Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What Can Chemistry Learn From Cooking

"Chemistry is just like cooking, just don't lick the spoon"

It's a familiar chemistry joke, but the more I think about it the more it just doesn't seem true anymore. Cooking, as a discipline, is evolving rapidly in the public eye. Chemistry, in some regards, is retreating into the safety of the lab.

Now I'm not saying that chemistry should have the glory that cooking now enjoys. I've said before that while chemistry bloggers love to believe that chemistry gets sunbbed I'm not sure it's true. A chemistry "cook-off" would look more like an episode of Breaking Bad than an episode of Iron Chef. Cooking, and more generally food, is an important part of everyone's life. It's no surprise, then, that people love food shows

. . . or is it a surprise? The early days of cooking shows were programs like Julia Child's. I love her show, but let's face the reality: it wasn't prime time television. Her show was a low budget PBS program. She didn't have millions of viewers and corporate sponsors. So what happened? Why has food become so interesting that it has jumped to the major networks?

I think I found the answer in a recent episode of The Alton Browncast. Alton Brown, the host of said browncast, interviews Ted Allen. They talk about his career, why you should read (not sniff) wine corks, and how food programming has evolved. 

Allen mentions that he tries, in his position on Chopped, to not speak above the audience. For example, if a judge or contestant says something like: 

"That dish just needs some acidity" 

He'll clarify that they mean it could use a squeeze of lemon or splash of vinegar. I understood his comment to mean that he doesn't make the audience a student but instead makes them part of the experience. This isn't the same as feigned ignorance, a common tactic in science. If you pretend you don't know something you can ask the right question of the expert. It works sometimes, but I don't think it's always effective. I think Allen's attitude is what has made modern cooking shows so great. 

That's not to say that Julia Child ignored the audience, or even that she spoke down to them. She had a great personality and was extremely informative. But compare her to, for example, Chopped. Chopped isn't a show about great chefs teaching you how to cook. It's about watching those chef's struggle. It's at its most entertaining when a chef is lost. It's at this point that you're experiencing the process with the chef. There is no finished product waiting in the oven to show off. You don't even know if the chef is going to be able to finish the dish. At this point you have left the audience and entered the competition yourself. 

And that's how you turn cooking from something you see on PBS to something everybody wants to watch.

So what can chemistry learn from this? I think the answer is to make ourselves more accessible. Learn what terminology needs to be explained and learn when to stop explaining. Don't just make chemistry education about showing as many things to as many people as possible. Instead, take people on a journey of science discovery that makes a few pit stops in chemistry.

I think this was the purpose of the "Everyday Chemistry" competition from the American Chemical Society. Take a chemistry concept that is seen everyday and teach people about it; make chemistry apply to their life. Unfortunately I think the competition failed in its objectives. I can say this in a non-malicious way because I was one of the finalists in the competition. I think it failed because while the audience was supposed to be non-chemistry experts much of the contest was directed at chemists. I understand that you can't control what "goes viral". You can speak to your audience but that won't make them listen. This is especially true on the internet. The ACS seems to focus a lot of their outreach programs on talking to chemists.

There's a very thin line that separates dumbing down from speaking above, but it's a line we need to walk if we really want to see chemistry in the mainstream. It's this line that I hope to walk as The Collapsed Wavefunction moves forward. The podcast is doing well and I hope to keep improving the content. I feel like that's the place I can contribute the most to science outreach. Sam and I have several experts scheduled to speak with us that we are very excited to interview. From their interviews we hope to present something that is accessible to a wide audience while still being entertaining. We're hoping to bring real research results, not generalized statements, to podcast form. It's going to be a blast, so stay tuned.