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.)


Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…