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Science not just some airy-fairy concept

Earlier this month, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation released the results of a survey on the attitudes of youth towards science. Perhaps not surprisingly, the results were not good for chemistry.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation released the results of a survey on the attitudes of youth towards science.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the results were not good for chemistry. Of the respondents, only 48 per cent had studied chemistry and of those, only 60 per cent found it interesting.

I know that I am biased, but this strikes me as a low number. Especially when considering that over 90 per cent of the students had studied history, mathematics, and language arts and found them interesting.

Only physics seemed to fare worse in the study and that is perhaps not that surprising.

According to the survey, the perception among youth is that physics is more difficult and complicated than chemistry, which is more difficult and complicated than biology.

Still, the overall numbers are low, which, in a society where a great many of the issues and problems facing us depend on an understanding of science, could be a touch problematic.

As an example, I was listening to a report on CBC about the group organized in Kamloops to fight the efforts of the Aboriginal Cogeneration Corporation to burn railway ties. The spokesperson for the group said something to the effect that creosote is bad and that building the plant would release the compounds into the airshed.

She added: "As anyone knows, who has had even an elementary school education in science, things don't disappear. They have to go somewhere."

"Argh!" said the scientist in me. This is such a misunderstanding of what science has to say!

Yes, matter and energy can be collectively neither created nor destroyed but when we are talking about matter, in this instance, we don't mean chemical compounds. Matter, in this context, means "atoms".

That is, before the discovery of nuclear fission and fusion, scientists believe that atoms were permanent fixtures in the universe.

Einstein provided a formula that showed that matter - in the form of nuclear material - could be converted directly to energy but still, the total amount of matter and energy in the universe is a constant.

But chemical compounds - such as the creosote that is used to preserve the wood of the railway ties - can be destroyed.

Combustion of polyaromatic hydrocarbons at a sufficiently, high-enough temperature results in their conversion to carbon dioxide and water. The creosote no longer exists but its atoms remain to form other chemical compounds.

So, does this mean that we should go ahead with the cogeneration plant?

Not necessarily! There are certainly risks associated with the project.

The technology relies on gasification, in order to generate the feed stream for the combustion chamber, and there are issues with that. Without looking at the details, I wouldn't want to say more.

The point that I am trying to make, though, is that the idea shouldn't simply be dismissed out of hand or because of a misunderstanding of "elementary school science."

More to the point, there are a number of issues where a little better understanding of the chemistry and physics involved would alleviate fears and provide a better insight.

Be it cell phones (which are a bad idea but not because they cause cancer - which they don't), plastics (which are not harmful but are perceived as such), pharmaceuticals (which save lives), or any number of other issues, there is a persistent belief that what we don't understand, must be bad for us.

I am not trying to say here that everything is good for us. Not at all.

There are harmful chemicals in our environments. Some are naturally occurring compounds - such as the toxin from botulism. Others are synthetic in that they have been created through deliberate human intervention. Still others are accidents, created as by-products of other activities.

But not all chemicals are harmful. Water and oxygen are chemicals and it would be hard to live a day without either of them. DNA is a chemical that provides the necessary instructions that allow our cells to live.

Iron is an element that shows up in many compounds, including haemoglobin, which we need to live. These are all essential chemical compounds.

And natural doesn't equate to "good." Take botulism toxin as an example. It is the single deadliest compound known to humanity - far deadlier than dioxins or mercury or polyaromatic hydrocarbons - and yet it is a natural product of bacteria that can grow in our food.

The combustion of wood, as an energy source, can be done in a manner that can produce energy and minimizes the production of harmful byproducts. If the combustion takes place at a high enough temperature, and with the appropriate scrubbers in place, it is a chemical process that can be "safe."

What is critical is ensuring that an understanding of science is applied. And that means that we need people that understand chemistry, physics, and biology and all the rest of the sciences.