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Gonsalves: Fear, beer and science
By Sean Gonsalves October 20, 2011 Text Size: A | A | A Print this Article Email this Article

Other than a handful of elements from the periodic table, beakers and that white lab jacket the teacher wore every day, I don't remember a thing from high school chemistry — not even my teacher's name.


Maybe that's because the tormented experience of that class chemically induced me to bury those memories deep into my medial frontal cortex. I need Leonardo DiCaprio to dive into my unconscious mind, like a scene from the movie "Inception," just to get my "chemistry education" synapses to connect. Of course, there's nothing unique about the bad chemistry I had with chemistry. One of my favorite popular science writers, Natalie Angier, describes chemistry as "the subject that at least 6 out of every 6.0225 Americans insist they 'flunked in high school.' The boilerplate evil scientist of Hollywood is often some type of chemist ... People rant against all the 'chemicals' in the environment, as though the word were synonymous w ith 'poisons.'" It's precisely this kind of chemical fear and loathing that Jennifer Maclachian and her father, Jack Driscoll ,want to dilute.

What: Cape Cod Science Cafe Where: Cape Cod Beer, 1336 Phinney's Lane, Hyannis When: 6 to 8 p.m. Friday Oct. 21, 2011 Chowder, salad, bread and non-alcoholic beverages will be served. Admission is free. But, if you go, organizers ask that you register ahead of time at the Cape Cod Beer website (www.capecodbeer.com)

Maclachian is the managing director of PID Analyzers LLC in Sandwich. Driscoll is a physical chemist. Both of them founded PID Analyzers and now work in the "industrial hygiene" business, which is all about occupational safety in the chemical industry.

In fact, Driscoll is what you might call a pretty big deal in the field. Driscoll used to work for Geophysics Corp. of America, which developed a photoionization spectrometer for NASA. His time there, and then later working with the Walden Research Corp., led him to invent the first hand-held photoionization detector, or PID, which is basically a UV lamp attached to a mini-ionization chamber that detects harmful contaminants and volatile organic compounds. Because of that, earlier this year, he was awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society, the regional arm of the largest single-discipline scientific organization in the country with 163,000 members. Driscoll's PID is an amazing instrument. Not only did it play a starring role in the discovery and cleanup of contaminants at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., it also convinced executives at Gillette years ago that their plants weren't as safe as their internal safety inspectors thought. And even though you hear lots of political rhetoric about "job-killing" regulations on businesses, in the real world, safety equipment like the PID can actually turn potentially killer-jobs into a job-creation success story. But to do any of this cool, creative, fun stuff, you have to first know a little something about chemistry. To help promote the contributions of chemistry, and increase the public's knowledge of the field and the importance of science education, the American Chemical Association launched "International Year of Chemistry 2011." A Bunsen burner was lit under Maclachian. She ran with the idea and organized a series of "Cape Cod Science Cafés." The year is broken into four quarters, with a different aspect of chemistry highlighted in each. The first quarter focused on the environment, which Maclachian used as an opportunity to hold a forum on the chemistry of the Cape's water systems. The theme of the second quarter was energy, which brought the esteemed MIT scientist Dan Nocera to the Hyannis Golf Club to give a talk on alternative energy. The third-quarter focus, which we're in right now, is recycling. And what better way to engage the public on the chemistry of recycling than with libations and a science café hosted at Cape Cod Beer? "The chemistry of brewing is pretty interesting. And it turns out that Todd (Marcus, who co-owns the local brewery with his wife, Beth) is really into chemistry. He's an electrical engineer by trade. He has microscopes over there and everything," Maclachian told me on Wednesday. More importantly, Cape Cod Beer is a model for "sustainable businesses," she said, noting how seriously the Marcuses take recycling. "And that's something they're going to talk about on Friday." For Driscoll — whether you're talking about brewing beer, the basic building blocks of the universe, or NStar's herbicide program — it's all chemistry, baby. Not only does chemistry matter, it literally is the stuff of all matter.

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10/20/2011 10:55 AM

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