polymer science meets art and a high school mea culpa

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photo by Kevin Sprague

My most recent story (my first for Scientific American) combined all the elements of what I love about my work– the chance to meet interesting people, learn and experience new things, and allow my eclectic interests to co-mingle, at least for a little while. In other words, this former chamber musician got to flex my chemistry muscles, learn about carbon fiber stringed instruments and even do a little firsthand reporting at a chamber music concert.

Synergy is powerful. I happened to call Louie Leguia just a few days before a concert on the Upper West Side. The instruments are fascinating– oddly light, slick, and yes, plastic, though that word makes them sound cheap in a way that these instruments are not. Their sound– at least in the hands of pros– is both rich and expansive. His idea came from his hobby, and I had the good fortune to get to combine my work with an opportunity to feed my lifelong love of music.

And for an hour or so during the concert, my mind drifted back to playing piano (and flute) in chamber music groups while I was in high school. I lacked the patience to memorize music and solo performance fried my teenage nerves, though I did it anyway. But chamber music was a pleasure– less exposed, collaborative, and community-building. The cellist I played with most often was a childhood friend from my neighborhood, Iris, a far better cellist than I was either pianist or flutist. Last I knew, she’d gone to Eastman School of Music, but I lost track of her after high school graduation.

But, I wish Iris had a carbon fiber cello in 1992, when we both played at our high school graduation. We’d each auditioned for the privilege of playing at the ceremony in the O’Connell Center, the acoustic death trap that mostly serves as theĀ  basketball arena at the University of Florida. Somehow, after playing my flute solo, I managed to knock over her cello, which gave a hollow wooden gasp after it fell the 18 inches to the floor, fortunately unharmed, echoed by the collective gasp of the friends and family looking on.

I covered my embarrassment in the moment, but I’m still mortified by my klutziness. So, Iris, wherever you are, here’s another apology, nearly 17 years later. Writing about sturdy cellos, I couldn’t help but think of you.

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Yay, chemistry, and experimental fish

little did I know that the American Chemical Society was founded in NYC
little did I know that the American Chemical Society was founded in NYC

On Thursday I spent a couple hours at NYU on Thursday afternoon of the Silver Building near Washington Square Park. Completely coincidentally as I was going to the meeting of the Experimental Cuisine Collective, I passed this plaque commemorating the founding of the American Chemical Society. I’d never delved that deeply into the history of the the ACS, though I’m a past member and still do some freelance editing work for them. Yay, chemistry!

This was only my second ECC meeting, and this chemist is still learning a lot about the food world. Andreas Vierstad, the Washington Post’s Gastronomer, talked a lot about the definition of molecular gastronomy. Though I’m not familiar with all the details, I do understand the importance and difficulty of “defining” a field with so many different points of view, but the semantics are a little distracting after a while. One particularly interesting point was the perspective that science in this field once it’s applied ceases to be science. It’s an interesting way to draw the line between art and science, and one of the things I like as a former chemist and amateur cook is the fact that there are fewer consequences to experimenting in my kitchen– beyond bad food.

Vierstad’s schtick is the science of everyday cooking, which he even referred to as “maverick gastronomy.” I might have to try his faux sous vide approach to cooking fish, adding boiling water to fish in a small container and letting that sit until the water cools to room temperature. The trick is in the ratios: 3 to 5 parts water to fish, by weight, depending on how “done” you like your fish. I’m a lazy cook, often too hungry by the time I get to the kitchen to get fancy, but I think I can handle this fish.

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Isotopes and esters (that "maple syrup" smell)

Two waves of chemistry news hit my ears in the last 24 hours. As I was getting getting ready to herd the cats to the back of the apartment and cover up the parrot, I saw this clip on WNBC’s sports desk.

Yes, indeed, Tommy Lasorda just asked, “what does isotope stand for?” in reference to the triple-A minor league team, the Albuquerque Isotopes. Unfortunately, his informant, the new manager of the team, knew almost as little as he did. For the record, guys, isotopes are elements with different masses because they have different numbers of neutrons. If the number of protons change, you get a different element. But, I’m guessing that Lasorda could probably teach this football fan a few things about baseball. For chemistry fans, perhaps any publicity is good publicity, if they could just get the explanation right.

Esters (not “esthers”)– one of my favorite organic chemistry functional groups: this press-deprived chemistry term got major coverage today. Mayor Bloomberg formally announced that New York City’s “maple syrup smell mystery” had been solved. Since 2005, the smell occasionally has occasionally permeated Manhattan, even making 30 Rock fame. The culprit? New Jersey! Not the whole state apparently, but the most recent incident on January 29th came from Frutarom in North Bergen, which processes fenugreek seeds for flavorings and fragrances. Scientific American notes that fenugreek and maple syrup both contain the compound sotolone, a cyclic ester.

So, despite what many New Yorkers think, there are sweet smells that waft over from “that side” of the Hudson River. Married to a proud Jerseyite, I already knew that was true.

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