George Zaidan’s Chemical Odyssey
I never was a big fan of high school chemistry.
Blame it on an incoherent old teacher who spat a lot in class as he wrote stuff that nobody understood on a chalkboard, and which he had no patience to explain.
The occasional trip to the lab meant smelling repulsive odors, seeing smoke come out of a beaker — fuzzy memory here — and hoping the place didn’t blow up in our faces.
Fast forward to 2020 and being delighted to learn more than just rudimentary chemistry but detailed explanations of what makes things tick in and on us, the very ‘ingredients’ we take for granted, and the fact there definitely are no definite answers in science.
Or are there?
Thank you George Zaidan, mischievous MIT geek extraordinaire, chemistry alumnus-cum-teacher-cum-executive producer of a weekly YouTube series for the American Chemical Society-cum-adventurer-cum-host of National Geographic’s “Ingredients” YouTube series-cum-regular TED-Ed writer/voice-cum-former co-host of CNBC’s hit TV series “Make Me a Millionaire Inventor.”
His delightful, informative, hilarious, irreverent (some may say uncouth) 315-page book “Ingredients” (Dutton) simplifies to the nth degree, as the subtitle plainly states, “The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and On Us.”
“There are so, so, so many different chemicals we put into our bodies every single day. Water. Cheetos. Cigarettes. Sunscreen. Vape mist. The list is almost literally endless. What happens when all that stuff interacts with all the chemicals that make up our bodies?” Zaidan asks in the preface.
He very cleverly and meticulously weaves in and out of scientific jargon, arguments, case studies, and trivia that he deconstructs for lay folks in three parts divided into 10 critical thinking chapters, topped by a wow epilogue and sock-‘em-in-the-gut-appendix that ties in neatly with his initial arguments about how we should view and understand science.
He admits: “Before we start our odyssey, though, let me be clear about who I am and what sights you can expect to see along the way. I am not a practicing scientist. For the past decade, my job has been to translate science into English as accurately and entertainingly as possible. So I don’t mainline the literature like professional scientists do. I sip it, spit it out, and try to make sense of what I’m tasting — like a wine critic but with slightly less pomp and circumstance.”
Before delving into the book’s minutia, you may want to watch some of Zaidan’s very amusing and instructive videos explaining what goes into things like peanut butter, toothpaste, or what makes gum chewy.
I’ve been so focused on coronavirus epidemiology of late I didn’t realize there was such a thing as nutritional epidemiology until I read Zaidan’s multi-dimensional approach to processed and ultra-processed foods, and how good or bad they may be for you.
Good as in tasty, bad as in unhealthy? Who decides?
We read about “studies” and watch “experts” telling us to eat this and avoid that, cut down on drinking X, or fill up on drinking Y, but how accurate is all that?
In a chapter entitled “Plants Are Trying to Kill You,” Zaidan traces humanity’s reliance on plants as the main source of food, before the discovery of ribs, T-bone steaks, and burgers with every possible topping.
Plants are basically magic: they build themselves out of air and soil using energy from the sun. They literally feed the whole planet, either directly or indirectly. What’s their secret? You’ve heard the answer before; you probably learned it in high school: photosynthesis.
He then proceeds to break down the process with simple hand drawn illustrations of the chemical reactions.
But as he moves into more complex formulations we see how the end product, glucose, plants make is used in multiple ways: “It’s burned for energy in the same way we humans burn glucose for energy; it’s made into sucrose (exactly the same as the sugar in your pantry); it’s turned into starch and stored for the winter; it’s turned into cellulose, which is used to build the plant . . . and the list goes on. It’s basically the Swiss Army knife of the plant world.”
That’s the good part. Then there’s the sinister side of plants: defending themselves against marauders.
Since plants are mostly water, as Zaidan reminds us, and they’re basically just sitting ducks for all to pick and consume, one defense mechanism is cyanide, “a beautiful molecule.”
Seems a herd of starving goats in drought-stricken western Australia in the early 1980s ate leaves of a sugar gum tree that was cut down, but the tree struck back with the deadly poison. Tragic end.
C’est la vie!
So it’s not just the stuff in fancy wrapping packed with lots of nasty “chemicals” on supermarket shelves that may be toxic, despite all the misleading advertising, jumbled ingredients on labels, slick marketing techniques and very confusing contradictory “scientific studies” to dupe us into buying it.
Or is it?
Zaidan makes all manner of arguments based on extensive research of literature and interviews he conducted. So extensive, and rather than print his sources (and waste more paper), he published them on the book’s website.
He also seems particularly obsessed with Cheetos, a piece of which adorns the book’s cover.
But it’s not just Cheetos (is it junk food and should you eat it?), it’s also cigarettes and e-cigarettes (do they cause cancer?), sunscreen (how effective is it?), and microbes trying to eat your food — think mold, mildew and other yucky stuff.
Or decomposition. As in us, and our food pyramid unless we try to stop the process.
Life needs motion. Molecules have places to go and stuff to do; stopping that motion brings cellular life to a grinding halt. From the perspective of a bacterium looking for a meal, formaldehyde turns an orgy-inducing amount of food into a gigantic, useless museum. It is the ultimate preservative.
Zaidan wants us to think analytically by understanding that scientific research, studies, experiments, and chemical reactions can be messy and their results based on countless independent variables. But they’re still worth studying.
He provides a roadmap on the probability of death, of all things. I won’t go into the exponential functions and fascinating specifics he calculates for us on life expectancy with, or without, processed and ultra-processed foods.
There’s so much to “digest” in the book. You get the idea. The guy knows a thing or two about his subject.
I wish they taught us “Ingredients” in high school. I would have remembered my chemistry.
Zaidan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, The Boston Globe, National Geographic Magazine, NPR’s The Salt, NBC’s Cosmic Log, Science, Business Insider, and Gizmodo.