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.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

BAH Fest: Humor in Science with Zach Weinersmith

New podcast episode!

Zach Weinersmith, the mind behind SMBC-Comics, sits down with Sam and I to talk about The Festival of Bad Ad-Hoc Hypotheses. This was a very fun episode to record and I hope you enjoy it. (NSFW-ish).

Remember, you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or any other podcasting service (RSS here). We'd love your comments, iTunes ratings, or any other feedback. Send e-mails to:
chad AT 

Show Notes:

~1:45 - Zach tells us about the BAH Fest - Link to the website which has the comic that we're talking about.

~8:45 - Organizing BAH Fest. Zach was worried that only 50 people would show up to his 500 seat venue.

~9:30 - Bombings postponed the first planned BAH Fest.

~15:00  - What is the connection between humor and science?

~18:00 - Zach talks about how he got into making webcomics and how he became a physics major as a way to create stress in his life that would lead to better comics.

~23:00 - The aquatic ape hypothesis.

~26:30 - Zach talks about naked mole rats.

~26:45 - Zombie ants and other mind controlling parasites.

~31:00 - Another example of what to expect at the BAH Fest.

~34:00 - Zach tells us about SMBC comics and how its content has changed to match what he's doing in life. Here's the comic that I refer to (which is, in my opinion, his best comic to date - if you include the red button image).

~39:45 - Fin. Zach complains about anti-red-head-ism.

Monday, September 9, 2013

BWONG! - Viruses with Kevin Bonham

Another podcast! Kevin Bonham joins us once more to talk about viruses.

Thanks for listening, and as a final plea: If you like the podcast (or at least tolerate it) head over to iTunes and give us a review and five stars. If you don't like the podcast, or have suggestions for improvement or future episode ideas, send an e-mail to chad (at)

If you'd like to subscribe to the podcast, but just can't stand iTunes, you can do that using this link:

or you can always just listen right here:

Show Notes

2:40 - Kevin explains the (not so) easy question of "What is a virus?"

8:46 - What virus would you not wish on your worst enemy? Kevin talks about rabies and hemorrhagic viruses like ebola.

18:06 - Sputnik, a virus that infects viruses. Bad inception joke. BWONG!

21:40 - Sam begins a long string of questions, all leading to a bad pun.

22:20 - Chad makes a bad analogy to chemistry. Kevin, not a chemist, corrects him on the chemistry. Embarrassment ensues.  

25:01 - Is a virus alive? What's the point of defining it as living or non-living?

29:36 - Transposable elements. Boxes that shut themselves (video here).

30:19 - Prions, the zombie makers.

31:25 - The fortnightly scientist: Charles Janeway.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Be part of The Collapsed Wavefunction Podcast

Hello internets!

Sam and I have been working to make our podcast, The Collapsed Wavefunction, even better. Please take a minute to hear what we're planning and help us out.

Please, share this podcast with your friends, give us iTunes reviews, and keep listening; we've got some great stuff planned.