Sometime in the last twenty years or so, the word “chemical” has become a dirty word. Hard to pronounce words. Unnatural synthesized substances. Mad scientist concoctions brewed in a laboratory.
I used to try to introduce some perspective when I facilitated pesticide workshops for the general public by teaching how scientists and regulators determined toxicity, so comparisons between familiar substances, like caffeine, aspirin, or detergents could be made, to varying degrees of success.
It was the “unnatural synthesized substances” part that I had the most difficulty overcoming.
James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher in Australia noticed the same problem, and started a blog and outreach effort, using infographics to illustrate the chemical make up of familiar fruits and vegetables.
In this NY Times piece, he gives the reason why:
As a high-school chemistry teacher, I made these posters for my students as a visual introduction to our organic chemistry course. I want to erode the fear that many people have of ‘chemicals’, and demonstrate that nature evolves compounds, mechanisms and structures far more complicated and unpredictable than anything we can produce in the lab.
The success of the basic chemical makeup posters led further to include the evolutionary history of fruits and vegetables from their wild ancestors, as explained in this Brad Plumer article at Vox.
Fruits and vegetables have changed a lot since the onset of agriculture 10,000 years ago, as generation after generation of farmers artificially bred crops to select for more desirable traits like size and taste.
But that change can be hard to visualize. So James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher in Australia, created some terrific infographics to show just how drastic the evolution has been.