Intriguing Morsels from the Science of Everyday Life

Book review

by Dr. Joe Schwarcz, 2018, 324 pages, paperback, ISBN 978-1-77041-192-0  $22.95 CDN

Feast of Science book cover with a molecule on a plateThroughout A Feast of Science, Dr. Joe makes the point: before you arrive at an opinion, check the facts. Before you believe what you read on the internet or elsewhere, check the credentials of the author, check if the evidence is cited and check the references. If you cannot do that, then read Dr. Joe's A Feast of Science, as he has done the background searches for you, without an agenda. 

In A Feast of Science, Dr. Joe serves up just over 90 tasty morsels to sink one's teeth into. A professor at McGill University in Montreal, Dr. Joe attempts to teach the general public through his books and his radio program by laying out the facts, separating the hype from the peer reviewed studies and leaving the reader to come to his or her own conclusion. His writing style is easy and enjoyable and, while having a chemistry background is helpful, it is not essential for complete understanding. He begins each short topic with an anecdote, often about his own past experience, employs ample humour and provides the reader with the skinny on the issue. Throughout, he never strays from the path of common sense and valid reasoning. Dr. Joe gives you the good, the bad and the ugly, in a straightforward and unbiased fashion. He is no huckster, no "doctor of Oz", no Food Babe, no John of God — he is not a fan of these charlatans. He is not selling you anything, not even his book which you might be able to borrow from the library! Straight goods, honest truth, no snake oil!

The main premise of A Feast of Science is to counteract the spreading of scientific falsehoods by the internet, media headlines, TV infomercials and celebrity sponsors. To that end he begins with the problem real science has getting evidentiary information to the public. He delineates the sources of hoax science and "alternative facts". He separates information from misinformation and identifies "slanted science". These are all teachable moments.

One example from the feast is the McDonald's coffee lawsuit, which many will remember and perhaps even deemed it frivolous. This is a perfect example of media hype versus fact. Reading that Dr. Joe’s tidbit is an eye opener! And, if you still happen to have a Shrek glass from McDonald's, you will want to read about the paint that was used. There is an excellent history of flint and the strikers used to light Bunsen burners. Some other histories include ink, anaesthesia, the origin of Nutella, arsenic poisoning and the advent of its chemical test, toothbrushes, and condom technology including the history of vulcanization. An exceptional explanation of the use of hops in beer is given and their estrogenic side effects. The stenches and body odours tidbit offers outstanding molecules for Making Connections in Organic Chemistry — in addition to the molecule on the book’s cover. Finally, the mouthful on longevity is very revealing making one realize that the search for the almighty dollar is not necessarily in our best interests.

Besides histories and hoax science, a number of other morsels are explored. Dr. Joe shows that the sugar industry is not that far removed from big tobacco for misleading the public. His environmental cost analysis of beef production is magnificent as well as one on the invention of Bovril — a thick and salty meat extract paste. The environmentally conscious should read about KIND — a brand of “healthy” snacks — while a sidebar for vegetarians and vegans explains the nutritional benefits of hemp seed. The single largest grouping involves plastic. The issues of plastic recycling, bisphenol A (BPA), the creation of Mylar and the "scourge" of plastic bags are all discussed factually. 

For the chemistry teacher, Dr. Joe includes demonstrations and concepts you can link to the classroom. References are provided for the thermite reaction, the Blue Bottle demo and the iodine clock reaction. The hydrogen peroxide reaction with blood is explained and how the forensic test for blood was developed. An analysis of baking powder is an excellent adjunct to the Acid, Base, Salt unit in Grade 12 Chemistry. 

As an added bonus, following this review, the section titled "Tornadoes, Rainbows and Chemistry" is reprinted with permission. The methanol tornado and methanol rainbow are examined, replete with safety warnings. See for yourself why reading Dr. Joe is both pertinent to a chemistry teacher and yet accessible to the general public. I predict you will be sold on Dr. Joe and just championing to safely perform those demos.

One piece of advice: read it with a small notebook handy. You will find material you can use for your classes or yourself in virtually every chapter. You will find Dr. Joe's nutritional guidelines easy to understand and even easier to follow. You will be relieved to know that a "spotted dick" is not a disease.