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Chemistry in its Element Podcast — Curious Tales of Chemical Compounds: A Review

By: Teja Balasubramanian

Quarantine is a great time to learn about something new, or start listening to a podcast! The “Chemistry in its Element” podcast explores science around us, through several lenses, including art, history, anthropology, and epidemiology.

We are surrounded by chemical molecules and compounds — it is in our food, our bodies, as well as the plastics and products we use. Want to learn about how sunblock came to be, along with how its chemical components have historically been known to bleach coral reefs? How about oleic acid, which serves as the common denominator between olive oil, dandruff, and stained-glass windows? The Royal Society of Chemistry’s “Chemistry in its Element” podcast series is remarkable in its witty, funny, entrancing analyses of chemical compounds. A wide range of chemicals are explored: from molecules that may potentially be a cure for Covid-19 to a hypothetical sci-fi exploration of alternatives for our ubiquitous life-building blocks carbon and hydrogen. This podcast is truly an amalgam of insightful knowledge-building and masterful storytelling.

This podcast caters not only to people invested in the field of chemistry, but to anyone who is interested in history, medicine, or culture. Each episode is quite short, only around five to eight minutes long, but packs in an abundance of quirky history facts and thought-provoking science questions.

One episode is about hydroquinone, a compound that plays a controversial role in skin depigmentation, as well as occasionally being released from a beetle’s rear-end. Hydroquinones are made up of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. Throughout the episode, we learn that bombardier beetles, a species that thrives in the woodlands and grasslands of North and South America, raise their bums and release a chemical spray made up of hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide. After discovering this, humans decided to incorporate hydroquinone in perfume, which is known to take on a leathery scent after several years.

Additionally, the same compounds come together to make vanilla essence, although this certainly is not the primary means of production. Furthermore, hydroquinone is found in castoreum, which is a yellowish fluid, secreted by beavers. Beavers utilize castoreum, in conjunction with their urine to mark their territory. Castoreum can also be found in a famous Swedish drink called Bäverhojt! The podcast goes on to explore the innovative ways that hydroquinone unites with other compounds to participate in skin depigmentation and photography.

The “Chemistry in its Element” podcast is available for free on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s website, Spotify, Google Podcasts, as well as several other platforms. The producers of the podcast love to hear from their listeners and their suggestions of which element to explore next. By listening to this podcast, one will certainly develop an appreciation for the not-so-subtle means by which chemistry influences life around us.

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