserve was expanded in the 1950s to supply liquid helium as a coolant to create hydrogen/oxygen rocket fuel during the Space Race and the Cold War. The US continued to stockpile helium until 1995. At which point, the reserve was $1.4 billion in debt. The government of the time pondered this and ended up passing the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, directing the United States Department of the Interior to empty the reserve and sell it off at a fixed rate to pay off the cost.

Right now, anyone can buy cheap helium in supermarkets and high street shops.

Right now, anyone can buy cheap helium in supermarkets and high street shops.

As a result cheap helium flooded the market and its price stayed fairly static for a number of years, although the price for very pure helium has recently risen sharply. This sell-off is why we think of helium as a cheap gas; the sort of thing you can cheerfully fill a balloon with and then throw away. Pop down to a large supermarket or your local high street and you might even be able to buy a canister of helium in the party section relatively cheaply.

The problem is that this situation isn’t going to last. The US reserves have been dramatically depleted, and at one point were expected to run out completely in 2018, although other reserves have since been discovered and other countries have set up extraction plants. It is also possible to extract helium from air by distillation, but it’s expensive – some 10,000 times more expensive. None of these alternatives are expected to really ease the shortage; they’ll just delay it by a few years.

So are helium party balloons truly an irresponsible waste of a precious resource? Well… the helium that’s used in balloons is fairly impure, about 98% helium (mixed with, guess what? Yep, we’re back to nitrogen again!) whereas the helium that’s needed for MRI and the like is what’s called ‘grade A’ helium, which is something like 99.997% pure, depending on whom you ask. Of course you can purify the low-grade helium to get the purer kind but this costs money, which is why grade A helium is so much more expensive.

NABAS logo

The National Balloon Association (‘the voice of the balloon industry’ – you can’t help wondering whether that’s a very high-pitched voice, can you?) argues that balloons only account for 5-7% of helium use and that the helium that goes into balloons – which they prefer to call ‘balloon gas’ because of its impurities – is mainly recycled from from the gas that’s used in the medical industry, or is a by-product of supplying pure, liquid helium, and therefore using it in balloons isn’t really a problem.

Dr Peter Wothers argues that helium balloons should be banned.

Dr Peter Wothers argues that helium balloons should be banned.

On the other hand, more than one eminent physics professor has spoken out on the subject of helium wastage. It costs about 30-50p to fill a helium balloon, but Professor Robert Richardson of Cornell University argued (before his death in 2013) that a helium party balloon should cost £75 to more accurately reflect the true scarcity value of the gas. Dr Peter Wothers of Cambridge University has called for an outright ban of them, saying that in 50 years’ time our children will be amazed that we ever used such a precious material to fill balloons.

Is it time to call for a helium balloon boycott? Perhaps, although it will probably take more than one or two scientifically-minded consumers refusing to buy them before we see any difference. Realistically, the price will sky-rocket in the next few years and, as Peter Wothers suggests, filling balloons with helium will become a ridiculous notion because it’s far too expensive.

Will images like this make no sense in the future?

Will images like this make no sense in the future?

It’s strange to think though, that in maybe 50 years or so the idea of a floating balloon might simply disappear. Just think of all the artwork and drawings that will no longer make sense.

Perhaps this quotation by the late Sir Terry Pratchett is even more relevant than it first appears:

“There are times in life when people must know when not to let go. Balloons are designed to teach small children this.”


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