Chemistry Lecture a Compound of Several Strands in Science World

Families of blood cells

Families of blood cells

Doctor Robert Morris may have illustrated more about the scientific world than he intended, in last Wednesday’s lecture, “Chemists Have Solutions.”

There’s a divide amongst scientists who want to get the public to recognize the value of what they do. (Read this book review of Don’t be SUCH a Scientist for a more detailed discussion.) Some like to use a lot of pizazz when they talk to a general audience. Others prefer to lay out all the detailed scientific information and “let the facts speak for themselves.” The criticism of the “pizazz” approach is that it often means using flashy graphics and doing a lot of pep talking at the expense of some scientific detail. On the other hand, a dry recitation of every pertinent fact tends to put an audience to sleep, and their appreciation for the value of the work is not enhanced.

As he presented his lecture at the Toronto Reference Library, Morris was clearly aware that you have to do something to grab your audience’s attention, so they’re keen to hear what you’ll say next. He started by mixing three liquids in a lab flask, promising an interesting result after it “cooked” for a while. And he made liberal use of slides, and interspersed the occasional trivia question, making a point of letting a child in the front row give one of the answers.

Yet for all that, Morris is still clearly of the “lay out all the facts” school. Most of the first half hour was about the Chemistry Department at the University of Toronto. We heard how many faculty there were, how many grad students they teach, how many awards they had won, where they were ranked compared to other university Chemistry departments…we heard it all. And then, since it’s the International Year of Chemistry, we also heard about and saw slides from events held several months ago. Yes, it’s really too bad the Toronto press didn’t properly publicize or cover those events, but they really weren’t that interesting — in the present — to an audience  for whom attendance was now impossible.

I suspect what the public really wanted to hear about was new chemical breakthroughs that allowed the production of cool new gadgets or processes. Forget how many grad students are in the university department! Show us that piece of cloth made with nanotechnology, which repels dirt and water and can never get soiled!

Morris did actually show slides of a couple of those breakthroughs, later on. The most intriguing was the Lab on a Chip — a tiny computer chip that can do medical analysis of an even tinier drop of blood placed on it. When that chip becomes common, no lab tech will ever take four vials of blood from us again, for tests. And instead of waiting five hours for results, we’ll have them in twenty minutes. We also learned about a newly developed process that can send antibodies into a person with leukemia, to target the specific family of blood cells causing the disease.

And that liquid compound Morris had made at the beginning? It provided a “traffic light” type of display. It had turned to amber while it sat, but with a little shaking, it turned red. And with much more shaking, it turned green. So there were a few of the “Wow, that’s cool”!” moments. Just not enough of them.

Doctor Morris was a great guy who was clearly excited about the work he and the other faculty and grad students were doing. His department deserves its high world rank, and is making a significant contribution in many areas. But in trying to get a general audience excited about chemistry, he may not be the person to grab their attention and keep it.

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