Friday, October 24, 2008


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.


Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Today's New Yorker would print a 25K word article about zinc, but it would have to include a detailed profile of the life, hobbies, appearance, and personal predilections of the first designer of the penny, which is mostly, nowadays, zinc. It would also have to be written by Sy Hersh.

Also--zinc begins with Z. Never underestimate the funny letter appeal. Any word that you'd miss in Hangman is probably a funny word.

Anonymous said...

FSP, tell the truth: You and DoucheMonkey have been hanging out together hitting the crack pipe. Hard. Am I right?

Anonymous said...

A little research shows that Missouri was a big zinc mining area until the 70s, and is now a big environmental issue. There is indeed some movement to restart zinc mining there.

I think this is at least as much a swing at the candidates as at zinc.

Anonymous said...

You have a great sense of humor.

It turns out that Zinc lisps:

Anonymous said...

Praeseodymium may be less effective as a rhetorical device, but it is without a doubt the winner of the award for "Best Element To Hear Pronounced By The Late Carl Sagan".

Fernando Pereira said...

For any long-time New Yorker reader, Tina Brown's comment was understood as a put-down of multi-part articles on somewhat technical topics, most famously John McPhee's. Fortunately, her reign of fluff didn't last long, as it became clear that there was no room for two Vanity Fairs. The current editor is much more enlightened. John McPhee is back, although instead of multiple parts in successive issues, he writes more loosely connected articles. We've had several articles on shad (biology and fishing) and on freight transportation (UPS, coal trains, bulk hauling), for example, @dr. j and mrs. h: the article on the penny was pretty good!

Anonymous said...

aI can't be the only one who immediately thought of the film Bart was shown in class: "A World Without Zinc"

A quick scan of the google didn't produce the clip, but some of y'all must know what I'm talking about:

Jimmy: Hey, what gives?
Jimmy's Dad: You said you wanted to live in a world without zinc Jimmy. Well now your car has no battery.
Jimmy: But I promised Betty I'd pick her up by 6:00. I better give her a call.
Jimmy's Dad: Sorry Jimmy. Without zinc for the rotary mechanism, there are no telephones.
Jimmy: Dear God! What have I done?
(Jimmy pulls out a gun and points it to his head and fires)
Jimmy's Dad: Think again Jimmy. You see the firing pin in your gun was made out of…yep…zinc.
Jimmy: Come back zinc, Come Back!!

Anonymous said...

Why not vanadium?

Because pairing vanadium redox batteries with wind turbine generators is all hot and sexy right now.

EliRabett said...

My favorite bedevil the students thing is around Halloween to offer extra credit to anyone who comes to class dressed as an element.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

elirabett-- love it! I've previously gone as Indium (and was not very P.C,)