Shannon Lush Gets it Wrong #9

Shannon Lush on today’s show on 6PR gave possible her most error-riddled performance ever.

  1. A listener rang in on today’s show on 6PR with some stains on a marble table. She told her that since marble was alkaline you couldn’t use any acid on it. This in fact is quite wrong. You can use concentrated hydrochloric acid on marble and it hasn’t affected it. If marble was prone to chemical attack so easily it wouldn’t have been used as a building material for the last several thousand years. Although it is composed of calcium carbonate (like limestone) it has a different crystal structure and is therefore far more chemically resilient. Apparently the stain was orange juice. This would have been easily and quickly removed with an enzymatic cleaner such as White King Powerlift

2. A caller rang in with some rust stains in his sink. The answer given to this was to use lemon and salt. This will not work simply because citric acid is not a strong enough acid for the task. A much better option is a rust converter (such as Ranex) from any automotive accessories store, with Phosphoric Acid as the active ingredient.

3. A caller asked how to clean limestone walls. He was told not to use a pressure sprayer as pressure sprayers “force the dirt into it”. Anyone that has used a HP sprayer on a limestone walls knows that this is utter nonsense.

4. A caller asked how to disinfect his spa. The answer given involved glycerin, talcum powder and panty hose. I wonder how long it will be before a listener laughs out loud at one of her suggestions. The correct answer of course is that it doesn’t need disinfecting if it’s had chlorinated water in it

5. The final caller wanted to know how to clean a microwave. The answer given involved bicarb soda, white vinegar and pantyhose. Bicarb soda and vinegar won’t clean anything, however. Any oven cleaner will work just fine. Use a non-caustic one if the fumes bother you

Limestone Walls, and the Problems They Cause

Limestone is a popular choice for external walls in and around Perth. I’m not sure how the costs compare with other materials, but it’s a poor choice, for several reasons.

Initially it looks terrific, but before long, it starts to degrade. This begins with a blackening on the upper surfaces – the ones most exposed to the sun – and before long green plant growth becomes apparent.

Attempts to remove it generally fail, and if you try to use very high pressure water to remove it you start blasting holes in the limestone, as it is very brittle.

So what is happening?

The most important chemical process for life on the planet is photosynthesis.Carbon dioxide is converted to biomass (plant life) according to this simplified equation:

CO2 + H2O = C.H2O + O2

C.H2O is the basic formula of a carbohydrate, which wood is made out of.

So the bacteria that catalyze this process use sunlight to convert CO2 to plant matter and oxygen.

Unfortunately, limestone walls are also a carbon source, as they contain carbonate. So what happens is that the same bacteria that catalyze photosynthesis (cyanobacteria) do the same to your limestone wall. The carbonate in the calcium carbonate from which the wall is composed is literally converted to plants. It begins with a blackening of the surface, followed by the development of green plant material.

Contrary to popular belief this is not mould – it is plant life. And we know this because it occurs not where there is the least sunlight, but the most – on the top of walls.

And there is nothing you can do about it. It is possible to buy sealers that are supposed to stop this happening, but the problem is that because limestone is so porous it’s very hard to get it to seal completely.

The only real solution is to not use limestone in the first place. Unless you like the overgrown look that quickly develops, as some people do.

If you like the pristine, clean look, the best option by far is to use synthetic limestone – it’s made out of limestone ground in with cement. It looks great and will never degrade





































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































Breaking Bad #2: the science

How accurate was science in breaking bad?
In general it was pretty good. It is clear that the producers of the show have put some effort into ensuring scientific credibility, and appear to have consulted the scientific community.

But having said that, however, there were a few problems.

  1. Walter White is a physical chemist. We know that because his expertise is X-Ray Crystallography. The manufacture of Crystal Meth is very much the realm of a synthetic organic chemist. It is therefore rather unlikely that a physical chemist would be able to, off the top of his head, manufacture crystal meth to >99% purity on his first attempt. Most synthetic organic chemists wouldn’t even be able to do it without a substantial amount of research, trial and error
  2. In one episode Walter White makes a battery out of some acid, coins and bolts that he has lying around, and then uses it to start the RV. Even if he somehow managed to get the right voltage, there is no way that such a small “battery” would generate the several hundred amps required to start a car.
  3. On several occasions Walter pinches Hydrofluoric Acid from the school store to dissolve bodies.
    As the strongest acid in existence, and the most dangerous (S7 Poison, DG Class 8 (6.1), PG 1) there is no way in hell that a school would use such a dangerous chemical, and certainly not sitting loose on its shelves. Most industries that use this stuff (I used to work in a place where we used it to make a brick cleaner) store in a dedicated cage that is kept under lock and key, with warning labels plastered across it.

Shannon Lush gets it wrong #8

Amongst the many errors in the advice that Shannon Lush gave in her advice on 6PR was her advice not to use Oven Cleaners to clean ovens, but to use a mixture of bicarb soda/vinegar to clean ovens.

In other words what we are expected to believe is that the chemists who have designed products specifically to clean ovens don’t know what they are doing and that she, with no scientific qualifications whatsoever, knows better, and of course the very opposite is the case.
Oven cleaners work by a chemical process called saponification. That is, they literally convert the oil and grease in your oven to a soap.

Here is the reaction

This is why it all wipes up with a sponge so easily afterwards – you’re literally wiping up soap.

Bicarb will not do this as it isn’t alkaline enough, and especially after it has been neutralised by adding vinegar to it.

Breaking Bad #1 – the Evil Scientist

Breaking bad was a groundbreaking series in many ways. For me, the attraction of it was the fact that the central character was a scientist. I cannot think of any other TV show where this was the case.

The story is that Walter White is an overqualified high school chemistry teacher who discovers that he has lung cancer. Wanting to leave behind some money for his family when he dies, in desperation he begins cooking crystal meth.

Spread over six series, we see Walter White go from being an upstanding high school teacher who is racked by guilt about the fact that he is breaking the law, to a ruthless and cold-blooded killer, who on one occasion orders the execution of 10 people in the prison who he thinks may rat on him, and on another occasion he poisons one of his enemies by substituting ricin for her artificial sweetener

In later posts I will discuss some of the science involved, but it seems to me that the first question to be addressed is the ethical and philosophical one. Specifically, did he become bad because he was lured into it and he changed, or was he always this way, and it only needed the opportunity to be presented for this part of his character to be seen?

There is of course no absolute answer to that for the simple reason that the series is entirely fictitious. If we were able to find the same thing happening to a real person then perhaps the question would be worth considering, but in the case of the fictitious Walter White it is a waste of time.

But it gets me thinking about a related issue. Every synthetic poison and every explosive was invented by a chemist. That is, someone with a university education made the decision to set their mind to inventing something that was going to kill people, although I should add a caveat here – in many cases explosives were invented accidentally. That is, when the chemical was invented it was invented for another purpose and it just happened to be explosive. A case in point here is ammonium nitrate – the world’s first synthetic fertiliser (note – I only refer to it as synthetic because it is manufactured in a factory, not because the chemical does not exist in nature, because it does – just not in large enough quantities to be commercially viable). In fact, they only realised how explosive ammonium nitrate was after the Texas city disaster occurred

But poisons are another story. Chemicals used in chemical weapons and biological material used in biological weapons were the work of scientists. I have asked myself many times how an intelligent person could devote their energies to such evil. When you study at tertiary level you are exposed to a higher form thinking. You ought to develop an ethically rounded view of life. You should be the type of person who will place great value on human life. But somehow, someway, these people turned their intelligence to evil.

And I don’t really have an answer as to how or why this occurs. Every scientist I know, myself included, works tirelessly to make the world a better place, whether it be by the development of new drugs, new medical procedures, new assistive technologies, or whether it be just simply telling people how to clean their homes, (as I do).

It is these things that most scientists devote their effort to, because we want to leave a legacy. I used to read the obituaries in the monthly editions of Chemistry in Australia, where the life work of a particular scientist was described in memoriam.

How is it possible, I have often asked myself, to live your life in such a manner that you know that you will leave behind a legacy that you will be ashamed of – that you know that your relatives will disown you and avoid speaking your name.?

It reminds me of the story of Herod Antipas, one of the most hated Roman provincial rulers, who ordered that on the day that he died, 100 people were to be randomly executed. This was so that he could be assured that there would be some people weeping on the day that he died…

The only answer I can come up with as to why intelligent people devote their efforts to evil is that they have swallowed wholesale a perverted view of the world that justifies their actions. An example might be Joseph Mengele, the Nazi doctor of death. No doubt he really believed that Aryans were the master race, and Jews were on to Untermensch (sub humans) and were not worthy of the same dignity as normal humans are.

Once you swallow wholesale that mindset, then anything is possible.Then again, other motivations may simply be money. That was certainly the case in Breaking Bad.

Whatever the reasons, the story of Walter White is a very dark one. And like I think many viewers, you feel yourself being drawn into the dark world in which he lived, driven by a morbid fascination with what was going to happen next. They managed to create this dark suspense which I think was the success of the show, and the reason that it won so many awards.

But it’s not the kind of show where I feel any desire to watch it again…

But of course we now have the prequel on Stan – Better Call Saul (based on the Saul Goodman character in the series). It’s very clever and very funny.

In the next post I’ll start looking at some of the science behind Breaking Bad – just how accurate was it?