Skip to main content

Chemistry in Your Kitchen - Matthew Hartings ****

As author Matthew Hartings, chemistry lecturer by day and kitchen wizard by night (well, he has things he says he's pretty good at cooking) points out, chemistry and cooking have a lot in common. You don't have to be into molecular gastronomy like Heston Blumenthal, running your kitchen more like a lab than an everyday part of the home. Whenever we deal with food and drink, we are inevitably dealing with chemistry.

As Hartings also points out, chemistry is the Cinderella of the popular science world, so it's great to see a book in this field that works reasonably well (I'll come back to that 'reasonably').

What we get here are trips through a whole host of familiar (at least, familiar if you are American) food and drink experiences, from coffee via Kraft Mac and Cheese, through meat to beer and cocktails. At his best, Hartings is an engaging storyteller, for example taking us through his experience being hauled onto a TV show at the last minute to talk about the science of bacon. He proudly records half an hour of fascinating chemistry-related bacon information - why it smells so good when it's cooking, for instance. Only to have his broadcast contribution cut down to little more than 'I love bacon.'

Hartings is equally good at little asides that you don't expect - for instance, we discover that those lovely circular vibration waves on the cup in Jurassic Park when the T-rex is approaching were produced by vibrating a guitar string under the cup. And sometimes too the chemistry itself can be surprising and interesting with a direct, understandable impact on what we eat and drink - where, for example he describes the ways that the different kinds of pectin work. But Hartings does have the classic scientist-as-writer problem that he doesn't realise when there's too much chemistry in one lump and he needs a good leavening of narrative (see what I've done there with the food metaphor?) - there are parts that are simply too chemistry-heavy.

Another issue is that some points are drawn out far longer than they really need to be - a spot of judicious editing would have helped. But it's when the chemistry gets out of control, for example in the lengthy description of the Maillard reaction. It genuinely is interesting and important in many areas of cooking - but the chemical expansion goes on far too long.

If I'm going to be really picky there was also one cosmological issue when he says that Carl Sagan’s quote ‘we are star stuff’ describes 'how every atom in our body was once made in a star.’ I'm no biologist, but I think there's plenty of hydrogen in our bodies and I'd be interested to know what stars made hydrogen from. But that's nit-picking.

Overall, I did have to skip through a few overloaded chemistry bits, but I still enjoyed the book. Hartings has a light, chatty style and brings a lot of food chemistry to life. I may have been a little generous with the star rating because of the shortage of good popular chemistry books - but there's a lot to like here. (Incidentally, the Royal Society of Chemistry really should have priced this as a popular science book - at the moment it's more like a textbook, with a cover that gives away its origins.)


Review by Brian Clegg


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 …