Storks and the Biological Facts of Life

Many years ago, I got into the good habit of keeping a journal while my kids were growing up. Here’s one of my favorite entries. 

My daughter, who is in the first grade, went to an art museum with her class today. She told her Mom that lots of statues were showing their private parts. In the morning she had also showered with her mother, so not surprisingly, my daughter came out of it saying she wants breasts.

284613678011211Kids, of course, occasionally think of precocious thoughts that simply float away. But I cannot help contrast her childhood to mine. I never showered with the parent of my own sex; in fact, luckily, I have yet to see my parents naked. When my mother was pregnant with my brother, I was my daughter’s age, and I had seen a picture of a stork that held, from its beak, a sling with a baby. There were fluffy clouds in the background, and that’s where my brother was coming from—the sky.

One day, our tenant’s daughter, Manon, claimed that my baby brother was in my mother’s belly. I remember exactly what crack of the sidewalk I was about to step on when she said that. Manon had made the world stop. I recall looking across the street at the front entrance, expecting my mother to magically open the door and promptly deny the absurdity. It was like being told that the milk came out of the milkman’s ear.

Luckily, later that evening, after laughing and realizing that I was not ready for the truth, my mother assured me that a stork would indeed bring the baby home. Astonishingly, even though I know from recent accounts that my mother had apparently remained relatively thin throughout the pregnancy, I had never noticed her belly. My brother was not exactly born hamster-sized, so I must have never looked below her face.

Five years later in the sixth grade, my friend, whose first name was the same as mine, came to school with a shocking piece of news. As we walked past the nun’s residence, he quoted a World Book Encyclopaedia article on reproduction. It claimed the process started when a male part of the anatomy was placed in the female counterpart. How could that lead to a baby? Could unscrewing the back of a TV and sticking a prosciutto ( ham) into it create a cooking show? But half the boys in our class seemed to confirm what was in print, and the encyclopaedia had never lied to me. I wrestled with the idea for a week, considering the possibility that a secret had been kept from me. But accepting the idea became more difficult when the same friend had concluded that this was only one way of reproducing. Surely, our parents had used some other means.

A few weeks ago my daughter, who has a fascination with bones, was looking at some anatomy drawings in one of our medical books. She turned the pages and came across a diagram of a scrotum and asked what it was for. It produces seed needed to make a baby, I told her. “That’s how babies are made?” she asked, grimacing. I realized that I had told her too much.

Our children need their childhood.



Pure Water’s pH is only 7.00 at a Specific Temperature.

Pure water’s pH is only 7.00 at a specific temperature of 25.0 °C.  Students (and teachers too) hear that number so often that they forget where it comes from. And forgetting its origins makes one forget that if the temperature deviates significantly from 25.0 °C, you will get unfamiliar numbers for the pH of pure water.

At any temperature, pure water will always have the same concentration of ions resulting from a very slight splitting of the life-essential molecule into a positive hydrogen ion and a negatively charged hydroxide ion. The product of each ion’s concentration will equal its so-called Kw of 1.01 × 10-14 at 25.0 °C. To calculate the concentration of H+ ions, you first take the square root 1.01 × 10-14  and then take the negative logarithm of H+, the definition of pH. It yields 7.00.

But changing temperature usually affects any equilibrium constant, including Kw. In this case raising temperature helps water split up. You get more ions, thus a higher ion product. Kw becomes 5.48 × 10-14 at 50 ° C, Lowering the temperature has the opposite effect on equilibrium, and Kw becomes 0.29 × 10-14 at 10° C.

When you recalculate pH of pure water at 50 ° C and 10° C, we obtain pH’s of 6.63 and 7.27, respectively. The temperature does not make water either slightly acidic or alkaline. It’s just that the middle or neutrality point of the pH scale at those different temperatures changes. The 7.00 is not set in stone. The middle point of the pH scale is a setting derived from what the Kw happens to be at 25.0° C.


The pH is also 7.00 for aqueous solutions whose solutes at that same temperature do not affect the ions that water itself produces. When the temperature changes for those solutions, the pH will change accordingly. In our bodies, if temperature was the only factor, then out physiological pH would be below 7.00. But the presence of bicarbonate ions eats up some of the hydrogen ions, setting the physiological pH at about 7.4. The  pH of the extracellular fluid of tumour cells, as determined by probing microelectrodes, is acidic. That truth has been known for at least 3 decades, and of course nothing one eats will have any impact on the pH of that fluid.

Often teachers have to reiterate to get ideas across. So indulge me. 🙂 Does temperature affect neutrality of pure water? No. The concentration of hydrogen ions will be equal to that of hydroxide ions as long as no solute interferes with one of them. Does raising temperature raise the concentration of OH? Yes. Of H+? Yes. Will that in turn affect pH? Of course, by definition.


Science Outreach: Two Ends of the Spectrum

CokeMost readers are familiar with the term greenwashing in which certain companies use the jargon from the environmental movement on their label to boost sales. But meanwhile, with regards to packaging and/or manufacturing, they do not implement the ecological practices required to significantly cut waste and pollution.

The worst form of science outreach is actually science-washing. Science-washers make it seem like their sole objective is to enlighten people about the science surrounding an issue. But in reality they are more concerned with self-interest and/or some economic or political objective.  The world of science media is filled with little fires, issues that seem potentially threatening.  In some cases, science can tell immediately if they are staged. But science cannot always tell which of the real fires will die out by themselves and which ones will grow to be devastating. But the science-washer will act 100% certain when some inner belief or vested interest is threatened.

I have notes regarding a 7-year old Montreal Gazette newspaper article about the endocrine disruptor, bisphenol A (BPA). It started with the line, “Relax – food chemicals can’t hurt you.” That was one heck of a general assertion! Did the author, who is a well-known educator and media personality to this day,  forget things like the botulinum toxin, a chemical that can show up in food that hasn’t been preserved properly. Of course incidences of botulism are rare, but the compounds glucose, sucrose, sodium chloride and sodium nitrite are common additives and are far from being innocuous.

There are enough people out there who hate nuances. They will tolerate details as long as there is a clear-cut answer at the end of a short article. The author of The Gazette article did not disappoint. He totally dismissed the concerns about the particular endocrine disruptor. Unfortunately, he failed to mention that there were other compounds in its class, some far more powerful, and that even at that, he failed to look at the problem ecologically where, for example,  extremely low doses had effects on fish.  With endocrine disruptors, it’s not a question of “the dose makes the poison” since they are not acting as poisons but as hormone mimics, and the hormones in question, unlike most poisons, normally operate at very low concentrations. For example, endogenous estrogens and estrogenic drugs operate in the picomolar range ( 10-12 moles per liter) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website currently(2020) states:

Human health effects from BPA at low environmental exposures are unknown. BPA has been shown to affect the reproductive systems of laboratory animals. More research is needed to understand the human health effects of exposure to BPA.

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Ed Elmos and the real Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver

My criticism of his article was online. How he quickly found out about it was a mystery to me at the time, but the important thing is what he whined about. He said that the details I provided, although accurate, would have confused the public. Here was an educator forgetting the famous line from  Stand and Deliver based on a real-life outstanding teacher, Jaime Escalante who said, “Students will rise to the level of your expectations.”

I wish that article was an isolated incident. There are many people with academic credentials online who blur the line between science outreach and just straight-out public relations. For example, defenders of the health and ecological safety of glyphosate or Enlist Duo’s (glyphosate + 2,4-D and other additives), never get into the nuances. Try arguing with them. When they realize that you are not a communist, anti-vax, anti-science or even an activist, they will try persuade you with bizarre conspiracy theories that smear reputable journalists and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

So what does excellent science outreach look like? It looks like the Youtube series Sixty Symbols from the University of Nottingham.  These guys are the real McCoy. Why?  They are not trying to sell you nuclear power or a bigger particle accelerator or the misconception that science is the only way of acquiring knowledge. They are genuinely teaching you one way of looking at the world, and it’s obvious that they have put a lot of effort to step away from their research or other activities to make their knowledge more accessible. In one video by Phil Moriarty, I saw a completely original way of teaching the uncertainty principle.


An extended musical note versus a short one. The frequency range of the latter is wider. This is related to the uncertainty principle.

It is counter-intuitive but true that a short musical note (like the one created when you chug an electric guitar string to stop it from vibrating) has a wide frequency range. In contrast, if you whistle the same note for an extended period of time, there is just one frequency. Frequency and time are inversely proportional. The momentum of an atomic sized particle, which has significant wave properties, is a kind of spatial frequency. If the wavelength is short, like that of the abrupt musical note, there are a number of possibilities for momentum. If the wavelength is longer, the momentum is known with more certainty, but the particle’s exact location becomes much harder to pin down. It’s stretched like the extended whistle.

When the Nottingham physicists are asked about how well-prepared students are for university physics, they don’t get into a whining session. Given that they are genuinely committed to student-learning, they give constructive criticism. They point out that the topics covered by A-Levels physics teachers (in England) are adequate, but that the math courses are a bit broad in scope and exam-centered with not enough rigorous calculus. It is an important point that, if addressed, will help students as much as it will help professors. In contrast, those who do poor outreach rarely give useful tips. One particular individual, who went on to work for the front group ACSH, once criticized an article revealing that lots of science Nobelists are alumni of public high schools. Why? He worried about the bad impression it would make on private schools.

Authentic and quality outreachers are not afraid to show the human face of science. In Falsifiability and Messy Science, another Sixty Symbol video, ( maybe go for a coffee during the Master Class advertisement by Neil Tyson!) Phil Moriarty argues that there is no clear-cut definition of science. Different teams have different approaches. They don’t necessarily seek what’s falsifiable (a la Karl Popper), and are not always looking to verify hypotheses. They are often poking around, trying to find something.  And yet they still produce science that’s valuable and reproducible. Later, when he mentions that science, like all human behaviour, is not only determined by rational thought but by social context, the interviewer takes exception, “Aren’t you stoking the fires of people like climate change deniers?” Moriarty countered that although he looked at some of the evidence for man-caused climate change and found it strong, he is ultimately convinced of the phenomenon by having faith in specialists’ opinions.

Although Moriarty doesn’t delve into the issue, what’s relevant is that it’s also perfectly reasonable and necessary to consider conflicts of interest. What makes man-caused climate change increasingly convincing to the majority, is that it has far less hidden and/ or dubious motives than those of the skeptics. It is for the same reason that I take the President’s Cancer Panel seriously when they concluded in 2010:

“the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated” and strongly urged action to reduce people’s widespread exposure to carcinogens.

Postcript: An interesting interview regarding BPA and regulatory agencies was aired on Public Radio International’s Living Earth