Skip to main content

What Einstein Kept Under His Hat – Robert L. Wolke ****

First things first – this book has nothing to do with Einstein, for which I ought to dock it several stars for gratuitous use of the great man’s name, but I can’t because it’s such a good book. And it’s about the chemistry of food.
The format is simple. Robert Wolke gives us a series of questions about food that have a chemistry-based answer and… he answers them. Interspersed there are a fair number of recipes, vaguely relevant to the question. And that’s about it. But it’s the way he tells them.
Firstly, Wolke is genuinely funny. I would advise any science writer not to use humour, because on the whole it just doesn’t work. The writer comes across as smug and/or silly. But for some reason, Wolke’s funnies (painful though some of them are) hit the spot for me. Take this from the opening:
What are the first two things a server says to you as soon as you’ve been seated in a restaurant? (1) “Hello, my name is Bruce/Aimee and I’ll be your server.” (2) “May I bring you something to drink?”
Thus far, I have been successful in repressing the replies: (1) “Glad to meet you. My name is Bob and I’ll be your customer.” Or (2) “Thanks, but I came here primarily to eat.”
That sets the tone nicely. (He goes on to point out it would be useful to know your server’s name if it were socially acceptable to yell it across the room when you wanted service… but it isn’t.) Wolke breaks down the food into various sections (drinks, dairy, vegetables) etc. and just piles on the wonderful (and sometimes silly) questions that enable him to explore the subject. I don’t know if he makes the questions up like most magazines (I don’t really care) – but the format works really well and I genuinely learned a lot about how food and cooking work from the viewpoint of a chemist.
A couple of minor moans. It is quite American in feel, with reference to various products Europeans will never have heard of, but it really doesn’t make much difference to the readability and sheer fun of this book. I admit I didn’t read the recipes, but I’m sure they’re nice too. I did notice one oddity. Sometimes (but not always) the recipe calls for ‘kosher salt’. This sounds as bizarre a concept as organic salt. I wish he had a) explained what it was and b) debunked the ‘expensive salts taste better’ myth – and c) pointed out the meaningless of the concept of kosher salt.
Overall, though, a real find. Great summer reading – it’s very light to read – but some genuinely interesting scientific concepts put across well.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Case Against Reality - Donald Hoffman ***

It's not exactly news that our perception of the world around us can be a misleading confection of the brain, rather than a precise picture of reality - everything from optical illusions to the apparent motion of video confirms this - but professor of cognitive science Donald Hoffman goes far beyond this. He wants us to believe that spacetime and the objects in it are not real: that they only exist when we perceive them. It's not that he believes everything to be totally illusory, but suggests that the whole framework of the physical world is a construction of our minds.

To ease us into this viewpoint, Hoffman gives the example of the Necker cube - the clever two-dimensional drawing apparently of a cube which can be seen in two totally different orientations. Calling these orientations 'Cube A and Cube B' he remarks that our changing perceptions suggest that 'neither Cube A nor Cube B is there when no one looks, and there is no objective cube that exists unobserve…

The Body - Bill Bryson ****

I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson's travel books - he is a superb storyteller, and in the best parts of his science writing, this ability to provide fascinating facts and intriguing tales shines through.

After taking on the whole of science in his first book, here he focuses in on the physiology, anatomy and diseases of the human body. Bryson does so with his usual light, approachable style, peppering the plethora of facts (and 'don't know's - it's amazing how much we still don't know about the workings of the body) with the little nuggets you can't help but share and stories of some of the odd and, frankly, horrifying goings on in the history of medicine.

So, for example, Bryson throws in 'The chin is unique to humans and no one knows why we have one.' He speculates that it might be just that we 'find a good chin dashing' and quotes a Harvard professor as saying 'Testing this last hypothesis is especially difficult, but the reader is encoura…