Sunday, 12 February 2012

Organic stuff is good for you, right?

By presenting workshops and giving the occasional talk to high school students, I always make a point of allowing them to ask any relevant questions on science, chemistry and so on. I also try and ask them questions that make them think about the world and how it works. One of my favourite questions to ask is:

"Are organic things good for you?".

Most students surmise that I am referring to organic food, and respond with an emphatic "Yes!". This is a reasonable response, as depending on their year level, a number of students will not have encountered organic chemistry at this point in their schooling.

I then press the matter, and ask what does the term "organic" mean. In reply I'm told that it means that organic things are safe, natural, and so on. In response I ask whether they would eat arsenic, as it is naturally occurring. I explain that just because something is naturally occurring, it doesn't necessarily follow that it is safe.

The next question is whether they would ingest something like a cyanide salt, and receive an emphatic "No!" in response. This of course raises the question "Why?". After all, a compound like sodium cyanide is organic, and as the students have told me, organic things are safe and good for you.

At this point an explanation is in order, and discuss the different meanings attached to the word "organic". In particular, to scientists and chemists, "organic" describes a wide range of carbon-containing compounds, because hey, that's how we roll.

In short, it's always enjoyable to share knowledge during these workshops, and allowing the students to gain a more detailed understanding of the world around them.

Until next time,


1 comment:

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