If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Solving mysteries through chemistry

by Michael McGinnis, Chair, Committee on Community Activities
October 3, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 39

Michael McGinnis
Credit: Mark Collier/Norwich University
Photo of a man.
Credit: Mark Collier/Norwich University

The kid in all of us appreciates a good mystery. As kids, we wanted to figure out how that spider web was created and what it was made of, how to formulate that disappearing ink we saw on TV, or how and why Nancy Drew used fingerprints to solve mysteries. The 2016 National Chemistry Week (NCW) theme of “Solving Mysteries Through Chemistry!” pulls at our inner child. Chemists are solving chemical mysteries daily, and NCW 2016 calls on NCW coordinators and ACS volunteers to bring the chemistry of mysteries to children and adults across the U.S. and the world.

Outreach activities give chemists an opportunity to share the excitement of chemistry with the public. On the Saturday before the ACS national meeting in Philadelphia, ACS members and volunteers engaged the public in hands-on chemistry activities at the Franklin Institute. This outreach event alone reached more than 600 members of the community. Participants young and old rotated through eight chemistry activity stations, including colorful lather printing, producing oxygen gas, and—as a preview to this year’s NCW activities—dusting for fingerprints.

What can you do to share the excitement and science of chemistry?

The excitement that a kid shows when they learn something new is contagious, but it can also be a teaching moment to ask, “Where’s the chemistry?” Dusting for fingerprints is an activity that people often think doesn’t involve any chemistry. Well, how did that fingerprint get there? Depending on the age of the participants, a discussion about oils (fat molecules), proteins, and aqueous sweat can follow. How do we see the fingerprints? Are they visible, or did we use a physical or chemical technique to observe the fingerprints? And what about all those patterns; arches, loops, and whorls? You get the point; chemistry is everywhere and chemistry is fun.

One of my favorite activities, “Appearing & Disappearing Ink,” is published in the 2016 edition of the NCW publication, Celebrating Chemistry. The acid-base experiment uses materials you can find at the supermarket. A solution of rubbing alcohol and powdered turmeric is the “ink” used to write the secret message on yellow construction paper. Turmeric contains the yellow compound curcumin. Under neutral or acidic conditions, curcumin retains its yellow color; hence, the hidden message. However, curcumin turns into a red-orange color when subjected to basic conditions, such as a quick spray from an ammonia-based cleaner. Bam, your secret message appears. Can you imagine having that knowledge when you were a third grader secretly passing notes in class?

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
A child learns about surface tension during the outreach event at the ACS national meeting in Philadelphia.
Photo of a child doing a chemistry activity.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
A child learns about surface tension during the outreach event at the ACS national meeting in Philadelphia.

What can you do to share the excitement and science of chemistry? ACS is advancing science, advocating for chemistry, enabling career development, educating the public, supporting future chemists, and promoting diversity. ACS outreach programs through the Committee on Community Activities’ NCW and Chemists Celebrate Earth Day (CCED) events provide the tools and resources to educate the public and promote the value of chemistry through outreach.

Connect with, or better yet, volunteer to be your local section’s NCW or CCED coordinator. Coordinators receive additional materials from the ACS Office of Volunteer Support, and they can order up to five complimentary boxes of Celebrating Chemistry (a total of 1,250 copies) in English and one complimentary box of 250 copies in Spanish from the ACS Store. Celebrating Chemistry has been vetted for safety concerns, and it contains articles and activities that are appropriate for fourth through sixth grade students. The 2016 edition of the publication contains activities such as, “The Mystery of DNA,” “Art Forgeries Revealed through Chemistry,” “Be a Fruit Juice Sleuth,” and an interview by ACS mascot “Meg A. Mole” with forensic anthropologist Bill Bass about his work at the world’s only outdoor forensic anthropology laboratory known as “The Body Farm.”

Do you know an outstanding outreach volunteer? In an effort to recognize the immeasurable outreach efforts made by local section volunteers, the Committee on Community Activities established the Local Section Outreach Volunteers of the Year recognition program. Each local section can recognize one individual annually for demonstrating extraordinary outreach volunteer service within the section.

ACS chemists are called to communicate chemistry’s vital role through outreach. The impact of public outreach efforts on the community can be significant. Visit, or call (800) 227-5558 for more information on NCW, CCED, and other outreach programs. You can also connect online through the ACS Network, Facebook, and Twitter. Engage the public this fall by solving mysteries through chemistry!

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.