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Enrico UvaRSS Feed of this column.

I majored in chemistry, worked briefly in the food industry and at Fisheries and Oceans. I then obtained a degree in education. Since then I have taught chemistry in the U.S. but mostly in Canada... Read More »

Since Breaking Bad became a hit in 2008, I'm sure many chemistry teachers across the continent have been asked by their students, "Sir, do you watch Breaking Bad? Because the character reminds me of you." It's not difficult to figure out why. Few popular TV programs feature as much chemistry as Breaking Bad, and most adolescents, have only had one chemistry teacher in their lives.

After finally getting around to watching the pilot and subsequent episodes of Season One, I admitted that I liked the drama but was confused over the supposed similarity between White and me.
"Do you really belieive that if I had terminal cancer, poor medical insurance and a pregnant wife, I would resort to making illegal drugs and killing dealers?" , I asked them, smiling.
If a chemist has never been in a lab accident, he has been lucky. Of course luck is more likely to come to those whose mentors have learned from bad experiences and to those who have taken preventive measures seriously, despite their anal nature. Chemical reactions create products with behaviors that differ from those of the ingredients. That's what makes them intriguing, and it's also what makes them potentially dangerous. No matter how simple and controllable a reaction seems on paper, when it's carried out in real life, the exact conditions determine its rate. And when gases or acids acquire too much kinetic energy, no one wants eyes, lungs and flesh in their way.
My grandmother often said that any fool can grow a tomato. They naturally produce a fair number of alkaloids so pesticides are often not necessary, certainly not in a small garden. Even alarmist sources reveal that conventionally grown tomatoes do not have the highest concentration of pesticides. So I get a laugh when I see four or five tomatoes labeled "organic" being sold for $4 at my Bois Franc neighbors' market. For each of the last 40 days or so I've been eating garden tomatoes that germinated from seeds from my compost pile. Total cost: about $2 for the couple of bags of earth I added.
The Space Age began when the Russians launched Sputnik in October of 1957. Thanks in part to the film October Sky and the book Rocket Boys, even today's youth realizes that early achievements from the race to space inspired many students to choose careers in science and technology. The inspirational sighting of Sputnik led a West Virginian coal miner's son to rocket-building, which in turn led to science fairs, industrial engineering and a career with NASA. In fact, the competitive juices stirred by seeing the technological feat of the "enemy" led to the creation of the agency that put men on the moon, and it made Americans revamp their science educational programs. They created Chem Study, PSSC Physics and BSCS biology.

"A chemist", Primo Levi wrote in an essay on carbon, "only has to leaf through a treatise, and memories rise up in bunches." When my wife became curious about the whereabouts of former fellow chemistry graduate students, I suddenly remembered one of my peers nicknamed "Padma". In the lab where I was working on an undergraduate project, he was completing his doctorate on the synthesis of spiroaxane sesquiterpenoids. Spiroaxanes are natural products that are found mostly in various marine organisms and mushrooms. The general class of compounds known as sesquiterpenoids contain 15 carbon atoms; they're  made up of 3 basic units of isoprene and can serve as protective agents or chemical messengers.