Skip to main content

Robert L. Wolke – Four Way Interview

Robert L. Wolke is a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. From 1998 to 2007, Wolke wrote the food science column “FOOD 101″ for The Washington Post. His journalism awards include the James Beard Foundation award for best newspaper column, the IACP’s Bert Greene Award for best newspaper food writing, and the American Chemical Society’s 2005 Grady-Stack Award for interpreting chemistry to the public. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and co-author Marlene Parrish. His latest book is What Einstein Kept Under his Hat.
Why science?
All told, as a student, professor and administrator I have spent more than 40 years of my life in colleges and universities. In every institution all human scholarship, like Caesar’s Gaul, was divided into three parts: sciences, humanities and social sciences. Putting aside the perennial squabble among academics of whether economics, history, political science or sociology are true “sciences,” we are left with two categories: science and humanities.
But I firmly believe and would argue anywhere that science is a humanity. It is the most highly developed and most demanding intellectual pursuit that human beings engage in. Scientific investigation—seeking to learn how the universe works—is perhaps the most fundamental difference between humans and animals. We question Nature and seek understanding of it. Animals don’t. Science is a uniquely human enterprise: a prototypical humanity.
Why this book?
Behind every phenomenon lies a scientific explanation, whether we yet know the explanation or not. That’s what science is: trying to find explanations of phenomena. But many everyday phenomena remain mysteries to nonscientists, even though a scientist could explain them easily in simple terms. One location that harbors many mysteries is the kitchen, and I can explain these phenomena to both home cooks and professional chefs who may be following certain time-honored routines without knowing why. After 10 years of writing a food science column (“Food 101”) for the Washington Post and receiving literally thousands of questions from perplexed cooks, I was able to select a few hundred to edit and include in this book, “What Einstein Kept Under His Hat.”
What’s next?
I have written four popular science books in my “Einstein” series: “What Einstein Didn’t Know,” “What Einstein Told His Barber,” What Einstein Told His Cook,” and “What Einstein Kept Under His Hat.” Whether there will be a fifth or not is yet to be decided. But I am currently explaining science on The Huffington Post and in lectures, newspapers and magazines. What’s next? Que será será.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Resurrecting my college chemistry textbook for non-science majors, Prentice-Hall’s “Chemistry Explained,” which is out of print but about which I continue to receive inquiries.


Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 

An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

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 …