Month: May 2023

A chemist reads “Lessons in Chemistry”

A chemist reads “Lessons in Chemistry”

Bonnie Garmus’s novel Lessons in Chemistry has been wildly popular since its 2022 publication, and praised by nearly everybody. The story of Elizabeth Zott, a Master’s student at UCLA who was attacked and raped by her research supervisor makes quite a tale. In this story, she is denied permission to continue for her Ph.D. and essentially expelled, for defending herself from this attack. Sadly, it is all too believable.

The story is essentially a charming fantasy where Elizabeth leaves the research institute where she took a job to become a TV cooking show host, where she emphasizes the chemistry in the recipes she describes. I call it a “fantasy” because of her dog Six-thirty with a 1000-word vocabulary, who apparently can read Proust, and her preposterously precocious daughter, who is reading Dickens around age 4. The story over all is a lot of fun: especially in the first two acts. The third act is a deus ex machina ending that seemed a bit much, and more worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan.

But, let me interject that I was a chemistry graduate student about the same time as her story, graduating from Oberlin College in 1964 and getting my Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Ohio State in 1969. And Garmus and her editors simply did not take a lot of care in describing the chemistry and the labs of those days, and these clinkers spoiled the elegance of her beguiling tale. I note that female Ph.D. scientist Ricki Lewis has somewhat similar views you should read as well. The following contains spoilers.

One event Garmus comes back to several times, is that women in the lab are so uncommon that everyone assumes they must be secretaries, even in graduate school where there are sure to be female students. The fallacy, of course, is that secretaries dress professionally, while student researchers wear lab attire: sweatshirts and jeans are common, or grubby lab coats. I still have one of mine.

Having missed her chance at a Ph.D. (at least at UCLA) Zott takes a job at Hastings Institute, a sort of Nevermore Academy for second string scientists. But among them is Calvin Evans, an up-and-coming scientific wunderkind who is carrying out research on abiogenesis, the conversion of common chemicals into components found in living organisms. Of course, the book makes no mention of Wohler’s synthesis of urea from inorganic materials in 1828  or the Miller and Urey experiment in 1952 that started with a flask of gases (water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen) likely to have been in existence before life began. After applying an electric arc inside the closed system, Miller found that several essential amino acids had been formed. (Lewis mentions this as well.)

The initial confrontation between Zott and Evans comes about when her lab needs beakers, and she learns that he has boxes of them. Beakers? What the heck would she want beakers for? They are essentially glass vessels open to the air and, I might note, easily spilled. If she is doing biochemistry related to her own interest in abiogenesis, she’d be doing it in small, closed flasks under nitrogen or argon.

Needless to say, these two socially inept scientists are quickly attracted to each other and soon move in together. While they are attracted by their scientific discussions, Garmus can’t reproduce them very well. She quotes them arguing about the number of covalent bonds in some compound: basically, an introductory high school or freshman chemistry topic. In fact, we have no idea what either of them are actually working on.

Bunsen burners

The book mentions Bunsen burners throughout, as if they are part of the standard research lab. But they are not. Open flames in an organic chem lab are an invitation to bench fires. I never saw a Bunsen burner after I left undergraduate school, and when I visited a couple of years later, they had all been replaced with electric appliances.

Heating mantle
Hot plate with magnetic stirrer

Basically, chemists use hot plates and heating mantles, which wrap the round-bottom flasks they use in carrying out reactions. And many hotplates have a second control knob that controlled a spinning magnet under the heating surface. Then you put a small Teflon covered magnetic bar in the flask, and used the rotating magnet to spin the stirring bar and keep the solution stirred.

Cooking is Chemistry

One of the principal ideas we are to get from Zott’s abilities as an excellent cook is that “cooking is chemistry.” And it is indeed, but Garmus’s examples are not that persuasive.  While living with Evans, Zott does most of their cooking, and makes notes like

@200˚ C/35min = loss of one mol. H2O per molecule sucrose, total 4 in 55 minutes = C24H36O18.

The reason why this is utter nonsense is that there are probably hundreds of compounds with that compressed empirical formula. It tells us absolutely nothing about what the compound is or what is actually going on!

In a later scene, after she has set up a lab where her kitchen was, she has a sack meaninglessly labeled C8H10N4O2. Since she uses it to make coffee for her neighbor, we are to infer that the label refers to a formula for caffeine. But it would have been more correct and almost simpler to have simply sketched the molecular structure instead:


After her first show, she makes out a shopping list, including CH3COOH, which no one recognizes as acetic acid (or vinegar). If she’s not trying hard to be obscure, she could have written “vinegar” in the same number of characters, or HOAc, the usual abbreviation. In that abbreviation “Ac” stands for the acyl group, CH3C=O and the H attached to the oxygen is the acidic proton. Concentrated (glacial) acetic acid is nasty stuff, and not suitable for salads. Vinegar is about 4% acetic acid, and she should say so.

She also keeps saying “sodium chloride” for salt, but chemists would usually just say “table salt” to distinguish it from other salts in the lab. Or, they might say “NaCl,” which is shorter, still.

During one of her shows she takes questions from the audience and one woman confessed she had really wanted to be an open-heart surgeon. Zott asks her the molecular weight of barium chloride, and she quickly answers “208.23,” so Zott assures her that she is ready for work towards a medical degree. I don’t know a single chemist who could answer that off the top of her head. We’d look at the periodic table and find the atomic weight of barium and of chlorine (137.327 and 35.453) and knowing that the formula is BaCl2, we’d calculate the atomic weight and come up with the same answer. But answering that immediately is just a parlor trick for a few people with photographic memories who are super-calculators. It doesn’t say much about her knowledge of science. (OK, maybe this was a joke, but it didn’t land that way.)

In another amusing moment, she was given a can of the sponsor’s soup. She tosses it into the trash, because “it’s full of chemicals.” Well of course it is. Everything, including water, is a chemical. She then goes further suggesting products like that would eventually kill you. This may be Garmus’s opinion, but it shouldn’t be Zott’s, because there is no science behind it.   Preservatives added to canned soup are there to keep it from killing you. And there is no evidence that they are dangerous. “Full of chemicals” is just a random slogan based on ignorance and would not be Zott’s view.


Throughout the book, Garmus refers to the nonexistent magazines Chemistry Today and Science Journal. If she means Science she should have said so. It’s a major publication. Other professional journals she might have mentioned are the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Journal of Organic Chemistry, Proceedings of the National Academy and Nature. I don’t think the ACS journal Biochemistry existed yet. But for news, she should have mentioned Chem & Engineering News, which is a weekly chemistry news magazine published by the ACS.

However, if her boss Donatti copied her notes and published a paper, it would have taken him weeks or months to write that paper and probably a year for it to be refereed, edited and published. So, it appearing two months after Zott returned is just literary license.

Calvin Evans’ Death

Sadly, their loving relationship is cut short by a freak (and preposterous) accident. His original gravestone gets damaged, and when she has it remade, she included the inscription below.

She says that she is “opting for a chemical response that resulted in happiness.” This is probably the structure for oxytocin, but a more accurate structure drawing is shown below, that would be easier to engrave on stone.


Oxytocin is sometimes called “the love drug,” because it is associated with romance, sex, childbirth and lactation. She could have written it on the tombstone more succinctly as the 9 amino acid components:

Cys – Tyr – Ile – Gln – Asn – Cys – Pro – Leu – Gly – NH2

Or even more compactly in biochemist’s notation as



This is a funny and entertaining book, that would have been more authentic if they’d talked to some lab chemists about how labs really operated in 1960s. Some of us remember them quite well. Read it and enjoy it, with a grain of salt (er, sodium chloride).

Oh, and there is no conceivable reason why Elizabeth would be using a cyclotron (p. 6). They are primarily for physicists, and sometimes for radiation therapy. And finally, The Mikado dialog is not racist (p.21), and the soprano does not cause all the trouble. That job is reserved for Koko, the patter baritone!

The photo at the top of the article is from the set of “Jekyll and Hyde, the Musical,” performed at the Wilton Playshop in November, 2022.