In chemistry for budding food scientists, Peter Atkins is your Virgil.

One of the great books I’ve come across lately is Molecules (1987) by renowned educator Peter Atkins. I came across the title as a curious entry relative to the others in the back of Neurogastronomy. I figured it was selected for a good reason and looked it up. Wow. The book was so ahead of its time and gives a very intuitive look at chemistry. Atkins continuously touches upon subjects near and dear to me which are food chemistry and plastics chemistry. I thought I would just reference a few things, but I ended up reading straight through.

Molecules is really exemplary science writing and Atkins continuously manages to be edu-taining by saying memorable, often funny things that help to retain the material. He infuses his explanations with an Nth degree drama.

Samples from Molecules:

“There is delight to be had merely by looking at the world, but that delight can be deepened when the mind’s eye can penetrate the surface of things to see the connections within.”

“I tried to avoid technical terms throughout, but some inevitably (or at least unintentionally) crept in and are explained in the Glossary. Where possible, I also tried to explain. But do not expect too much fulfillment here, for some explanations are not yet known to anyone, and others require too much technical background. Moreover, I did not want to diminish delight by overloading the text with too much explanation: this is only an introduction to understanding. I particularly wanted to show that some appreciation of the features of molecules can be achieved without a college degree (or even a freshman course) in chemistry.”

(Just before benzaldehyde, Atkins explains the lock & key mechanism of how odors interact with odor receptors. I think this section is why Neurogastronomy referenced it)

“Benzaldehyde (103) C7H6O

Hydrogen Cyanide (104) HCN

Benzaldehyde is a colorless liquid that smells of bitter almonds. A closely related molecule, phenylethanal, is obtained conceptually by inserting a -CH2- group between the benzene ring and the -CHO- group. This latter molecule fits a floral receptor better than benzaldehyde itself. It smells of hyacinth and is used in perfumes under the name hyacinthin.

Hydrogen cyanide is an almond-smelling, colorless, poisonous gas with an odor that fades on prolonged exposure. […

…] The aroma of cherries and almonds is due to benzaldehyde, but the hydrogen cyanide in cherries, also contributes somewhat. Benzaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide both occur quite widely in drupes and pomes (multiple seed and single-pit fruits), especially apricots and peaches. They are released when the pips are crushed and enzymes can get to work. This much the Romans and Egyptians also knew, for they ground peach kernels to make poisons. [….]”

“Isoamyl Acetate (105) C7H14O2

Ethyl 2-Methylbutanoate (106) C7H14O2

With these two molecules we see nature building different compounds in similar ways and from the same kit. The isoamyl acetate molecule is an ester formed from acetic acid (32) and an alcohol, isoamyl alcohol. The ethyl 2 methylbutanoate molecule is also an ester with the same numbers of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms, but they are bonded in a different pattern.

Both compounds grow in prominence as apples ripen and, as their concentration increases, they mask the characteristic flavor of the unripe fruit. Esters with about seven carbon atoms have characteristic fruity smells, occur widely in fruits, and result from the breakdown of long-chain fatty acids (35) as the cell membranes are oxidized during the ripening process.”

I enjoyed Atkins approach so much to a topic commonly thought mundane that I plunged into another of his titles, Reactions (2011), where he guides you through the “private lives of atoms” via an engaging Dante/Virgil guided tour sort of relationship to the underworld.

Reactions is chock full of tours (maybe more like journeys) that are directly related to many things I’ve been working on, particularly distillation. Atkins explains acid/base reactions in a way I’ve never seen before. He covers the unique qualities of water that make it so reactive in a way I’d never experienced in two years of high school chemistry (hydrolysis!). Most specific to things I work on, Atkins covers esterification reactions and explained how acids participate as a catalyst. These two texts will greatly aid distillers and wine makers who want to deepen their involvement, help you to be able to read and understand journal articles, and just finally understand what the fuck all the “reduction” wine makers obsess over is about.

Again, Atkins constantly says ridiculous things, the kind of stuff you expect from your favorite teacher who is trying to enliven a dry text. He is a master of amusing puns and I found myself jotting down bits of his sense of humor to recycle as cocktail names (blunderbuss affair!). Atkins truly becomes your Virgil and is the best possible tour guide to a world many dare not enter.

I consider these two titles to constitute a gentleman’s understanding of chemistry and should be requisite reading for anyone striving to be a generalist. The titles may even be read not for the content, but just for their exemplary form. Every daunting subject needs a Peter Atkins.

“Chemistry is thought to be an arcane subject, one from which whole populations seem to have recoiled, and one that many think can be understood only by the monkishly initiated. It is thought to be abstract because all its explanations are in terms of scarcely imaginable atoms. But, in fact, once you accept that atoms are real and imaginable as they go about their daily lives, the theatre of chemical change becomes open to visualization.”

Wonderful stuff.

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