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When Chemistry Was Swell

Talk to a baby boomer who grew up in the NY/NJ/CT tri-state area, and they’ll likely be able to recall memories of the 1964 World’s Fair. If you’re lucky, they’ll remember some  toe-tappin’ ditties about chemistry. More video and photos after the jump.

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The World’s Fair is an international exposition of technology and culture. It’s been around for over 150 years, but it hasn’t been back to the U.S. since 1984. (Possibly because Epcot fulfills that niche, but more likely because the U.S. held it by far the most often during the 20th century).

Chemistry’s hotspot at the 1964 Fair was at Dupont’s pavilion. The edifice, called the “Wonderful World of Chemistry”, was nestled across the way from General Electric’s “Progressland” Pavilion, and just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the “Festival of Gas”. (If you don’t believe me, check out the myriad websites about the fair, which are chock-full of nifty maps and memorabilia).

Inside the pavilion, visitors were treated to a gee-whiz feast for the senses, complete with lab demonstrations and a musical revue (also called “Wonderful World of Chemistry”).

Seeing the spectacle onscreen made me think about Beth Halford’s recent conversation with producer Stephen Lyons, who advocated that funding be directed to promoting evenhanded media coverage of chemistry, rather than image advertising. I don’t know that chemistry had a better reputation back in the 60′s than it does today. But by focusing on the wonders of the future without much mention of the risks (pollution, etc), maybe companies engendered a kind of faith/trust that set them up for a fall when things went wrong.

How do you think a production like “Wonderful World of Chemistry” would be received today? Is it unrealistic to think that a perky musical would ever bolster chemistry’s image with today’s public?

The demonstration stage.

Backstage as molecule-hatted dancers wow the crowd.

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The wonders of plastics, put to song.

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This tune is about Corfam, an imitation leather that Dupont had just developed at the time, and was heavily marketing to shoe companies. It’s not used very much today.

Movie and photo credits: Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE


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  • Dec 5th 200819:12
    by Neil Gussman

    It’s difficult to be upbeat about even Mom and Apple Pie in the ironic media world we all inhabit. Who could be sincerely upbeat about chemistry on a national stage? Image what it would look like on You Tube.

  • Dec 6th 200818:12
    by Klug

    I agree with Neil. When I watched the first video, all I could think about was Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri as the SNL cheerleaders.

    Evenhanded media views of chemistry would be great, but I’m quite sure that it would be a lost cause. The latest case of rampant chemophobia? The viral video “The Story of Stuff”, where the host gives out this winner of a distortion:

    “”So, next, the materials move to “production“ and what happens there is we use energy to mix toxic chemicals in with the natural resources to make toxic contaminated products…

    Like BFRs, brominated flame retardants. They are a chemical that make things more fireproof but they are super toxic. They’re a neurotoxin—that means toxic to the brain. What are we even doing using a chemical like this?

    Yet we put them in our computers, our appliances, couches, mattresses, even some pillows. In fact, we take our pillows, we douse them in a neurotoxin and then we bring them home and put our heads on them for 8 hours a night to sleep. Now, I don’t know, but it seems to me that in this country with so much potential, we could think of a better way to stop our heads from catching on fire at night.”

    As long as people use bizarre logic like this to bash the chemical industry and get their lies spread in the MSM, we as chemists are screwed.

  • Dec 8th 200800:12
    by Klug

    Speaking of the MSM and chemistry, check out the chemical structure in the article (link below). That thing is a DISASTER of unfilled valences and extra bonds. Truly hilarious, especially considering the very proud quote from the “Eleventh Hour” producer:

    “In some ways, it’s much easier to make shit up. When you have to make it real, you’re holding yourself to a much higher standard.”


  • Dec 12th 200809:12
    by Hedy Hadley

    I was at the ’64 world’s fair with a classmate of mine. We were the only two women enrolled that year in the Chemistry program at Rochester Institute of Technology. At the time I really believed in DuPont’s slogan “Better living through chemistry”, but over the years I’ve come to realize that chemistry is a mixed blessing. We have to tread more cautiously than we have in recent years in deciding how to use the wonderful things we’ve made in the laboratory. A prime example of that is the use of polycarbonate plastics in food containers. I love my lightweight polycarbonate eyeglass lenses, but as far as I’m concerned, leave the substance far away from my food containers, .
    Chemistry can still be “swell” but we have to use caution and not let the profit motive overtake our good judgment. In a related matter, I believe that all high school students should have to take some sort of basic chemistry course that will make them more aware of the various additives in foods and other consumer products. I tutor chemistry at a county college and am surprised at how many of the younger people have no knowledge of what chemicals they consume every day.

  • Dec 12th 200810:12
    by Carmen Drahl

    @Hedy- it’s great to hear from someone who was there! I completely agree about developing more “chemistry in real life” courses in colleges and high schools. Maybe courses like that, instead of focusing on stoichiometry, could inform students on a more general level and encourage them to use judgment in their daily lives. I can’t imagine how daunting designing such a class would be, though, since I’m not optimistic that everyone will listen to reason. It hurts one’s brain less to just absorb the kind of alarmist drivel Klug describes than try to sort it out logically.

    Although, @Klug, I’d like to think that anybody in the MSM that uses junk like that as a significant source of material would be taken to task by the journalism community- google “Erika Lovley” and you’ll see what I mean.

  • Dec 14th 200800:12
    by Klug

    @Carmen: too late. “The Story of Stuff” has gone viral enough to the point that I learned about it from a story on PRI’s “Weekend America.” D’oh!

  • Pingback

    Aug 13th 200910:08
    by The Story Of Stuff at C&ENtral Science

    [...] have learned of the existence of this 21-minute video last year from a reader’s comment on a blog posting by Assistant Editor Carmen [...]

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