Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Plastics: A Toxic Love Story

About a month ago, Susan Freinkel came out with a book, entitled as above. I haven't made much effort to pick up a copy, as I think I've gotten the gist from the few reviews I've read. But reading an excerpt from the book (courtesy of that once-glorious-publication-that-now-makes-a-mockery-of-its-own-name, Scientific American) has me convinced I made the correct choice. Consider these little sentences:
" 'Have you ever seen a polypropylene molecule?' a plastics enthusiast once asked me. 'It's one of the most beautiful things you've ever seen. It's like looking at a cathedral that goes on and on for miles.' "
(Where did this woman find someone who thinks like this? Please tell that no one reading this blog would think to compare a PP molecule to a cathedral.)
Whether a polymer is natural or synthetic, chances are its backbone is composed of carbon, a strong, stable, glad-handing atom that is ideally suited to forming molecular bonds. Other elements—typically oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen—frequently join that carbon spine, and the choice and arrangement of those atoms produces specific varieties of polymers. Bring chlorine into that molecular conga line, and you can get polyvinyl chloride, otherwise known as vinyl; tag on fluorine, and you can wind up with that slick nonstick material Teflon."
I can overlook the flowery language just fine, as this was obviously aimed at the general public, but sorry to say, PVC does not have the chlorine in the conga line - it's "tagged" onto the side to put it in Freinkelese. Oh, and as for that fluorine that is indeed tagged on, you actually need 4 of them (not one) for every monomer molecule. (Even if you take the IUPAC approach and consider that the repeat unit is -CF2-, you still have to tag on 2 fluorines to each one.)

These are just from the first page of the excerpt. Wow. One loony-tune, and two factually wrong statements. Pretty incredible ratio, huh? I'm done.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's always bothered me that with the outrageous cost of textbooks, the quality only gets lower every year (in general). My books would have green, red, blue, yellow, etc. vomited all over the pages that could give the most focused mathematicians ADD.

Nowadays books omit information or procedures and puts them on their "supplemental website." These sites usually involve a ridiculous registration process and almost always look like they payed some teenager $200 bucks to design it. I'm paying over $200+ dollars for a book, it damn well be all inclusive.

If there is one thing I want textbook companies to know it's this:
We are not little kids who need lots bright colors, interactive games, and flowery language to understand a subject. All of that stuff only distracts from the subject and make it difficult to take things in slowly and deliberately. I would often rent books from the library from the 80s because those books get straight the point, usually in a concise manner.