Yoghurt vs Scientists

Note: This article originally appeared in Nature Chemistry as part of their Blogroll section. You can see the original post here, though nothing was changed in its republication here, save for the postscript.


Recent advertising strategies in which ‘anti-science’ is equated with ‘all-natural’ have rubbed some scientists the wrong way.

Yoghurt maker Chobani earned the ire of the scientific community with a slogan that appeared on the lids of their new low-calorie Greek yoghurt. Piper Klemm was the first to tweet about the controversial catchphrase: ‘Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists. #howmatters’. Hundreds of tweets on the topic soon followed, as well as numerous blog posts by scientists decrying the belittling of science in advertising.

Writing at In the Pipeline, Derek Lowe offered a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the reason for the overwhelming response to the slogan, pointing out that despite Chobani’s desire to advertise an ‘all-natural’ product, mass-produced yoghurt requires a lot of food science. In fact, Chad Jones and John Coupland describe the chemistry involved in detail in a podcast at The Collapsed Wavefunction.

Chobani’s ‘natural vs scientific’ strategy of promoting foodstuffs isn’t new; bloggers have called out Finagle a Bagel on its ‘Bakers, not scientists’ campaign, and Whirlpool on their ‘Don’t drink from the Periodic Table’ adsPaul Bracher‘s ‘chemophobia’ archive at ChemBark offers a compilation of examples where science and chemicals are demonized by advertisers.

These discussions highlight that such marketing strategies not only cater to, but also inform the public’s paranoia surrounding the term ‘chemical’. In his piece on The Blog, Joe Schwarcz addresses the confusion of ‘chemicals’ and ‘dangerous chemicals’. Science education — and communication — at all levels has never been more important than the present, where terms like ‘GMO’, ‘GIF’ and ‘chemical’ are misunderstood and feared as a result. It’s now time for the chemistry community to use these events as learning and teaching opportunities.


P.S. Following the publication of this article, Chobani sent me a hand-written card that thanked me for “sticking with [them]” and included a coupon for free yoghurt, which I have not yet collected. While I am not a vehement Chobani-hater (their intentions were misguided, not evil), I’d like to say for the record that I’m not on their side in the matter, either.


Scrunchers vs Punchers

As many of you may know, I love my glovebox. If you haven’t been able to experience the magic of doing a dump-and-stir Grignard reaction (with quantitatively pure arylmagnesium bromide, weighed out as a lovely crystalline material), you should absolutely consider borrowing your nearest metal-friendly neighbor’s box and having a go. You might never go back to the Schlenck line again.

Intentional hyperbole aside, when I was training my newest undergraduate researcher, we came upon the most intriguing of trends. You see, when I go into the glovebox, I “punch” my way in; that is, I use an uppercutting motion and put my entire arm in at once (barring a glove that is sticking for some reason, usually a result of the gloves having been used by a person with smaller hands earlier in the day). I taught this method to my undergraduate, who agreed that it was an effective way to get into the glove.

Later, though, a coworker took notice and told him, “You know, it’s way easier to just put each arm in a little bit, scrunch it down over the rest of your arm, and then go the rest of the way.” Later, in confidence, the undergraduate confided in me that, though he tried it for our coworker’s sake, it wasn’t an especially comfortable way to get into the box.

I got to thinking about it more and more, and noticed that there was a mix of methods in our lab for entering the glovebox; there were the Scrunchers, who go in a little, adjust the glove, and then continue, and there were the Punchers, who, like me, go in all at once like Heihachi from Tekken. Moreover, there was a distinct correlation with how long one’s arms are and one’s propensity to punch or scrunch. I am on the lower end of the puncher spread, with an arm length of 27.5″ from shoulder to fingertip, and a brief survey of my lab members and some random members of other groups in the department revealed that everyone surveyed with an arm length qualitatively less than that (I didn’t bring a ruler, just my arms) would scrunch instead.

I am interested in whether or not this is a general phenomenon. Readers, are you #TeamScruncher or #TeamPuncher? Share in the comments or on Twitter, and share your arm length if you feel so inclined!

Grad School Gourmet

Grad school, for me, has often been punctuated with days where I simply felt like I was running on empty. Today was one of those days. Being tired from a number of recent late nights, various ongoing projects, and life in general, I’m amazed I managed to get home for dinner without falling asleep on the bus. Normally on a sleepy day like today, I’d cave and order dinner from a local place and bask in my laziness. Alas, it’s cold as hell outside and I’ve got too much in the fridge to justify delivery. From this mix of typical grad student sleepiness and laziness, a wonderful treat was born in my kitchen tonight. I’d like to share this with you.

Lumbering into the kitchen, I sought to create a meal that required an absolute minimum of hand-eye coordination to consume. Eyeing the loaf of bread that has sat largely unused for the last week (the girlfriend doesn’t trust American bread, so I don’t usually bother keeping it around, so this was but a happy accident), I decided that a grilled cheese met that most basic of requirements. The grilled cheese represents to me the most convenient of sustenance delivery, in its finger-friendly exterior with an adhesive filling that prevents disintegration under all but the most forcing of circumstances. However, the only cheese we had on hand was shredded mozzarella (a necessary evil) and cheddar; for the uninitiated, grilling a cheese sandwich filled with shredded cheese is heartbreak waiting to happen, as the cheese melts unevenly and leads to breakage in the flip. No, I needed an alternative. I needed better cheese.

That was when it struck me: I had good cheese, it was just already spread onto the leftover baked mac ‘n cheese (a recipe for another day–my mac n’ cheese will change your life). This was but the least problematic of my challenges, as it would turn out, because the idea of leaving the noodle in the sandwich didn’t worry me one bit.

Assembling the sandwich required a slight bit of engineering; I opted to start the first buttered slice, lay down a little bit of shredded mozz as some insurance, and let a sizzle start with a little bit of melting before applying a 1/2″ thick layer of mac ‘n cheese. Sprinkling the noodles with some more mozz and applying a bit of paprika seemed prudent, but tragedy soon followed. Like my encounters with shredded grilled cheese sandwiches, the top of this sandwich was not heating in concert with the bottom, and so on the flip the structural integrity of the unit gave way. Luckily the escaped mac ‘n cheese was easily returned to the filling, but the top slice had torn in the process, and it was clear that my adhesive cheese was failing to keep the entire unit together.

As I scratched my head, wondering how to save this concoction, I concluded that this would have to become an open-faced sandwich. However, my pride wouldn’t permit me to simply use the moniker as excuse; rather, this was the opportunity that would define my evening. Invigorated by the possibilities, I plated the ‘wich with a little salt and pepper, followed by some leftover tomato sauce and fresh, finely-minced garlic.

Sadly, the result was so delicious that it no longer exists to be photographed. Each slice was the mac ‘n cheese I know and love, encased in a crisp, buttery bread layer, topped with the savory sauce that nicely contrasted the rest of the dish. Total time invested? Roughly fifteen minutes. Total money spent? Roughly $0.20 if you don’t count the leftovers. Tuesday night just got a lot better with a dish that fills in little enough time to not hinder my return to lab. Speaking of which, I have compounds to purify!

A quote from Fritz Haber

I’ve been reading the biography of Fritz Haber (Stoltzenberg) lately, and I stumbled upon this quote. For his doctoral thesis, Haber synthesized a derivative of indigo based on piperonal. In discussing his work, he said to Max Warburg,

The thesis is miserable. One and a half years of new substances prepared like baker’s bread rolls… and in addition, lots of negative results just where I was looking for significant results, and further, results that I cannot even publish because I fear that a competent chemist will find them and prove to me that the camel is missing its humps. One learns to be modest.

This comment on organic synthesis as a field of study is interesting. This “baker’s” mentality to churning out compounds is a very large part of what drove me to study methods and mechanisms, but I have to wonder if it’s a glass half empty situation.

Readers, what do you think? Is organic synthesis just baking rolls, or is there a more delicate art to it? What inspires you to do organic synthesis, or just as importantly, why don’t you (other than being unemployed)?

WWWTP: Lipid edition


This photo from the New York Times caught my eye not because of the headline* but because of the lipid behind the gentleman in the photo.

It appears to be gamma linoleic acid drawn up, and note the numbering! Here’s the punch line: it’s actually correct!

So at first glance, it’s not obvious why that molecule is there, and it was probably drawn by an intern with a love for Wikipedia, but given how often these things are screwed up, I’m really proud to see it done right for once!

*I still haven’t read the article, believe it or not