Guest essay by C. R. Dickson
If the Pope really knows his chemistry, then the people at ClimateProgress better hope he doesn’t read their June 18 article entitled “What Did Actual Scientists Think of the Pope’s Climate Encyclical?” which discusses the scientific accuracy of the Pope’s passages relevant to climate. The article’s picture of a chalkboard used as a background to a bible contains a very incorrect structural formula for an organic molecule. Obviously, scientific accuracy is not very important in their article about scientific accuracy.
Students taking basic high school and college chemistry courses always learn how to draw Lewis structures for molecules. Each “stick” in a molecule represents two shared valence electrons forming a covalent bond. Every element in a molecule (except hydrogen) strives to obtain the stable noble gas configuration of eight electrons or four sticks. Although they are an outdated way of representing molecules, Lewis structures remain in use today because they are so simple.
The organic molecule in question is re-drawn to the right of the stock picture with some colored arrows to highlight some of the problems.
There are ten unwritten carbon atoms in this molecule, one at each vertex of the two hexagons. The red arrow points to a carbon atom that has five sticks or ten electrons on the carbon atom, which is incorrect. The green arrows point to ambiguities that may or may not be incorrect depending upon whether there are additional unwritten hydrogen atoms present. The yellow arrow shows the stick unattached to the hexagon and several ambiguities result. Finally, the OH group should be attached to the molecule with a stick or it should have a minus sign or a dot to indicate whether it is either a negative ion or a free radical.
Climate news articles often have pictures of chalkboards displaying equations, and almost invariably they contain major errors. Next time a chalkboard appears, check it out for the accuracy of the formulas and equations. Most legitimate scientists immediately question the accuracy of an article when they see pictures with incorrect equations. That’s how good scientists work. Wouldn’t it be nice if journalists did the same?
C. R. Dickson is a retired chemist and physicist with a PhD from Columbia University. He has worked for Polaroid, Allied Chemical, RCA, and the Solarex Thin Film Division, a solar cell company formed as an RCA technology spinoff. He also served as a scientific advisor to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in Vienna, Austria. Go to Google Scholar to view some of his scientific publications and patents on solar cells, lasers, and molecular spectroscopy.