Surfactants, STEM and Society

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A very personal blog by                  Elizabeth Pearce, Founder SymSoil Inc  Photo credit Glynns Thomas 

I had a conversation with a prospective investor about surfactants for agriculture yesterday, which reminded me of wonderful memories of my father.  Surfactants are compounds that lower surface tension of water.

In the context of agriculture and growing plants, using a surfactant causes water to be is less likely to “bead” above the surface of the ground, and once absorbed in soil to be easier for plant roots to absorb.  The surface water tension can be changed by nano bubbles and soap products, both of which reduce the surface tension.  Minerals, including salt, calcium and others increase the surface tension. Since most water used in agriculture is hard (full of minerals), water tension is a meaningful issue for farmers.

My father was not a farmer, but he has a deep interest in science and a love for understanding the physical world. He was especially gifted at sharing this interest with his children.

The memory that resurfaced:  When I was a child, my father showed us how small plastic boats (about 1 ½” in length) would move across a tub of water if a small amount of soap was attached to their stern.  The water behind them had less surface tension, so the boat was pulled forward by the stronger tension at the front of the boat.

I remember the delight of watching to boats move.  My father then talked about surface tension in the context of insects skating across the top of water.  He talked about rain drops being held together with surface tension. He talked about the surface created by liquids with a differential in specific gravity, like motor oil floating on water or cooking oil above vinegar at the top of  salad dressing.

I was blessed with a father for whom this was just an ordinary conversation and activity with his little girl. Back then, we didn’t even have the vocabulary of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), it was just a father sharing with his daughter nature and how the world works.

Of course, every parent shares their understanding of how the world works with their children.

But for my father, that meant drawing pictures of molecules from organic chemistry on paper napkins in restaurants, to explain flavors and scents.  Or magnetizing a needle, sticking it in a cork and demonstrating in a bowl of water how a compass works.  And talking about how molecules of silica stacked to form quartz crystals, or how the foam on lava formed pumice, or how minerals make up rocks.  Today, we’d call those teachable moments.

In the year I was born, CP Snow gave a speech on two societies, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. They coexist with different perspectives. In one society, they wants to know why the light bulb goes on when they flip the switch.  In the second society, they don’t care, as long as they light goes on.  I grew up in the first society, thanks to my father. Both the need for STEM and the conflict over climate change seem strange to me.

Snow’s essay includes this often-repeated passage:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare‘s?

People often ask how SymSoil was formed and if I am a scientist.

No, my educational background is in Finance (MBA/CFA) and History, my first career was in money management.  More than anywhere else, SymSoil’s earliest origins were in thoughts I had while working as a Portfolio Manager at Northern Trust, thinking about inter generational wealth transfer – specifically forest lands vs farm lands – and population growth in the developing world.  And the long-term implications for technologies for indoor agriculture.

I’m just someone who grew up in a household where sharing with children how the physical world operates was part of the daily conversation.  My family of origin are  members of the society that was grounded in science. I was blessed.

 About SymSoil

SymSoil Inc., a Benefit Corporation (B), is a leader in development of biological soil amendments for agriculture that restores the microbes that provide the right food to the plant roots, improving plant health, and making food more tasty and nutrient dense, the way nature intended. These indigenous crop and regional soil specific microbes regenerate the soil significantly increasing crop yields and nutrient density in food. For more information please visit https://www.fundable.com/symsoil-inc or  call 833-SYMSOIL (833-796-7645)

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