Sunday 24 April 2011

Every Day Problem

As geologists, we like to go on about how important minerals are in everyday life, which led me to wonder; what are the highest profile minerals around? Well, I chose to look at products available for household consumption; including:

Lucozade offers me a drink that will: ‘Help Replenish 4 minerals lost in sweat’, It turns out thought that the product, clearly is not developed in conjunction with any geologists; as the minerals, they specify are much more elemental: ‘sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium’.  While  variety of food describes itself as ‘full of minerals and vitamins’ – although actually contains elements...

While Dove has incorporated ‘beauty mineral’ into its products, strangely the  substance that the world should be clamouring for is remarkably common:

But what affect has the mineral water industry, cosmetics and lucozade had on people’s perceptions of minerals?  - to find this out, I decided on an impromptu survey, asking shop assistants and scared members of the public as to what they thought a mineral was:

Pure and fresh - but watering down minerals?
4/16 (so ¼) thought they were things in ‘like mineral water’
2/16 (so 1/8th) fell for the bait (actually this was in Superdrug, which is a quite interesting) and decided that they ‘make your skin look good’.
9/16 (so just over half) went with the answer I was after along the lines of ‘make rocks’
1/16 sheepishly didn’t know, but that’s fair enough.

Given that the official (ish – I got it off Wikipedia) definition of a mineral is:

The usage of the word ‘mineral’ in the cosmetic industry is fairly well balanced, after all, look on the back of your toothpaste you’ll see a whole host of minerals (usually with nifty pharmaceutical names) which have been derived from the squeezing and heating of the earth’s crust over time. However, the usage of mineral in terms of water and drinks – is clearly absurd, yes minerals are composed of elements; but if your water had little bits of olivine sitting in it, then it would be mineral water. Just because it has come out of a spring and has a few more/less bicarbonate ions than water from the tap does not mean it is mineral, it’s just elemental/compoundal.

So how does this affect communicating geoscience?

Well, it’s rather difficult to say, any exposure to the earth’s materials can be said to be beneficial, plus an inquisitive individual may well wonder where on earth you get ‘pearly’ mica from – and discover the science. The usage of ‘mineral’ in mineral water though, could be lead to misleading thoughts – particularly in children, whom experience of minerals in other forms is limited.  However here in the UK at least, mineral water does try to prove it’s ‘volcanicity’ via the geology its water has flowed through – but this hides a potentially more concerning thought.

Present in many everyday products -
but hidden
People just don’t know where stuff comes from. Recently I acquired some asbestos, in mineral form, and while treating it like a souvenir from Fukushima, I asked my dad, who within his job has occasional contact with public mineral enemy No1 – he was startled to find where it came from. While my girlfriend has never given a thought to what makes the glossy magazines glossy nor is there amazement at when you explain what plasterboard is. Recently I was in a jewellers who described a garnet (amandine I think) as ‘valuable and rare’, garnets are by no means rare nor difficult to get hold of – what usually typifies value; indeed getting pretty ones could be considered a challenge – but I’ve found them! Should public knowledge be stuff that people know what is in the ground? And how much of it is in there?

Maybe it’s just me who wants to know what the stuff we us every day is derived from – but it seems sad that companies can use the word ‘minerals’ in such a manner as the public understanding of them is so low.