the terms ‘natural’ and ‘chemical’ have become un-necessarily polarised

The 2011 Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing used the chemical world for inspiration. The non-fiction winner apparently argued that “the terms ‘natural’ and ‘chemical’ have become un-necessarily polarised” – an assertion my mum makes all the time! I am quoting entirely from their website:

“Chemical World

“I unhem creation a little, to work out the stitch”
Vincent O’Sullivan, 2006 from the anthology ‘Are Angels OK?

So wrote poet Vincent O’Sullivan regarding Marie Curie’s work on radiation 100 years ago. Chemists unravel and unpick our world down to its simplest form in order to comprehend its mysteries; society bears the consequences that arise.

In 1911, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a hundred years on we celebrate the contribution of chemistry to the well-being of mankind.

Non-fiction Winner – Joanna Wojnar

100% Chemical Free (PDF, 209 kB)

Joanna is originally from Poland, but her family emigrated to New Zealand when she was a small child.

She is a PhD chemist, having obtained her degrees from Victoria University of Wellington, most recently a doctorate under the supervision of Assoc. Prof. Peter Northcote in 2008.

Since then, she has done a postdoc with Prof. Stephen Kent at the University of Chicago, and then returned to New Zealand to take up a position with Prof. Margaret Brimble at the University of Auckland. She is currently working on the synthesis of labelled antifreeze glycopeptide probes for the investigation of how antifreeze glycopeptides trail from the gut to the blood of the Antarctic notothenioid fish, and how these fish remove circulating ice.


Chemistry is “concerned with the substances of which matter is composed, the investigation of their properties and reactions, and the use of such reactions to form new substances”, while a chemical is “a distinct substance or compound,” and so by its very definition encompasses everything in the world, including ourselves.  The phrase chemical-free is therefore not just misleading, but simply ridiculous, yet many people, who now equate chemical with toxic, actively seek out chemical-free products. This leads to a proliferation of goods that proudly advertise being chemical-free, from the chemical-free Miracle Gro fertilizer (never mind that it contains phosphorus pentoxide and potassium oxide among other ingredients),through the chemical-free (but mineral!) powder make-up, even including –incredibly – a chemical-free chemistry set!

While these examples may be excused as pandering to the public at large who misunderstand the words chemistry and chemical, a more recent example is more worrisome still.  The prestigious journal Science, presumably aimed at educated scientists, describes a fully “chemical-free” process in their short News section, as relating to the production of fibres from milk proteins.  The same article that mentions casein biopolymers, also states: “the entire production process uses no chemicals or pesticides.”  When exactly did chemistry become synonymous with poison, and chemical with toxic?”


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Science education, What is quality literature? and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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