Meet Dr. Joe — The Chemist as Magician!
He’s known to his many students and fans simply as “Dr. Joe,” but then Joe Schwarcz, professor of chemistry, has always kept things fun, uncomplicated and a little magical, especially when pursuing his challenging goal: demystifying science for young learners and the public.
Joe has created a multi-faceted career in using his skill as a chemical scientist, magician, author, broadcaster, food expert and motivational speaker in communicating science to others in very interesting ways. This includes his role as Director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he and his colleagues use their unconventional “Chemistry for the Public” lecture series to wow students and the public about chemistry and other areas of science, and how such knowledge can be applied to everyday life.
“Our mandate at the Office for Science and Society is to demystify science, separate sense from nonsense and hopefully foster critical thinking,“ says Joe.
Known across Canada and the U.S. for his work as an educator, newspaper and broadcast journalist, author and magician in communicating science, Joe adds: “When people are ill-informed about science, they are at risk of falling into the clutches of charlatans… unless we arm the public with enough informational weaponry to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
But as a child, Joe had some challenges of his own to overcome on the path to achievements in science and education – a journey that included his awakening to the “magic of chemistry.”
Born in Hungary, Joseph Schwarcz was an only child. His parents had lost their respective spouses and their parents during World War II. His father survived a Russian labor camp and his mother was a Holocaust survivor.
During the Hungarian uprising in 1956, he and his family escaped into Austria from their nearby border town. “We had a guide to take us through the barbed wire,” recalls Joe, “because there was a minefield at the border. There I was – nine years old and crawling under the wire, trying to avoid the searchlights, and the mines.” The family was later successful in arriving in Montreal where Joe’s father soon gained employment as an accountant.
When Joe was about 10 years old, a “life-changing event” occurred for him at a birthday party he had been invited to. Recalls Joe: “There was a magician performing – and he had three ropes that he was going to change into one. Instead of using the usual magic words like Abracadabra, he said that he was going to sprinkle a ‘Magic Chemical’ on the ropes. This reference to a chemical intrigued me so much that I went to the library and looked up chemistry. I’ve followed the two disciplines every since.”
He adds: I didn’t know anything about chemistry in those days and had no idea what chemicals were.” But the more he delved into the subject the more he liked it, especially combining chemicals with the practice of magic. “The library had several books on chemical magic, and within weeks I had learned how to change water into ‘wine,’ prepare invisible inks and make self-lighting candles. It was fun! In fact, I still enjoy entertaining children of all ages with ‘chemical’ magic shows.”
He also soon realized that understanding deeper concepts of chemistry, especially molecules and their reactions, could do much in demystifying the many phenomenon we experience each day, such as the fragrance of a rose, the taste of an apple, the color of a carrot, the sting of a bee, the misery of an allergy, the tarnishing of silver, and the pleasures of chocolate.
In fact, his book, lecture and broadcast projects in chemistry are noted for shedding light on such practical, everyday topics as the effects of medications, the role of cosmetics, the principles of nutrition, the risks of toxins, the effectiveness of cleaning agents, dangers of pollutants and the horrors of chemical warfare.
“It is clear to me that you can’t possibly navigate through life properly without an understanding of chemistry because basically we were all practicing chemists,” he says.
Joe has won a number of awards for his efforts, including the American Chemical Society’s prestigious Grady-Stack award for interpreting chemistry for the public. He has also been featured on Canada’s Discovery Channel and other television programs, hosts his own radio show in Montreal and has written 11 books aimed at improving the public’s understanding of science.
“But my first love is the public lecture,” he confesses. “There is always a little magic in that,” he laughs.
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