New food labeling, K?


In 2018 you’ll see a new nutrient listed on your food label, the element potassium. Potassium is known to chemists by its symbol : K (not to be confused with Vitamin K which is something different.) Potassium is one of those weird elements with a symbol that doesn’t reflect its name in English. The name comes from the word potash because it is found in plant ashes. The Latin name for plant ashes is Kalium.

Potassium is vital to life. It regulates heart beat and muscle function. Thus, low  potassium can cause muscle cramps, irregular heart beat, and fainting. Bruising and vein problems could be a symptom of low potassium. There are all sorts of reasons for these symptoms, of course, but your body struggling for potassium doesn’t need to be one of them. Potassium is also important for bone health.

On the periodic table potassium sits right below sodium. It’s sodium’s big sister and acts much like sodium in the body in that it is an electrolyte. However, we need much more potassium than sodium in our diets. We need 4,700 mg each day. You need less than half that amount of sodium.  Too much sodium with too little potassium creates hypertension aka high blood pressure.

Before high-salt processed foods came about, getting more dietary potassium than sodium was easy. Potassium is an important mineral for plants. It is the K in the NPK ratio shown on fertilizer boxes. (The other letters are for nitrogen and phosphorus.)  Plants need potassium and contain a lot of it. Therefore, a high plant diet provides enough potassium. Plants rich in potassium are found across the globe. You can find all sorts of lists of high potassium foods but here are some I’ll eat:

potatoes  (K is much lower in potato chips by the way. Fries are a little better but oh, the grease and salt!)




acorn squash


wild rice







tomato paste

bamboo shoots

seaweed (I admit–I don’t much like this.)

It should be easy to get potassium so what’s the problem?

First of all, we need a lot so if you skimp on the vegetables and fruit, you might be lacking.

Second, it’s water soluble and can be flushed out with too much liquid–particularly alcohol. There is a phrase among health care professionals–“with booze, you loose.”

Additionally, salt (more specifically the sodium in salt) can displace it and cause more of it to be excreted. However, if you get enough potassium, salt is less dangerous to your health. Unfortunately, high salt foods will drive the potassium out of your system. It’s a tricky balance that can be thrown off with high sodium dishes. As the saying goes, the relationship is complicated.

So why isn’t potassium in more supplements? Can’t I get it from those? Supplements should be taken only with a doctor’s advice.  Too much potassium is dangerous. Some people should not consume a lot of potassium. People with kidney or other health problems need to be on low potassium diets. Drugs can change potassium levels even if the drugs do not contain potassium. Medical professionals monitor patients who take potassium supplements. For these patients, the new label can serve as a warning on what to avoid. Additionally–it’s easier for your body to regulate your potassium balance if you get it from foods throughout the day rather than taking a walloping dose all at once.

Worried about potassium? Most people shouldn’t be. Watch those labels and eat the right foods. It will be O.K.

Foods will be labeled with potassium content beginning in 2018. You’d have to drink a lot of this eggnog to get your daily dose of potassium.







An Interview with The Hexagon of Alpha Chi Sigma

Alpha Chi Sigma is a professional society for chemists. One thing that I like about them is that they honor chemistry’s alchemical roots. They even have a cool coat of arms.


Do I consider myself part alchemist? Of course I do! Alchemists developed many of the “wet” chemistry techniques we use today including precipitation, sublimation, and distillation. Yes they added prayers and chants to their formulas but I’m sure many students today do likewise. Possible the chants might include curse words. The truth about chemistry is that it is a discipline that requires some seasoning, some experiences, some sort of unmeasurable history with the techniques. Chemistry honors the ancients. The more time you spend with it, the easier it becomes.

I was recently interviewed for the AXE magazine, The Hexagon. I appreciated the opportunity to share my experiences as a scientist and an author. In fact, I thank everyone who has read my writing, everyone who has encouraged me, and all who have left positive reviews.

Here’s a transcript:



(1) Describe your projects. I have two novels published by small presses. Natural Attraction came out in 2015. It’s a comedy about Clementine, who longs to be a scientist in 1871. She drinks a tonic which helps her partially transform into a man and takes part in a prospecting expedition as a naturalist. Mixed In—a comic dystopia– just came out this month. It features Catrina, a chemist in the agricultural industry, who gets mixed up with a man on the wrong side of the law.

(2) Describe your motivations. Besides wanting to entertain people, I’m responding to a lack of interesting scientific characters in fiction. Must scientists always be anti-social side characters obsessed only with their work? Can’t the female scientist be adventurous, flawed, and get the guy now and then?

(3) Why do you think these topics are important? Science has enriched our lives and yet people have this fear of it and even a disregard of scientists, seeing them as walking brains and not as real people with normal wants and needs. I admit that my characters are quirky and maybe even nerdy at times but they have the same desires and the same problems at work as many people along with loads of passion and curiosity. They even have friends and care about humanity.

(4) What sort of distinctive twist do you bring to the discourse? I don’t shy away from having my protagonists deeply involved in plausible science. I also bring in social issues that scientists and women in particular face as they struggle to balance all of their desires. I must admit that the novels are also a little naughty. They’re not erotic but they are aimed at an adult audience. To add to the mix, I’ve made them comedies because science plus tragedy was done well-enough in 1816 with Frankenstein. Of course things go wrong in my novels but I’m hoping to demystify science, not make it dreadful.

(5) Any connections to your AXE experiences? In Natural Attraction Clementine gets her tonic from and later becomes close friends with chemist Theophrastus. Yes, there is a chemical basis for all that happens with that tonic but maybe a little romantic alchemy was involved as well.

(6) Other reflections on AXE to share. One of the first things I ever published was a monologue called I the Great Paracelsus based on the writings of Paracelsus. It was even performed at a conclave. I am a lot richer as a chemist due to my understanding of chemical history and I still have connections with Alpha Theta. My publishers are small and I’m not on the New York Times best seller list but if any brothers want more information on fiction writing or publishing I’d be happy to offer my advice. They can contact me at or through my blog at






In which I face a crisis of lifestyle

Nobody gives out Nobel prizes for housecleaning–that’s long been my motto. This week my motto got a challenge, a setback, and today you’ll find me–gasp–cleaning up!

Being a chemist can have some serious drawbacks–such as the weekly news we get from the American Chemical Society. You think politics is un-nerving? Add to that a steady dose of news about the hidden life of chemicals. This week there was an excellent, but of course scary piece about house dust. To quote author Janet Pelley“More than just dirt, house dust is a mix of sloughed-off skin cells, hair, clothing fibers, bacteria, dust mites, bits of dead bugs, soil particles, pollen, and microscopic specks of plastic. It’s our detritus and, it turns out, has a lot to reveal about our lifestyle.”

Believe it or not, scientists study dust to learn about the lives and chemical exposure of the residents of a house. Dust can hold tiny particles of the solids that make up our lives. It also contains substances that stick to the surface of these particles. Sometimes these might be things you’d expect to blow away in the wind or wash away with water. Instead, they cling to the dust. They are what chemists would call sorbed or adsorbed.

Farm house dust, for example, contains a high amount of pesticides–often cancer causing ones. These can stick to carpets and even crawl down and reside in the carpet pads. OSHA scientists have found that farm house dust contains much more pesticide residue than non-farm house dust and that most of this lurks in the entry way or the laundry room. Roundup and “agent orange” are found most prevalently. OSHA suggests that removing carpet, regular vacuuming, and keeping shoes and boots outside can cut down on the levels of pollution in farm dust.

Farm houses might have an extra shot of pesticides in their dust but all homes contain plenty of worry. The most common toxic subtance in house dust is the plasticiser DEHP. This subtance can cause hormone disruption and even affect sperm. Where does it come from? Anything vinyl and also from plastic used in food coverings. Similar plasticisers found in paint and nail polish show up in household dust as do flame retardants and beauty product residues–all of which can cause reproductive system upsets. If the reproductive concerns don’t worry you consider this–the flame retardants have been implicated in weight gain.

If you live in Iowa there is even more lurking in dust as our all too common radon decays to lead and can be left in the dust.

Sadly, even cleaning products themselves are found in dust. Some of these can create a pleasant foamy cleaning power but are reproductive disruptors as well. It might be best to use these sparingly and stick to the old vinegar and baking soda.

I’m a lax housekeeper but I’m off to dust because to paraphrase Neal Young “Dust never sleeps.”

Birth control banned in the United States!

cool-must-see-black-white-historic-moments-children-saleThe idea that birth control is lewd and promotes bad behavior has a long history in the United States. Bans or partial bans were a part of our history from the 1870s to the 1960s and there is one figurehead presumed to be responsible for it all.

Morality crusader Anthony Comstock was at first assumed to be a buffoon or eccentric who was overly concerned with the morality of other people. He was from rural Connecticut but began his career in New York City because, of course, cities must be regulated and punished for they are filled with debauchery and filth. Unfortunately,while most city people laughed at this absurd notion and his antics which included chasing prostitutes with umbrellas, he was taken seriously by the country folk and by a few rich men including wealthy ultra-conservatives such as Samuel Colgate and J. Purport Morgan. Colgate was a prude and Morgan wanted to see banking deregulated. They decided that America needed a purity movement and politicians–who would also give them the legislation they wanted– to go with it. They hired Comstock to lead the purity movement which would help get their guys elected. It worked.

Backed by a corrupt Congress, Comstock was able to push through the Comstock Act which was the law of the land from 1873-1915. This legislation prevented the mailing, selling, teaching about, producing, or discussing any form of contraception. Comstock himself hated condoms and condom sellers in particular. He said that they had to be hunted down like rats. Fortunately, the underfunding of police and government forces allowed for home businesses creating condoms to pop up and condoms became black market items.

Noting their oppression, women took it upon themselves to give each other educational lectures about birth control and some of these educators were highly popular and experts at eluding arrest. As a nurse, Margaret Sanger became alarmed by the number of poor women dying from illegal abortions. She wrote pamphlets about birth control and became a hero to most married women of her day. It was well understood that too  many children inadequately spaced risks the health of both the mother and the child. Also, children of older, well-educated mothers have better survival rates and are healthier. Sanger became the first woman to openly run an illegal birth control clinic.

Sanger was from a large family and blamed lack of birth control for her mother’s death. She had greater fervor than Comstock did. Her work eventually overturned his laws and she helped develop and promote birth control pills. She even coined the term “birth control.” She lived to be 89–fifty years longer than her poor mother. Most of her success came in the last decades of her life. Never underestimate the power of a passionate little old lady! Sanger followed her own advice and had just two healthy sons who interestingly enough became football players and one had a career a coach. Comstock had no children–his detractors claimed he was a eunuch–but stood as an inspiration to ultra-conservatives for decades after this death. Here’s another interesting tidbit about Comstock, he praised women for trying their hardest to look good for men–their lords–but was against corsets because they might interfere with pregnancies and reduce milk supplies. Ladies, it’s all about the babies!

Today there is more data than ever that delaying and limiting childbirth produces children who are stronger, smarter, and even taller. If you are or plan to be happy with the number of children you have and look forward to an active and productive retirement, you can thank Sanger. And be on the look-out for modern day Comstocks!

What do those color coded diamonds on trucks and buildings mean?


The hazards diamond, also known as the hazards icon.



Have you ever seen this posted on a building on a building or a truck and wondered what it was? This colorful symbol is known as the hazards diamond and is a quick way to identify the dangers of chemicals that lurk behind it. It was developed for firefighters but is used extensively by anyone working with chemical reagents.

Each color represents a type of hazard: blue for health, red for fire, yellow for reactivity, and white for anything else you need to know to be able to approach and use this chemical safely. Numbers inside each diamond range from 0 (no risk) to 4 (extreme risk).

Here is each risk shown more specifically,


For example, you might see this near a swimming pool.

Chlorine gas is a deadly health hazard and will oxidize (bleach) powerfully. But it won’t catch on fire or detonate.


And this near propane tanks since propane can be harmful to health if used incorrectly and–as we all know– it can catch on fire easily.



It’s fun to play guess the chemical. At least, it is for me. What do you think this is?is



Now you know what those diamonds mean and remember, they are a chemist’s best friend.



Thoughts on ice

Water is perhaps the most unique and special molecule in the universe. It has one side with a partially positive charge and one side with a partially negative charge. It’s both ionic and covalent. A chemist would call this polar.
As a liquid, water molecules like to hang out together more than one might expect for such a light molecule. It’s just three atoms, two hydrogen and one oxygen. It’s close in weight to methane which is a gas and lighter than chlorine which is a gas. You might say that it has an overpowering attraction to itself which makes it a liquid even though it’s light. Even more importantly to this discussion, this polar molecule can make some neat structures as a solid.

Ice can take 15 forms with thirteen crystalline forms (Ice Ih, Ice Ic, and Ice II-XIV) and three amorphous forms LD, HD and VDH…low density, high density, and very high density. The temperature and pressure help determine which form ice will take. Here on Earth, the ice we get in nature is Ice Ih. The h stands for hexagon. In the figure below you can see the hydrogens (red centered dots) and oxygen (all blue) forming the hexagons.

This shows how oxygen(open circle) and hydrogen (with red dot) could arrange to form hexagons. Thanks to Steven Dutch at
This link shows many ice forms and it is where I got the figures above.
Thanks to the hexagons, the crystalline structure of ice contains more space than liquid water. It’s less dense than water and so it floats.
Amorphous ice has no crystal structure. It’s formed in space at extremely cold temperatures. It can be found in icy moons such as Europa and comets might contain it too.
 All ice luminesces–when hit with ultraviolet light it emits light in the visible region, at 420 nm which is in the violet range. The shimmery bright world of ice and snow isn’t just an illusion. The ice really does emit light.
Besides being shimmery, we all know that ice is slippery. How slippery is it? Most materials have a coefficient of friction of o.3-.6. Human skin has a coefficient of friction of 0.9. Very nice for gripping and other things, isn’t it? Ice has a coefficient of friction that is ten times less than this .02-.05. Very slippery!  Ice near the freezing point is MORE slippery than very cold ice; it’s thought that the extra slip is due to melted water on the surface of the ice. But, this hasn’t been proven. Likewise, car tires slip more on a wet road than a dry one and way more on a wet one. The coefficient of friction for a well-treaded tire is 0.7 on a dry road,  0.4 on a wet one and only 0.1 on ice.
When walking on ice, put your weight on your front leg as penguins do,& wear sticky shoes.  And, don’t forget the sunglasses.

Cement floors and shoes that love them

I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that I love shoes. It’s more that I need shoes. To be a laboratory scientist means closed toed shoes shoes plus cement floors. According to our Fitbits, professors can walk three miles per lab or up to six miles per day while supervising lab classes. I love labs and would rather walk than sit all day. However, I’m ever in search of the elusive comfortable shoe and I join a plethora of health care workers, teachers, beauticians. craftspeople, and sales staff in my quest.

What shoes do hard working cement walkers wear? I asked my Facebook friends: what shoes do you recommend? Here are some of my findings:

The science stockroom manager–and a lot of other people–recommended Keens.
A CNA said that these Nikes were perfect for her flat feet–so comfortable.
A CNA prefers these light weight New Balance that allow her to move easily.
Toms, Sperry, and Birkenstocks–a chemistry research student swears by them. And we all want to get a pair of the chemistry Toms.

I  went to the local shoe store to compare my Hokas with other shoes.

Vionics (top) vs my well used Hokas (bottom). I have high arches and don’t need the heel cushion offered by the Vionics. I prefer the Hoka pair but if you have heel pain, the Vionics would be wonderful.


A nurse mentioned Brooks (top) and they are cute. (Not a match for the Hoka in my opinion.)
An auto shop owner prefers Vasque.
This shoe salesman prefers Danskos.
If you’re looking for comfy Oxfords, I recommend Ahnu or Cole Haan.

When the going–and weather– gets tough, many cement floor professionals don hiking boots.

Hiking boots: Hoka (left) more sturdy and cushiony than the more light and flexible Cole Haan (right). A very small toe box on the shoes on the right so not for me.

Timberland boots were also recommended as “are more than comfy. I constantly walk for 45 or so hours a week and my planters fasciitis isn’t even visible.”

A veteran of trade shows gave this advice: change your shoes at least twice a day and get a foot massage. She explains, “My feet sweat, so not only did I change my shoes I changed my socks too. I gave myself a food massage when I changed shoes (just a couple of minutes starting at the toes and working back). It truly was the only thing that kept me upright for 12-14 hours at the shows.”

Here’s to all who spend their day on cement! Maybe some day my lab floor will be covered with an anti-fatigue mat. Until then, I’ll search for the Holy Grail of shoes–and take that advice to change pairs frequently.

What is love?

I got a request to write a post about love, but when I asked what it was, I didn’t get a good answer.How about this for a theory: love is connection.dogs in love

Mammals begin life connected. Even before birth the connection between mother and child influences our brains, making nerve fibers that will affect our temperament. Some of the way we perceive love and what it means to us, begins before we even take a breath. Motherhood drug use,  exposure to toxic chemicals, or stress will affect our development and our ability to love in the future.

The mother-infant bond sets the stage for the offspring to be able to take and give love and to handle stress. The mother and baby need to look at each other, work together to establish mutual rewards, and generate oxytocin and cortisol (the first to relax us, the second to create vigilance). Believe it or not, the development of a form of ambivalence is a part of the bond. Babies are exhausting. Motherhood is tiring. Our very first experience with love is that it’s too much to maintain intensely. Such is the tragedy of love, but if we are healthy, we can love and do so with some autonomy.

Of course, one can’t talk of love without mentioning erotic love. Kissing boosts the immune system and increases our sense of well-being.  It makes us invincible even though the search for erotic love can bring us to some crazy places of insecurity about our worth and appearance and rightly so, erotic love is stimulated by visuals. Yes, it’s shallow and also wonderful. Even just having a crush releases some feel good chemicals.

Attachment is a phase of love and it is just as chemical as erotic love. As the song goes, “be careful who you love.” There are those who don’t think twice about doing another in emotionally. People who treat others poorly, who fail to attach, have a chemical imbalance. Break ups or “love rejections” are chemically harmful. They might take up to two years to recover from. But it’s better than casting your lot with someone who can’t attach.

Alcohol and love do similar things to the brain: they take away fear, make us feel better about ourselves but also, surprisingly make us more judgmental of people outside our social sphere, creating a special connection with the one you love, be it a person or a bottle.

I personally get a strong sense of connection working beside someone and I’m not alone. This is why a person can love their job or a group they are a part of. It’s no accident that I became a laboratory scientist. Working in lab on an experiment is a delicious form of connection and ever since fictional Victor Frankenstein worked in secret on his creation and subsequently abandoned the hapless creature, the message has been clear: don’t work alone in lab. To be a scientist is to never work alone. It’s true that if you love your job, you don’t have to work.

We love our pets and they can love us. The owner-pet bond is real, healthy, and less dependent on visual cues than erotic love. It’s as true as any love.

The other day I was visiting my dad. My mom, died almost three years ago. He was telling me how much he missed her. I asked him what I could do. He said, “Just listen.” It turns out that feeling listened to is one way that people feel loved.A person will feel loved if they know that you understand what they are going through and that you share the same emotions about it.I was glad and surprised that loving him was so simple as that.I didn’t have to fix anything or make a grand display.  Guess I had a thing or two to learn about love.





The Periodic Table Explained

I post insecurely in front of the periodic table display  at the U of Iowa (featuring actual elements).
I pose insecurely in front of the periodic table display at the U of Iowa (featuring actual elements).

A while back a friend asked: what’s the deal with chemists and the periodic table? In a nutshell, the periodic table displays all of the elements in an order that allows chemists to know something about each one at a glance.

The elements are arranged by increasing atomic number–the number of protons (+ charges)–roughly equivalent to increasing weight. They are in rows according to the shell or as chemists would say, according to the quantum numbers. Quantum numbers are the equivalent to an element’s address and tell a lot about the electrons–negative charge cloud around the atom. Most of the time, reactivity is due to electrons and their placement around the atom. Conveniently, mother nature made it simple, as elements gain mass and electrons, they group themselves. The columns on the periodic table belong to elements growing ever larger but with the same arrangement of elections on the outside. This means, they react in similar fashion.

See that row on the right with the neon sign? Those are the noble gasses which don’t easily react with anything. Conversely, on the far left are things like sodium and potassium that react so easily to give elections that the elemental forms must be stored under an oil to keep them from joining up with oxygen. Why can you chose between chlorine and bromine for your hot tub? You’ll find chlorine above bromine on the table. They act much the same but chlorine is lighter.

Metals are on the left side along with hydrogen, the lightest element, and non-metals such as carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen are on the right. Elements in-between are the semi-metals or semiconductors. Radioactive elements, too big to be stable, have their weight in parenthesis.

This mortarboard, made by a clever Central College graduate, shows the system of symbols used for element names. The Cc abbreviation is for “Central College.” The numbers are for the proton number (the smaller number) and the weight of the element, which includes neutrons, heavy without charge.

Elemental mortarboard at Central College graduation.
Elemental mortarboard at Central College graduation.
I like to hand out periodic tables. If someone gives me a tract I will respond by giving them a table. I have even given periodic tables to children associated with the Westboro Baptist Church. I’ll give you one too. Just ask me. 🙂

There you have it. The periodic table will give up lots about the elements without requiring deep thought. The father of the Periodic Table was Mendeleev, a hairy dude who let his lust get the better of him and my guess is that this is why although he made the most useful tool ever imagined way back in 1869, he never got the Nobel Prize. He did it without knowing anything about the parts of the atom–the protons, neutrons, and electrons–basing it all on how each element reacted. That’s what science is all about, predicting, and what helped science slay the beast of fearful superstition that plagued humans throughout history.