With any science, you're playing around at the very edge of what we know and what we can do. And with chemistry, we're at the edge of what we can make and then what we can understand about those things. @sciencegeist #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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Chemistry is the story of dinner. Chemistry is the story of getting into your car. Chemistry tends to be things that we do every day, but we don’t really think about it. @sciencegeist #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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Jayshree Seth: 28% of adults the adults we surveyed (at least somewhat) agreed with this statement: “As an adult, I don’t see the point in understanding science.” But what if science could provide you with the recipe for a perfect pizza crust? We’re bringing chemistry to the kitchen on this episode of Science Champions.
Welcome to Science Champions, I’m Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
Most people’s chemistry education is limited to a single high school course, and perhaps a baking soda volcano for the science fair. Even though you might not have Bunsen burners and test tubes at home, odds are you are a practicing chemist every single day. Baking cookies, browning meat, caramelizing onions… all of these mouthwatering activities rely on an intuitive understanding of chemistry.
So what happens when you take a more scientific approach to everyday activities like cooking and baking? The result can be empirical, peer-reviewed deliciousness.
My guest this week is Matt Hartings, Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University, and the author of the book “Chemistry in Your Kitchen.” Matt, thanks for joining me.
Matt Hartings: Oh, my pleasure.
Jayshree: What was it about chemistry that drew you in? What sparked your desire to study chemistry?
Matt: Oh, so I love just the ability to find new things and to understand new things, right? Any science you're playing around at the very edge of what we know and what we can do. And with chemistry, right, we're at the edge of what we can make and then what we can understand about those things. And so there's all sorts of places where that has an effect on our world, whether it's alternative energies and making solar fuels or whether it's making new materials for 3D printing, you know, whatever that is. We're always exploring sort of at the edge of what we're capable of doing and what we're capable of understanding.
And so, chemistry and its ability to connect new materials and study new materials is really what draws me and excites me.
Jayshree: I agree; chemistry is foundational to a lot of new technologies and new products. I mean, that’s certainly how we use it at 3M. I think of it in my role at 3M…
Matt: Absolutely. Chemistry is known as the central science and certainly through the history of 3M, 3M has played a huge role in developing a number of different chemistries and technologies that we use every day. One of the chemistry writers I most look up to is Deborah Blum, who wrote a book called "The Poisoner's Handbook." And you know, in our talking, you know, when she and I talk, she has described chemistry as not necessarily something that's always exciting, but something that is very everyday. It's something, it's the...chemistry is the story of dinner. Chemistry is the story of getting into your car. Chemistry tends to be things that we do every day and we don't really think about it. And it's sort of proximity to us, right, how close we are to what chemistry does is really endearing in a way. Right? And sometimes it doesn't seem like chemistry has the flashiest of, you know, inventions or the news stories that come out, right. There's lots of news stories on space exploration and what we're seeing in telescopes and astronomy and physics and things like that. But chemistry is really the story about how we live our day-to-day lives.
Jayshree: Though, if you think about it, the materials that keep a shuttle from burning up on re-entry… or even getting into space in the first place, that’s chemistry.
But, getting back to that idea of everyday chemistry, you have this book called “Chemistry in Your Kitchen.” Which came first for you: The science or the cooking?
Matt: Chemistry came first. So we, my mom is a high school science teacher and she also taught at a community college and when she was at the community college, my sister and brother and I would go in after school and just hang out with her in her lab at the community college while she graded papers or talked to students. And there were so many cool things to play with in that lab. And so that really started me on my road to being a scientist. And from there, you know, I liked chemistry the best, right? I really enjoyed physics and I really enjoyed biology, but chemistry was always my favorite. And so chemistry came first. The cooking came later, right? It came as I got to be more of an adult and did things on my own. But what I love about cooking chemistry in particular is that it is the one place in our lives where we are doing chemistry every single day.
We're doing a science every single day and we may not know that. Right? And I think one of the, you know, probably one of the reasons why this set of podcasts exists is to get people excited about science. And in my opinion, the best way to get people excited about science is to have them actually doing science. Right? You're not really, I learn the most when I am in my lab working on a project, studying something new, when I'm doing science. And in our day-to-day lives, there aren't really many opportunities to do science, to be involved in science. You know, I'm never going to be involved in space exploration. Probably not. Right? I'm never going to be involved in any new medical breakthroughs. Right? But I do, no matter what I'm doing in my day, I'm going to do some chemistry when I go home and make my dinner.
And the freedom that I have in my kitchen to kind of explore chemistry, to think about chemistry, to change what I'm cooking through a little bit of knowledge of chemistry is really amazing to me. And I think it's a great, the kitchen is a great place to reach a lot of people who are science-curious.
Jayshree: Oh, I couldn’t agree more. And of course it’s one of the few places you can do chemistry where you’re encouraged to taste your experiments.
Matt: That's right. That's right. There are stories, right? So, you know, I've been in chemistry for a really long time and there are stories of how things used to get done in lab, right? You would make a new compound and you would smell it and you would taste it, and you would do all of these things that are just so wrong, right? You should never do anything like that. But you certainly can in the kitchen. Right? And chemistry itself, right, it's a super tactile science, right? And, when I teach intro chemistry, one of the things we talk about are all the different kinds of chemical changes that occur in a reaction, right? We notice a chemical reaction by the changes, right? A change in color, a change in smell, a change in the texture. And so these are all very tactile descriptions of how materials change through chemical reaction.
And we have all of these great ways to detect tactile changes, right? With our hands and our mouths and our tongues and our noses. In the lab, we try to keep away from that, right? We're using analytical instrumentation, but in the kitchen you get to use all of those things that nature has imbued us with to really explore the chemistry of what you've created.
Jayshree: It’s certainly more hands-on than, say, theoretical physics might be. But do you think your scientific approach to cooking has led to you changing and improving recipes?
Matt: So one of my, one of my favorite things to do is to make pizza. So I have three kids at home, my wife and I have three kids, and it's one of the few dinners that we make that they all agree on and they all like, and they're all excited about. So I love making pizza and I worked a really long time on figuring out how to make a perfect pizza dough. Right? And this is something that, you know, making a perfect pizza dough is something that other people have done before. But in my own way of doing it, right, I started off and, you know, I found a recipe and in that recipe, you know, you mix your dough together, you add a packet of yeast and you wait three hours for that dough to rise and double, and then you split it into portions and you start making your pizzas. Right?
So that is the, you know, sort of a way that you make your pizza and it's...or make your pizza dough. It's ready in a couple of hours and you can start making pizzas. But the problem with that is that the dough doesn't generate a lot of flavor. You don't get a lot of flavor in your dough. And so I started using another recipe, right? And just thinking about this, right, I started using another recipe that used a long rise time. I use less dough or sorry, less yeast in my dough and a much longer rise time and what that does, right, so the yeast in your dough, right, it's chewing up sugars and making carbon dioxide and your dough rises. But while your dough is rising, right, there are other proteins in that yeast that are converting the starches and the proteins in your flour into flavor molecules.
And they do that really, really slowly. Yeast is really good at making carbon dioxide bubbles. We have, humans have sort of engineered it just through selection and breeding and all of that stuff to be really good at converting starches and sugars into carbon dioxide. And it's really slow at converting starches and proteins into flavors. And so if you want to generate flavors in your dough, you have to let it rise for a really long time to give those sort of proteases in your yeast, those enzymes in your yeast a chance to do some work. And so I switched my dough making from a short rise time to long rise time. It doesn't change the amount of active time I'm working on my dough, right?
So when I make my dough now, I prep it the night before I’m going to make my pizza. Right? So I just mix everything together. I...so my water and yeast and flour, mix it all together. Cover it with plastic wrap and then walk away. Just let it go overnight.
And then I make my pizza the next day. I'm not active any longer, but I just give it time to do some work and that time allows some extra chemistry to happen to make my pizza dough much more flavorful.
Jayshree: Better pizza through chemistry — gotta love that. But getting out of the kitchen for a bit, I saw on your Twitter feed you were talking about some exciting innovations in 3D printing. That, now, is definitely a whole new field for creating new materials with chemistry.
Matt: Right. So I have an interesting take on 3D printing or an interesting point of view, I guess. Right? So 3D printing is fantastic. It's so much fun and you can 3D print any structure you want, right? And there are tons of people at home 3D printing their own things, whatever those things are. But it's a really enabling technology and maybe I see 3D printing the same way as I see cooking. It's enabling in that it gets a lot of people into doing this stuff. So as a chemist, most of the chemistry end is kinda like what we talked about earlier with space exploration, right? Chemists make the fuels for getting the, you know, spaceships into outer space and we make the materials for bringing them back home and all of that stuff. So we are enabling there, right. So chemists have generated the polymers for 3D printing. We make all the materials for 3D printing. But once the material is printed, it ceases… the chemistry of it ceases to be interesting.
And to me that was, you know, that sort of let me down, right? As a chemist, I want to be able to print things that then go on and can do really interesting chemistry. And so as a scientist, that's a really interesting problem: how can you print an object and what shape should that object take to facilitate, say, the cleanup of pollution or to facilitate hydrogen gas storage in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. So, you know, you can play around with both the materials and the shape that you print those materials, all sorts of things to really get at the applications that you want to do.
So there are so many good scientists doing lots of really interesting things in 3D printing and I love that it's starting to be used more industrially now. My little brother, he works for Adidas and I know Adidas has a pair of shoes that have a sole that is 3D printed.
So, we are starting to work our way with getting 3D products to the market, right, that 3D printing that you wouldn't be able to have those products without 3D printing. So lots of really cool stuff going on right now. We're at a really interesting part of the, you know, the technology development curve, right. We're on this upswing of people really understanding how to use 3D printing to get interesting products to market.
Jayshree: That is cool. And we're so close to having an affordable, good 3D printer for home use. I know they’re far less expensive than they used to be, but they’re getting to the price of a gaming console.
Matt: Right. Right. That's right. You know, you can't, right, you can go to Home Depot or Lowe's or a place like that and they will sell 3D printers there. It is kind of wild for me to go into a store like that and see a 3D printer. But it is… there are so many just at home… we'll call them makers or crafters or whatever you want to call them. People who are looking at how they can use 3D printing to make things that they need in their lives, or I guess things that they don’t really need in their lives, but things that they want to make, right.
How do you get this machine to make this object that no one's ever made before? And people really get into it. And, again, like the cooking, I love that it is an enabling technology. And so hopefully someday your son and my kids and… they'll be having their own 3D printers to play with at home. My kids love coming into the lab with me, I guess, probably like I loved going into to my mom's lab with her. And they love playing around with the 3D printers in my lab.
Jayshree: So once you get those folks interested in science, once you get them into your classroom, what are some opportunities to make scientific education more relevant or useful for people?
Matt: Right. So, you know, there's a number of things. We talk about sort of the chemistry employment pipeline a lot. And even in chemistry from, you know, the students who are majoring in chemistry, really at any university, there's only a small fraction of those students who are going to then go off and do bench chemistry somewhere, right? Doing actual bench chemistry is the alternative career in chemistry. And this is true for many of the scientists. Most people who get a degree in sciences end up going off and doing something else, something slightly different. And so, you know, what do I want our students to take away and how do I want to train them? What's important to me? There are several things that are really important to me. One, I want my students to learn how to fail and how to recognize failure in an experiment, right?
When I do an experiment in my lab, right, I'm going in and I'm not sure if it's going to work, right? I have to recognize when it does work and when it's really just going bad and I need to give up. But just that recognition of how science is done and really you need to do science and do experiments on your own to have a good feeling for this, right? That recognition of how science is done, that we are playing at the edge of what we know and what we don't know it is ripe with failure, right? You're going to fail a lot. And so I'm sure at 3M and other corporations like that, you know, the managers want the scientists who work there to fail fast. And so if my students, right, if they end up going off into management, if they go into policy, anything like that, right, the recognition that scientists are going to fail needs to be there. Right? But also, you know, supporting them in that and supporting scientists in recognizing how to fail quickly, right? You recognize what's going wrong right away so that you can correct and you can move on to the next thing. Right? So that is one thing that I really want to instill in all of my students, whether they're chemistry majors or not chemistry majors, right? Science is full of failures, right? It's full of failing, right? Most of the things I do in lab fail and that's okay. And we need to, right, the people who plan our societies, right, whether that's in policy or in business management, right, things like that, recognizing that both need for failure to develop new projects, but also the recognition in failure that it's going to be there and how we manage those situations is really important.
And in terms of what chemistry knowledge is important for me to share with my students, the one thing I think is absolutely critical to an understanding of chemistry is the acknowledgement of, we call it conservation of mass or conservation of atoms, right, is the one guiding principle in chemistry. When you do a reaction with say, let's say you're burning methane, right? You're burning methane to heat your house. When you burn that methane, it reacts with oxygen and it makes carbon dioxide and water and you know just how many atoms of… or how many molecules of carbon dioxide and water are going to be made from one molecule of methane. Right? So you have a conservation of the number of atoms from one side of your reaction to another.
And so when I talk to my students about that, when I talk to them about things like global warming, or pollution or cooking food, and using baking soda to leaven or to rise your muffins, right, things like that, or your pancakes. We know just exactly how much carbon dioxide we're going to make from our baking soda, right? It's not going anywhere. And so those, right, having that recognition is really important, both in terms of talking about chemistry that goes on, but also talking about things that affect our broader world and our environment.
Jayshree: That makes a lot of sense. Science does impact our broader world, and it impacts our everyday life. Do you think there’s a value to having a scientific mindset, even if you’re not a scientist per se?
Matt: Having a mindset of a scientist helps in a number of ways. One, you know, I talked already about, you know, doing science and understanding how to do experiments, right? And I can use those, right, use that sort of background and that mindset to solve problems on my own. Right? And everybody does it and we do it without thinking, but when you're a little more structured with it, you can solve problems a little bit better, I think.
And so having a scientific mindset is good for that, right? Using it when you need it, right. Having some science literacy, right, and I guess that's the right phrase to use. Having some science literacy can help us with a number of things, whether that is understanding how our medicines are working, right, so you can feel comfortable with the medicines that you're taking. Or understanding, if you get solar panels on your house, understanding how that conversion of energy is important and how, you know, we're saving on fossil fuels and saving on carbon dioxide being emitted into the environment any more than it needs to. All of those things are beneficial, I think, in the long run. What's most important to me though is that people who don't consider themselves scientists feel engaged with the scientific process.
Jayshree: Oh yes. It’s so important to have these people — the majority of people, when we think about it — get involved and be knowledgeable. They’re going to be voting, they’re going to be shaping public policy… it’s so important they’re well-informed and take an interest!
Matt: I think for me that's the most important thing. There are so many governmental scientists, industrial scientists, academic scientists who are working to try to make our lives a little bit better, to make our lives a little bit easier and to make our lives a little bit, you know, healthier, right? We can live longer, be happier, all of that stuff. And I think a lot of times when people shy away from science, it's because they don't feel like they are part of it.
They don't feel like they are engaged with the process. They don't feel like they have any stake at all. And so, again, I think it's most important that they… that people are doing some kind of science on their own and recognizing that, right, that they do feel engaged with the scientific process, because when, I think, non-scientific citizens, right, the nonscientific public people who are not professional scientists, right… when we hear news stories about them rebelling from or shying away from scientific advances or medicines or whatever, it's because they don't feel part of the process. They feel like they've been left out. And people then go to lengths to try to take control of that.
And they go down paths that maybe aren't right and maybe aren't the correct decision. And I think that what science in general as a larger enterprise needs to do better is to get people active and get people involved in some of these big scientific projects that our society is working on.
Jayshree: Absolutely. So, wrapping up: What's one thing you love about science?
Matt: I love being wrong. I love thinking that I'm right and then finding out that I'm wrong in the lab, right? Outside of the lab, that's a little more difficult, but in the lab, I love finding out that I'm wrong about something because it means I get to learn new things.
Jayshree: Ha! That’s perfect. Matt, thanks for your time today.
Matt: Oh, my pleasure. It was good talking with you.
Jayshree: Science is an enormous part of our everyday lives. From making a better pizza crust to building more efficient solar panels, science shapes our existence in thousands of ways, big and small.
It’s crucial that we become more informed and get more engaged with scientific progress.
And you don’t have to drop everything and go back to school to get started… we can experiment with chemistry right in our own kitchen.
Thanks for listening to Science Champions. Learn more about the current state of science at 3m.com/scienceindex. And subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.