Joe Schwarcz, David Harpp and Ariel Fenster


Created for chemical queries

SYLVAIN-JACQUES DESJARDINS | The World of Chemistry trio's campaign to take the sting out of science for everyone who still shudders at the memory of groping with the periodic table in high school marches on. This fall, the new McGill Office for Chemistry and Society, devoted to informing the public about chemistry, sets up shop in the Otto Maass Building.

Creating an information outlet on chemistry of this nature has been a long-term goal for McGill adjunct chemistry professors Joe Schwarcz and Ariel Fenster and David Harpp, chair of the Department of Chemistry. Having familiarized hundreds of McGill undergraduates with chemistry through their World of Chemistry courses -- a popular class even with science-wary arts students -- the trio now hope to better inform the general public on the topic.

Schwarcz will man the office five days a week as its first director and its most recognized expert on chemistry, which he's helped popularize through his weekly chemistry column in the Gazette, his phone-in radio show on CJAD and his regular contributions to the Discovery Channel.

After informing the public on chemistry for over two decades, he says there's a growing need for an authoritative source on the subject.

"I've seen first-hand how interest in chemistry has skyrocketed," he says. "But for many people, chemistry is still a word that's sometimes feared and associated with toxins and poisons."

The office will try to clear up those misconceptions. "We'll be here to interface with the public, to try to answer their questions and address their fears."

Given Schwarcz, Fenster and Harpp's track record, the office will likely be using a fair amount of wit and whimsy. Their award-winning efforts to popularize chemistry rely as much on making the subject matter fun as on their ability to link chemistry to everyday living. Schwarcz's new book, Radar, Hula Hoops, and Playful Pigs, dishes up the chemical facts on ginseng, chicken soup and hot dogs -- not to mention Casanova's experiments with "Spanish Fly."

Information will be disseminated by the Office via the Internet (the web site reports that drug overdose is one of the major health problems facing drug-sniffing K-9 dogs and that, ounce for ounce, raw green peppers have two-and-a-half times as much Vitamin C as oranges).

The office will also use position papers, media interviews and a future, subscriber-based newsletter. Workshops will be offered to elementary and high school teachers to help them energize classroom science activities, while various short courses will be offered to companies wishing to give their employees further training.

For McGill chemistry students, the office will serve as a centre where they can keep abreast of the latest research; they'll have access to a library of over 30 periodicals and regular meetings to sensitize them to new findings on how chemistry influences our day-to-day activities.

Since chemistry affects our daily lives in more ways than we believe -- from which foods we eat to what detergents we use -- Harpp says it's a subject that's an easy sell. "People are more concerned about their health and they want a place that can examine their questions in an organized fashion," he says. "The office will provide that and [help create] confidence in the scientific establishment."

And while media like the Internet can be a boon to informing the public about chemistry, the electronic highway has also been filled with erroneous information on science matters. "People are bombarded with so much information," Schwarcz says, "that they don't know how to distinguish what facts are worthwhile and what information may not be sound." The Office for Chemistry and Society aims to clear up the confusion, he adds, while helping to satisfy the public's "thirst" for information.

To Harpp's knowledge, this is the first university-based office dedicated to informing the public solely on chemistry. While there's no doubt the office will perform an important role in public awareness, he admits, "it's going to be a daunting task considering the large amount of misinformation that's out there."

Schwarcz admits the office won't necessarily have all the answers, but he says, "We're going to try our best to answer whatever questions come our way."

A brief opening ceremony to inaugurate the new Office for Chemistry and Society will take place in the Otto Maass Chemistry Building on September 17 at noon, following Joe Schwarcz's weekly radio show on CJAD, which he'll host from the lobby for the occasion.

For more information on the Office for Chemistry and Society, please consult: or call 398-6238.