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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…