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Thursday, December 23, 2021

Review: Chemistry for Breakfast

 I randomly loaded Chemistry for Breakfast onto my kindle for a trip, and started reading it with very low expectations. After all, I already knew a lot about valence electrons, the periodic table, etc. But after reading the first couple of chapters I got thoroughly sucked in. I loved the way she talked about the work of science, demonstrating her passion for it while not flinching from the cruel reality science offers as a career:

It isn’t necessarily the salary that scares people away from academic careers. To progress at a university, you need to sacrifice your private life and sleep on the altar of science. Christine never goes a weekend without working. Although we live in the same city, I usually only see her when I visit her lab. And all this work doesn’t guarantee job security. You move from one fixed-term contract to the next. And an academic career path has just one destination: a tenured professorship. If you’re extremely good, you might reach this point by your late thirties. Although very few people—and only the very best—make it to the habilitation stage, there simply aren’t enough tenured professorships. Hard work, intelligence, and talent aren’t enough; you also need to be really lucky. If you don’t manage to secure tenure, then at some point you’ll find yourself totally overqualified, possibly even applying for the same industry jobs as your own students. (kindle loc 1109)

 In one chapter she excerpts a famous letter written by a professor to one of his students, berating him for taking a vacation instead of spending all the nights and weekends at the lab. (One of my friends in graduate school one day found himself apologizing for leaving the lab at 8pm on a weekend) She explains why many untenured professors are so cruel:

In a company, every boss has a boss. The executive board members have shareholders or an employee organization breathing down their necks. In theory, the only person a professor answers to is God, and since scientists tend to be atheists, they have absolute power (kindle loc 1593)

I shouldn't leave you with the impression that the book is all about how bad academic science is. First and foremost it's a book about chemistry and science. And it's really fun, includnig a description of a study of flatulence:

In 1998, scientists from Minneapolis studied the flatulence of sixteen men and women to identify the odor substances. At first, pretty much all the participants had to do was fart into a tube. Of course, you can’t leave anything to chance in a scientific study. So the evening before and the morning of the study, the participants’ food was supplemented with 200 grams (7 ounces) of beans and 15 grams (1/2 ounce) of lactulose, a sugar with a prebiotic effect that is broken down by the intestinal bacteria, thereby forming gas...two “judges” were employed to assess how unpleasant the odors actually were. Why only two? Well, you try finding people willing to smell fart samples in the name of science—and, of course, you need a very sensitive nose to assess them with the greatest possible scientific accuracy. In any case, these two judges had previously proven to have very sensitive noses and the ability to assess both odor quantity (how strong is the odor?) and quality (how do the odors differ?) particularly well. They rated various odor samples on a scale of 0 (odorless) to 8 (very offensive). They also had to precisely describe the smell of individual, isolated gases. Sulfurous? Rotten? Sweet? A simple “disgusting” wouldn’t be specific enough. A fart is largely made up of odorless gases like hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide (CO2). (kindle loc 1766-1771)

 There's a great section about why you shouldn't be afraid of artificial flavors:

If you know which molecules create the flavor of a natural fruit, you can either extract them (from a natural source) or produce the molecules yourself in a laboratory (CHEMISTRY!). Provided they have the same chemical structure, there’s no difference between molecules from nature and molecules from a lab; it’s just that nature is a far more accomplished chemist than all human chemists put together. Flavor often traces back to a sophisticated blend of molecules, while artificial flavors often have a simpler composition. This also means that artificial flavors are just as safe as natural ones, if not safer, because every single ingredient in the artificial flavor has been identified and tested. (kindle loc 1522)

The entire book was breathtakingly good, and I enjoyed every minute of it. It's well worth your time. Read it. I wish her youtube work was in English, but to make up for it, Chemistry for Breakfast is accessible, enlightening, and full of great information.


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