My early years were spent in Hungary so it should come as no surprise that my first venture into the world of chemistry involved paprika. Bread smeared with goose fat was a popular childhood delight, always topped with a sprinkling of paprika. No worries about cholesterol back then! One day, however, I got a spicy surprise as I bit into my snack. The paprika practically set my mouth on fire! My mother, it seems, had bought hot paprika instead of the usual sweet version. I was only about seven years old at the time, but it set me thinking. The hot stuff looked exactly the same as the sweet. What was the difference, I wondered? I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was actually dipping my toes into the deep pool of chemistry. Many times since I have thought about how that paprika incident sparked my chemical curiosity which eventually would burst into a flame.
That flame burned brightly through the sixties as I became more and more enthralled by the wonders of chemistry. I remember visiting the DuPont pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and being thrilled by a Broadway style musical entitled the “Wonderful World of Chemistry.” What a great show it was. Everything in the DuPont theatre was made of some newly-invented material. Doors featured alkyd resin paint and polyacetal doorknobs, the ceiling was made of polyvinyl fluoride, floors were carpeted with nylon and seats covered with polyvinyl chloride. The polyester curtain went up to reveal dancers in colorful spandex costumes, tapping their polyurethane shoes on an acrylic-glossed stage.
Next to the DuPont pavilion was a NASA display of rockets and an exhibit that featured the planned trip to the moon, including samples of the special fabrics and plastics that chemists had designed for the fledgling space program. Chemistry was flying high! Nobody took issue with DuPont’s slogan of “Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry.” The word “chemical” was not seen to be synonymous with “poison” or “toxin” and when you were introduced as a student studying chemistry, you were not looked upon as someone who was destined destroy people’s health with a plethora of untested toxins or some mad scientist preparing to wreak havoc with the environment.
By the time I graduated with my chemistry degree in the seventies, the winds of change were beginning to blow. Chemistry went from being a heroic science that furnished us with new medicines, fibers and plastics, to one associated with napalm, Agent Orange and pollution. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” called attention to the misuse of pesticides and before long “chemical” became a dirty word, with some chemists even suggesting that when communicating with the public it be replaced by the term “substance.” Somehow “substance” was seen to be more benign than “chemical.” By 1982 the image of chemistry had been so tainted that DuPont felt the need to drop the “through chemistry” phrase from its slogan. Too bad. Because our understanding of the world around us really comes “through chemistry.” It’s just what you need to explain the difference between hot and sweet paprika. It’s a matter of how much capsaicin they contain. An interesting compound. When belended into a cream, it is an effective pain reliever, even for the terrible pain of shingles. Chemistry really is a hot subject.