The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’
-Lewis Carrol, from Through the Looking Glass, 1871.
If you are left on a briny beach alone long enough you might get around to doing a dangerous thing, which is to say you might start to think. Now there are a lot of things to think about: politics, taxes, your family, your job, and all of these things are worth thinking about. But after you’ve stopped thinking about those things, all you will be left with is the scenery. When you look out at the sea stretching out before you, slowly eating at the shore, or smell the salt in the air, or feel the sand shift beneath your feet, you might ask what separates these things from each other. If you are feeling particularly dangerous, you might ask what separates you from these things.
Science is not independent of human desires, thoughts, hopes, or dreams, whether those desires and dreams be noble or perverse. We tend to talk about science like it is merely a method, but our relationship with science is in practice, more complicated. Science is a study, a verb, a history, a philosophy, a method, and a culture all rolled into a diffuse but powerful entity. And there is no better specialty and no better lens for seeing this than chemistry.
When I was a child, my family moved from Charlotte, North Carolina to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Even for a boy whose father was Arab, it was a radical shift in lifestyle and culture. Common American brands became unfamiliar as British versions took their place under slightly different names, electric stoves were replaced by the ever-ominous gas cookers that could blow your house up (or so my mother constantly warned), and pseudo-suburban apartment complexes gave way to decidedly urban apartment buildings. But what I missed most at the time were the shows I’d gotten used to watching on television. Luckily, the UAE has a large Indian expatriate community, and our apartment’s default satellite package catered to them. My brother and I would watch the Indian channels because, despite being mostly in Hindi, they often had the syndicated American sitcoms and English language programming that we were hungry for as recent arrivals seeking the familiar.
On these channels there was a commercial in Hindi that my brother and I would see sometimes for a beauty product called “Fair & Lovely.” Since we were well and truly made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails, ads for cosmetics were mostly all the same to our eyes, but this one stood out. While most beauty product commercials showed you how their product would make your eyelashes longer, or your hair shinier, or your skin smoother, this one was unfathomable because we didn’t notice any difference between the “before” and “after” pictures. We thought that the “after” picture was maybe little lighter, like the brightness had been turned up, but we couldn’t figure out what the product was for. Finally we asked our mother what was going on. She explained that it was a skin bleaching cream, designed to make a person’s skin lighter. My brother and I were nonplussed. Our family was mixed Arab and Hispanic, and varied in color. We didn’t understand why your color was something was something you might want to change. Being young and naïve about concepts like colorism, much less how it was construed in communities outside our own, we shrugged and moved on with life.
You can still buy skin bleaching creams. Different types are being banned in some African nations due to health concerns, many products contain toxic mercury compounds, but Fair and Lovely is unlikely to fall under such a ban because it is not, in fact, a bleaching cream. The main ingredient appears to be nicotinamide, a variant of a common B vitamin, which can act locally, if weakly, as a melanin suppressor. So the term “bleaching” is not what it seems at first blush: Rather than a chemical term, it is more of a political term conjuring images of caustic chlorine and colorist attempts to erase an aspect of someone’s physical identity.
But if you look at Fair and Lovely’s packaging, there is something else going on there. The package has a floating motif that is, of all things, a double helix. It’s even a right handed helix, which is something that graphic designers tend to get wrong in images of DNA. It doesn’t explicitly claim to have anything to do with DNA, and of course it can’t, since it’s essentially a vitamin cream. So why include that in the image? Why place a model’s face inside the helix? Is she the same person in the background? What precisely are they selling?
Sure, I can look at the bottle, and I can read the ingredients, and I can understand what effects these substances have on the body. But after doing this, I still haven’t answered the question of what is being sold, only the question of what is in the bottle. The reality is that what is being sold is a vision of the product that appeals to the buyer’s personal understanding of chemistry and biology. To a lot of people, a DNA helix is a symbol in their mind. To them, it’s not a nucleic acid or set of structures with unique chemistry, it may not even be something they would call a “chemical.” For most people, it is a shorthand for identity, and for the self. Yet its chemistry is superficial, cosmetic; both literally and figuratively cheap. The packaging is heralding a momentous transformation of identity. In so many ways, the chemistry bought is not the chemical promise sold.
The point of the story is not to simply say that people are naïve about things, or about science, but instead that the people buying the product are astute to the symbols of the culture around them, and to the social signals that culture is sending them. Their chemical intuition is entwined with their culture, as is yours, as is mine. Even chemists are not completely immune to this effect.
The goal of this blog is to show that even without active thought, you probably respond to a chemical intuition that you absorb through culture. This blog will examine the interactions between that intuition and the science and study of chemistry. The goal is to break through some of the conditioning you’ve received about things as simple as soap and water, which you may have never really thought about. For example, yes, they clean things, but what does “clean” really mean? To see how the world comes together, we ask the questions beneath the questions, and give meaning to the phenomena.
So when you find that you are done sitting on that beach, and you finally slap the sand off of your clothes and body and move back into normal life as you know it, you might find yourself seeing things a little differently. Yes chemistry is important when it comes to offering solutions and answering questions about technology, war, sports, famine, health, and more. But it does so much more than that. Chemistry is unique among the physical sciences because our chemical understandings, intuitions, and aspirations are a mirror we can hold up to society. While biology tells us what we are, and physics tell us where we are going and how fast we are getting there, chemistry tells us not only who we are, but who we think we are.