THE AUNT GLADYS LETTER
You have just received a letter from your Aunt Gladys who lives in Rock Hill, SC. She is a sweet old lady
and has heard "such wonderful things" about you. Both Aunt Gladys and Uncle Wilbur didn't have the
opportunity of a formal education, but both have insatiable curiosities. She is somehow under the
impression that because you are taking IS Chemistry (“with that charming teacher”) that you know the
answers to just about all of Life's mysteries. Here is the end of her letter:
... and so Uncle Wilbur's foot is better now. Anyway, honey, I do hope things
are well with you. I've heard such wonderful things about you. Which reminds
me! Your uncle and I were sitting out front last Tuesday, just like regular, and
I got to thinking about something that was bothering me. What I would like to
know is ...[insert your question here]. Now remember, honey, I'm getting along
in years and I ain't had the decent education that you're getting. So when you
write back you make sure to explain it in a way us regular folk can
understand. Give my love to all.
Love and kisses,
Aunt Gladys and Uncle Wilbur
That was the letter. Choose two questions from the attached set to research. Then write Aunt Gladys
back in the form of a letter. Your letter must answer the question in a clear and concise manner, easily
understood by someone who is not well educated. You must also cite at least two references which
answer the question directly or provide the reasoning to support a correct answer. Textbooks do not count
as references. Also, the letter should be no more than two pages. Drawings or illustrations that help to
explain the question are supplemental and are also encouraged. We don't want to bore Aunt Gladys.
--This assignment should be typed or word-processed. Evaluation will include:
• letter format
• clarity - Is the explanation clear?
• creativity - The use of analogies is often helpful.
• at least two references cited - This is a research assignment.
• scientific validity - Is the explanation correct?
Aunt Gladys Questions
Why is it painful for people with silver fillings to chew on aluminum foil? Is there anything else besides
aluminum foil that makes you feel the same way, like copper or tin, or does it have something to do with
it being aluminum?
I have recently covered a meatloaf with a ketchup glaze and stored the thing in the refrigerator covered
with aluminum foil. Where the foil touched the meat I found that it was eaten away, dissolved somehow,
leaving a gray aluminum puddle deposit on the glaze. What happened? Why doesn’t aluminum foil have
a warning on it about this?
What is the aurora borealis? What causes it and where is the best place and time of year to see it?
I want to know about sunscreens. What chemicals are in them? How do they protect your skin from
burning? If people are allergic to one kind is there another kind they can use? Do people who use
“tanning beds” use sunscreen? Should I really put it on when I go outside to work in the yard?
What kind of chemicals are in air fresheners? A friend of mine says that they contain a mild anesthetic
that deadens the olfactory nerves and makes it so that you can’t smell anything very well. Another friend
says that the chemicals in them are really bad for you. Are they right?
How do submarines maintain an air supply for crew and for pressurization of the living quarters for long
periods at sea?
What is rayon and how is it made? How is it different from nylon and polyester? Why are most rayon
garments “dry clean only”?
I’ve heard that lead poisoning in kids in the United States is pretty common. What are the symptoms of
lead poisoning, and where are kids getting exposed to lead? Is lead used a lot around the house or
My dog got poisoned with strychnine a while back. What is the chemical make-up of strychnine, how
does it act as a poison in humans and other animals and how do they test a dead animal to know that was
the cause of death?
I’ve heard that wintergreen Life Savers candies will emit a blue light when crunched between one’s teeth.
Please explain why this happens.
What is Scotch tape made of and why does it stick?
What is different about the safety matches that you have to strike on a “strip of flint” and the “strike
anywhere” variety? Find out if there is a match made that still lights even when it’s gotten wet.
Why is “propylene glycol alginate” found in salad dressings” It sounds suspiciously similar to a famous
antifreeze. What is good and bad about it?
Our smoke detector has a sticker on it warning that it contains a radioactive material. How much
radioactive material does it contain, what kind, and how harmful is it? What function does the
radioactive material serve? Do they make smoke detectors that work without it?
How does a propane refrigerator work? It doesn’t make sense to burn propane to make things cold.
Explain how it is different from my electric refrigerator.
What is in the “glow in the dark” stuff that makes it give off light on its own? Is it the same as luminous
watch dials? Is it safe, or is it giving off radiation that is harmful? Is it like the same thing as in fireflies?
How do so-called “odor-eater”socks work?
How does a gas station pump know when to turn off before spilling gallons of gas on to the cement? Do
they ever malfunction or are they pretty reliable?
Who invented chewing gum and what is it made of? What’s the difference between bubble gum and
regular chewing gum? I heard that Beechnut actually has the bark of a tree in it, is this so?
How is the laughing gas used by the dentist (nitrous oxide) produced? How does it work to reduce the
pain? Is there any harm in breathing it and is it addictive? I heard it was used in dragsters, what for?
Is it true that the production of paper also produces bad chemicals called dioxins that are released into
rivers near pulp mills? Are the regulations for waste water the same in Canada and the US the same?
I’m especially interested in Lake Roosevelt where we like to spend time in the summer. Is it really
getting polluted by the smelters and pulp mills in Canada?
How do radar screens at airports work? Do all the blips look the same? Is it really safe to fly with all
those jets coming and going out of airports with no stoplights to control them?
How does a car battery work? How come I can drive and drive and it doesn’t wear down even if the
lights, wipers, stereo and heater are all on but when I park it and forget to tun the lights off it runs down
in a few hours? How are car batteries different from the kind of batteries I use in my radio controlled
How do bug zappers work? Are they selective or do all flying insects get attracted to them and zapped by
them? I worry about the ladybugs that are good for our garden getting killed by the one that Uncle
Wilbur put out on the deck.
Check out the chemicals in different kinds of eyedrops, specifically Visine and artificial tears. What’s in
Visine that “gets the red out” and is it a good thing to put in your eyes. What do eye doctors recommend?
What makes the sky blue? What makes the sunrises so beautifully colored on some days, and likewise
the sunsets, though it doesn’t seem that it’s the same day very often?
Why does Ben Gay heating rub get hot when you put it on your skin? How does it help soothe sore
muscles? Why does it smell like it does, is that the active ingredient?
What is the difference between the laundry products, chlorine bleach and non-chlorine bleach? Will they
both make your clothes whiter and brighter in the same way? Why don’t laundry detergents have
“phosphates” in them anymore?
What are dissolving stitches made of? Is there only one kind or do they make some that dissolve really
quickly and others that take longer for different kinds of wounds?
How does a zerox machine work? Why is the paper often hot when it first comes out? What is the
chemical composition of the ink used? Why doesn’t blue copy very well?
Alar (chemical name is daminozide) was a chemical used in the apple industry that was called into
question as a harmful chemical a few years ago. What happened since it made headlines? Is it still being
used by apple growers and has the apple industry recovered from the damages caused by these claims?
I’ve heard that zinc is an important trace mineral for good health. What’s the latest on the medical
importance of zinc and what should I eat to make sure I get enough, or should I just chew on galvanized
I’ve heard that old peanuts can contain aflatoxins, cancer-causing, poisonous, chemicals. How prevalent
are these chemicals, in what kinds of foods, other than peanuts, are they found, and how can we tell they
are there? Is there any treatment for aflatoxin poisoning?
What’s the latest on the ozone problem? I’ve heard that Peruvians are suffering from cataracts and so are
the sheep. Is this a documented problem or did I just hear a crazy rumor?
Emeralds and rubies are my favorite gemstones. What are they made of? What causes them to be the
colors they are? Do they nuke them to make them different colors like they do topaz and diamonds?
What is the chemical make-up of sapphires? Why do they come in different colors? What causes the
beautiful star that is in some sapphires? Can they be artificially produced, like diamonds?
What are the chemicals in the insect repellents that you put on you skin so the mosquitos don’t bite you?
What do they do to make insects not like you and are they harmful? Some of them say that they are not
for children, why not?
What are the active ingredients in antiperspirants? Is there a difference between antiperspirants and
deodorants? If so, what is it? Are deodorant sprays bad for you? A friend told me that they contain
aluminum and that it causes Alzheimers and I already feel like I’m losing my memory......
Why does eating beans causes some people to produce foul smelling gas? What does Beano do to keep
this from happening?
I’ve heard that mercury is not a safe substance, but I know that I have silver fillings in my teeth and that
they got there by dissolving silver in mercury. Are the silver fillings hazardous to my health and should I
have them taken out? Are dentists still using mercury amalgams or do they have other materials to fill
Uncle Wilbur struck gold in our backyard and we want to know how they assay gold to find out how pure
it is. I’ve heard that mercury used to be used to assay gold and that that’s how a lot of Western rivers
have been contaminated. Is this true and a current problem?
Uncle Wilbur got stopped by the police for driving a little wierd on the way home from his poker game
last weekend. They had him breathe into a breathalyzer. How do they work? Does belching into them or
throwing up on them change the results at all? (I’m not saying Uncle Wilbur would do something like
Recently a very practical question has plagued me. What is chemically going on in corn that pops? Does
every corn sort pop? How is microwave popcorn different from regular popcorn different from air popper
popcorn? I sure like the stuff and I hear it’s healthy too. By the way, does it have any fat in it?
I bought a bottle of orange soda (local store brand) that listed as an ingredient “glycerol abietate”. What
is the function of this stuff in the pop and is it good for me?
I notice that EDTA is an ingredient in my bottle of mayonnaise and my crock of margarine. What is
EDTA and what is the purpose of having it in my food? I also think it’s in my laundry detergent, but I
can’t figure out why they put all these chemicals in things. Help me understand.
How are rechargable batteries different from the regular kind? Are they dangerous? What’s in batteries
that makes them make electricity anyway?
How do Bounce anti static conditioning sheets work in the dryer? I wish there was something that I
could put on my car seats to keep me from getting shocked every time I get out of the car and touch the
metal door. Any ideas?
Recently Uncle Wilbur took trip to the local nuclear power plant. On the way out he failed to pass the
radioactivity inspection and had to surrender his trousers (a case of hot pants). The plant officials
explained this was due to the fact that his trousers were made of synthetic fiber rather than natural fibers.
How is this possible?
What is with all the different kinds of milk I can buy at the grocery store? There’s whole milk, raw milk,
homogenized and pasteurized. vitamin D enriched, 2%, 1%, skim, nonfat, evaporated, powdered. Is it all
from cows? Which should I buy?