Is your morning coffee moving? Is there a particle party going on in your kitchen? What makes for a great-tasting gourmet meal? Does artificial flavoring really make a difference? Why does mixing soap with water get your dishes clean? Why do some say that “sitting is the new smoking?” How come one beer gives you a strong buzz but your friend can drink a bottle of wine without slurring her words? When it comes to love, is the “right chemistry” just a metaphor? And would you dump your partner because he won’t use fluoridated toothpaste?
All this and much more makes for the delightful conversation packed into Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life, by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim, a fun, fascinating, and fast-moving slender volume that could very well turn you into a fan of—of all things—chemistry! This cool and quirky book is just the latest effort by the author—a real-life German chemist who hosts a YouTube channel and has delivered a TED Talk—to combat what she playfully dubs “chemism:” the notion that chemistry is dull and best left to the devices of boring nerdy chem-geeks! One reason it works is because Nguyen-Kim is herself the antithesis of such stereotypes, coming off in both print and video as a hip, brilliant, and articulate young woman with a passion for science and for living in the moment.
I rarely pick up a science book, but when I do, I typically punch above my intellectual weight, challenging myself to reach beyond my facility with history and literature to dare to tangle with the intimidating realms of physics, biology, and the like. I often emerge somewhat bruised but with the benefit of new insights, as I did after my time with Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe and Bill Schopf’s Cradle of Life. So it was with a mix of eagerness and trepidation that I approached Chemistry for Breakfast.
But this proved to be a vastly different experience! Using her typical day as a backdrop—from her own body’s release of stress hormones when the alarm sounds to the way postprandial glasses of wine mess with the neurotransmitters of her guests—Nguyen-Kim demonstrates the omnipresence of chemistry to our very existence, and distills its complexity into bite-size concepts that are easy to process but yet never dumbed-down. Apparently, there is a particle party going on in your kitchen every morning, with all kinds of atoms moving at different rates in the coffee you’re sipping, the mug in your hand, and the steam rising above it. It’s all about temperature and molecular bonds. In a chapter whimsically entitled “Death by Toothpaste,” we find out how chemicals bond to produce sodium fluoride, the stuff of toothpaste, and why that not only makes for a potent weapon against cavities, but why the author’s best buddy might dump her boyfriend—because he thinks fluoride is poison! There’s much more to come—and it’s still only morning at Mai’s house …
As a reader, I found myself learning a lot about chemistry without studying chemistry, a remarkable achievement by the author, whose technique is so effective because it is so unique. Fielding humorous anecdotes plucked from everyday existence, Mai’s wit is infectious, so the “lessons” prove entertaining without turning silly. I love to cook, so I especially welcomed her return to the kitchen in a later chapter. Alas, I found out that while I can pride myself on my culinary expertise, it all really comes down to the way ingredients react with one another in a mixing bowl and on the hot stove. Oh, and it turns out that despite the fearmongering in some quarters, most artificial flavors are no better or worse than natural ones. Yes, you should read the label—but you have to know what those ingredients are before you judge them healthy or not.
Throughout the narrative, Nguyen-Kim conveys an attractive brand of approachability that makes you want to sit down and have a beer with her, but unfortunately she can’t drink: Mai, born of Vietnamese parents, has inherited a gene mutation in common with a certain segment of Asians which interferes with the way the body processes alcohol, so she becomes overly intoxicated after just a few sips of any strong drink. She explains in detail why her “broken” ALDH2 enzyme simply will not break down the acetaldehyde in the glass of wine that makes her guests a little tipsy but gives her nausea, a rapid-heartbeat, and sends a “weird, lobster-red tinge” to her face. Mai’s issue with alcohol reminded me of recent studies that revealed the reason that some people of northern European ancestry always burn instead of tan at the beach is due to faulty genes that block the creation of melanin in response to sun exposure. This is a strong underscore that while race is of course a myth that otherwise communicates nothing of importance about human beings, in the medical world genetics has the potential of serving as a powerful tool to explain and treat disease. As for Mai, given the overall health risks of alcohol consumption, she views her inability to drink as more of a blessing than a curse, and hopes to pass her broken gene on to her offspring!
The odds that I would ever deliberately set out to read a book about chemistry were never that favorable. That I would do so and then rave about the experience seemed even more unlikely. But here we are, along with my highest recommendations. Mai’s love of science is nothing less than contagious. If you read her work, I can promise that not only will you learn a lot, but you will really enjoy the learning process. And that too, I suppose, is chemistry!
[Note: I read an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book as part of an early reviewer’s program]