Friday, October 10, 2008

Cookery and chemistry

It's really funny to me how cooking is so much like working in lab: assemble ingredients, mix in a certain order and ratio according to a protocol, heat treat, and you're done (well, actually, then comes storage of leftovers, and the concern about keeping whatever you've made intact for the next time you need it!).  Still, there's definitely things that cooks have figured out that chemists haven't, and vice versa.  For example, there's no chemistry equivalent of Pampered Chef, and boy, is that a shame!  That's why countless organic chemistry drones are stuck scraping product out of round bottoms with a teeny weeny spatula (that for some mystifying reason is never called a spatula, but a "rubber policeman").  On the flip side, chemists have better methods of dealing with moisture-sensitive materials.  I mean, which cook can put their brown sugar in a Drierite-filled container, then pull a vacuum on it?  And only chemists get to play in gloveboxes! 

Okay, okay, they're not identical: I have yet to see a chemist wearing the equivalent of a chef's hat.  And chemists do need to much more particular about stochiometry, and they tend to care a bit more about characterization than even gourmet chefs (the chef's analysis: does it taste good?).  But the times when it really hits me how similar these things are is when the tools and thought patterns both fields use are eerily similar.  I mean, both cooks and chemists use timers and microwaves to do stuff, both are based on individual innovation, and give ample arenas to share discoveries!  Still, it catches me off-guard when I'm doing chemistry and I think like a cook, or vice versa.  The other day I was waiting for my food to heat up in the microwave.  I must have been really absent-minded, because I thought, all of the sudden, oh no!  I forgot to put the stir bar in there!  For materials, both cooks and chemists have incredible variety in the outlets they buy from.  For bulk ingredients (flour, potatoes, milk, and the like) there's always the general place to go.  But for specialty items needed in tiny amounts, there's Rohm and Haas and gourmet food sources.

There's enough similarities that skill at one can help you with the other.  I can't put it any better than a gal from undergrad.  She was used to preparing huge stockpiles of bacteria for her microbiology course, and she knew how to multitask.  When she was getting ready to cook Thanksgiving dinner one year, she shrugged and said, "It's one big lab prep."  There's also the whole interplay of precedent and art.  The first time you're trying something, you better hunt hard to find somebody who's done something similar to what your trying.  Replicating what they've done, whether it's double chocolate mocha cake or supramolecular assemblies, can be a crucial first step to finding your way in your own work.  And you've got to master the basics before you can go improvising.  Those first hundred times, you're probably going to need that sheet of paper showing the exact steps to follow.  But later you can shake things up, and add your own twists.  This improvising can be the most fun part.  That's when you take a boring cornbread recipe and add salsa or sour cream or corn or chives, and come up with something new.  Or that's when you look at all the DNAzymes that have been isolated so far, and you apply the same selection method to an entirely new ion.  Then, of course, comes the process of screening your results.  That cake that was baked on "preheat" and got burned on top and was still runny in the middle?  Trash it.  That experiment where the first three timepoints were taken faithfully but you fell asleep on that fourth point?  Trash it.  But those great results?  Showcase 'em.  Take it to a potluck or enter it in a flour competition; make a slide and show it in subgroup or make a poster and take it to a conference.

After all, if everything was guaranteed to work in cooking or chemistry, success would be boring.  Not that I like failed curry chicken (c'mon, how was I supposed to realize how different vanilla and plain yogurt would make that recipe?!) or PCR trials that just don't amplify, but there's nothing like a series of bad results to make the good results that much sweeter!

So, whenever possible, keep a couple burners on at the same time.  (Pots and projects can be kept on a back burner!).  The more you try, the more you're going to fail, but the more you're going to find those couple of sweet successes that make the people at the table happy: either the ones eating the dinner you're fixing, or the ones staring at your prelim powerpoint presentation.

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