Next week I may pursue further the topic of Who Should Organize Department Seminars: Faculty or Students? but today is Friday and I want to talk about zinc.
An oft-quoted remark by Tina Brown, upon becoming editor of The New Yorker in the early 1990's, relates to her decision to destroy The New Yorker's classic tradition of publishing articles such as a "50,000-word piece on zinc." When my husband read that quotation many years ago, he promptly canceled our subscription and wrote a scathing letter oozing with contempt.
I remembered this eventoid when I saw a headline in The Onion this week: Candidates Annoyed to Have To Take Stance on Zinc Mining
What is it with zinc? Why has zinc become code for obscure and insignificant, or even boring? Why not antimony? Why not vanadium?
Before continuing with this discussion, let me first say that I have no particular stake or interest in zinc, scientific or otherwise. I have never taken money from zinc lobbyists or zinc special interest groups, I do not take zinc supplements when I get a cold, and I am equally fond of many other elements.
I have a hypothesis about the zincists, though. First of all, the former editor of The New Yorker may well have been anti-science in general (and/or anti-essays involving topics other than celebrities) and, when she needed to articulate her new editorial philosophy, she mentioned a sciencey-themed article on a topic that sounded obscure to her. Zinc as a topic has the power of being not so common that people won't get your point (e.g. imagine how ineffective it would be to rail against iron, oxygen, silicon, calcium, sodium, potassium, gold, silver, or carbon etc.). Similarly, some elements are rather infamous, so being anti-uranium, anti-arsenic, or anti-mercury, for example, has other implications and therefore these elements don't serve the purpose of signaling that a topic is irrelevant and uninteresting.
There has probably never been an article in The New Yorker on yttrium, and perhaps not even gallium, though I have not checked the archives. That doesn't leave much choice in terms of elements, if that's your choice for a code word category to equate with boring. Zinc is perfect in this respect because everyone has heard of it, but it's not too common. It also has a very succinct and zippy name. For that reason, the element praeseodymium is less effective as a rhetorical device.
Brown went on her anti-zinc spree in the pre-zinc supplement days, so perhaps her statement wouldn't pack quite the same punch today as it did more than 15 years ago. Maybe today people would want to know where their zinc comes from. Maybe today people are more aware that, alleged cold remedy aside, zinc is essential for life.
Maybe, maybe not. I am feeling cynical about this now that The Onion, a venerable publication that is actually only worth reading for the headlines, is taking a swing at zinc.
As long as the presidential candidates themselves don't actually go negative on zinc, I suppose the situation is not so bad. It's a slippery slope, though, from being against studies of DNA in bears in Montana to being a full-fledged zincist.
10 months ago