Category: Chemistry

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.

Why were my scones so flat?

Why were my scones so flat?

We make scones for breakfast fairly often, because as we showed earlier, you can make them quickly and they are quite delicious.

But, a couple of days ago, we made some of the worst scones we’d ever made.

As you can see, the recent scones were a flat-out disaster. We had used new baking powder and everything, but they were a flop.  What had gone wrong?

Well, the immediate suspect was the baking powder. Baking powders sometimes fails because it was stored improperly: in a hot warehouse or truck, for example. Let’s explain how this works here.

Baking soda is just sodium bicarbonate, NaHCo3. You use it when acidic ingredients such as buttermilk, sourdough or yoghurt are included in the batter. The baking soda will react with any of those acids to release carbon dioxide, CO2, which causes bubbles that make the dough rise.

Baking powder is sodium bicarbonate mixed with one or more acids in dry crystalline form, such cream of tartar  (tartaric acid), monocalcium phosphate, sodium aluminum pyrophosphate, or a couple of others.  Double acting baking powders (and most of them now are) contain two acids, one that reacts immediately when liquid is added and one that reacts only when heat is also applies. In all cases, the baking powder also contains cornstarch, to help keep the mixture dry and add bulk to make it easier to measure.

But you can easily test baking powder by putting a couple of teaspoons in  a bowl, and adding boiling water. Just microwave a cup of water in a pitcher for a minute or so until it bubbles a bit, and pour it over the baking powder. It should foam up right away as you see below.

New baking powder foams up in hot water

But let’s look at that suspect baking powder: no foam at all, it scarcely breathes a word!

Suspect baking powder

In fact, it doesn’t really look at all like the other sample. In fact let’s look at the package:


Why does my diet soda taste ‘off’?

Why does my diet soda taste ‘off’?

If you’ve ever been given a can of Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi and it tastes a little off, or way off, you probably just toss it out. Why does this happen and what can you do about it?

Many diet soft drinks are sweetened with aspartame a leading non-nutritive sweetener that works very well in cold or room temperature foods. Aspartame is little more than 2 amino acids (aspartic acid and phenyl alanine) stuck together in a peptide linkage with one extra methyl group.  This useful colored diagram came from the paper by Prodolliet, et. al. [1].

Aspartame, showing aspartic acid(red), phenyl alanine (blue) and the methyl ester (magenta)

Aspartame was discovered in 1965 by James M Schlatter, while working at G.D. Searle. He said that he had made the aspartame (methyl ester) and was trying to recrystallize it to purify it, when some of the mixture bumped outside the flask. Later, when he licked his fingers to turn a page, he discovered a very sweet taste. Since he realized that the compound he made was unlikely to be toxic, he tasted it and found it extremely sweet indeed. In fact, aspartame is about 200 times as sweet by weight as sugar.

Searle patented this product, naming it Nutrisweet and Equal. Officially, aspartame has a half-life of about 300 days in solution at about pH 4, about the pH of soft drinks, but half life means that half if it as gone by that time. And if the cans are exposed to a hot storeroom or stored in a warm summer garage, they may deteriorate faster.

Why does it start to taste awful?

Diet sodas have a date on the package: it’s not the “sell-by” date, it’s the “use-by” date. Depending on you grocer, this may be 2 to 2-1/2 months from the date you bought it. Grocers are not too good at stock rotation of diet sodas, so it is up to you to make sure you don’t get an early one. Nearing the end of January, we have picked up cartons dates from Mar 21 to April 11 in the same stack! Unless you only buy one or two at a times, this won’t matter, but if you buy several on sale (and they all do this) you need to be watchful.

Carton date
Can date

So what happens? Well, the simplest thing that happens is that the two amino acids come upzipped: this is called hydrolysis,  since it always amounts to adding a water molecule at a carbon-oxygen bond. If you unzip aspartame into the two amino acids and remove that methyl to become methanol, you have a tasteless mixture of pretty harmless compounds. Your body easily metabolizes that bit of methyl alcohol and you are none the worse for it. This is described in the Prodolliet paper [1] and in the one by van Vliet [2].

Aspartic acid
Phenyl alanine

What tastes so awful?

It is easy to understand that a solution of those two amino acids might well be tasteless, which is one of the outcomes when diet sodas age. But what about that really vile taste you sometimes encounter in old diet sodas?

I think there are two possibilities. If you look at the various steps aspartame undergoes as it unzips [1], you discover that one of the intermediate products is a form of diketopiperazine.  The basic compound is shown below along with the derivative, sometimes also referred to as DKP that is actually produced:

Basic diketopiperazone
DKP found in aspartame decomposition

Bothwick [4] has described the taste of DKPs as “bitter, astringent, metallic, and umami.” This is not surprising, since ring compounds with one or more nitrogen usually are pretty smelly. And a table of the concentrations of intermediates in van Vliet[2] shows that DKP occurs in significant amounts. But, in case you are concerned about their toxicity, Ishii et. al [3] studied aspartame and DKP for 104 weeks in Wistar rats and found no toxic effects at all.

The other possibility, albeit less likely, is another form of the sweetener called β-aspartame, which differs only in the position of that NH2 group: it is moved one carbon to the left. This isomer has a pronounced bitter taste, and does occur during aspartame decomposition, but in much lower  concentration. But again, it is harmless.


Diet Coke mythology

You can’t discuss diet sodas for very long before someone brings up the old saw the diet sodas cause weight gain. The theory was that the sweetness induces hunger and you eat more actual food to satisfy it.

In 2008 Fowler and Williams[5] published a paper noting a correlation between obesity and diet soda consumption. A correlation, not causation. But in 2009, Chen and Appel [6] monitored 810 adults for 18 months, recording their beverage intake. They found weight gain from sugar sweetened beverages and but no weight gain from artificially sweetened beverages.

Finally, in 2012, Maersk and Belza [7] compared satiety scores for milk, sugar sweetened beverages and artificially sweetened beverages, and found no evidence that artificially sweetened beverages increased appetite or energy intake, concluding that “diet colas had effects similar to water.”

Regarding unfounded rumors that artificially sweetened beverages had some neurological effect, a panel of 10 experts examined all the current literature [8] and concluded:

The data from the extensive investigations into the possibility of neurotoxic effects of aspartame, in general, do not support the hypothesis that aspartame in the human diet will affect nervous system function, learning or behavior. Epidemiological studies on aspartame include several case-control studies and one well-conducted prospective epidemiological study with a large cohort, in which the consumption of aspartame was measured. The studies provide no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue. The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.

So aspartame is safe before and after it degrades into the component amino acids, but for the best taste, you should check each package’s expiration date.


  1. Prodolliet, Jacques; Bruelhart, Milene (1993). Determination of Aspartame and Its Major Decomposition Products in Foods. Journal of AOAC INTERNATIONAL, 76(2), 275–282. doi:10.1093/jaoac/76.2.275 
  2. Aspartame and Phe-Containing Degradation Products in Soft Drinks across Europe Kimber van Vliet,1 Elise S. Melis,2 Pim de Blaauw,2 Esther van Dam,1 Ronald G. H. J. Maatman,2 David Abeln,3 Francjan J. van Spronsen,1 and M. Rebecca Heiner-Fokkema2,*  Nutrients. 2020 Jun; 12(6): 1887. Published online 2020 Jun 24. doi: 10.3390/nu12061887
  3. Toxicity of aspartame and its diketopiperazine for Wistar rats by dietary administration for 104 weeks H IshiiT KoshimizuS UsamiT Fujimoto DOI: 10.1016/0300-483x(81)90119-0
  4. 2,5-diketopiperazines in food and beverages: Taste and bioactivity, A Bothwick and NeilC DaCosta, Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017 Mar 4;57(4):718-742 doi:10.1093/jaoac/76.2.275 
  5. Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long-term weight gain. SP Fowler, K Williams, et. al., Obesity (Silver Spring). 2008 Aug;16(8):1894-900. doi: 10.1038/oby.2008.284. Epub 2008 Jun 5.
  6. L Chen and L J Appel, et. al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;89(5):1299-306. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2008.27240. Epub 2009 Apr 1.
  7. M Maersk, A Belza et. al., Eur J Clin Nutr . 2012 Apr;66(4):523-9. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2011.223.
  8. B.A. Magnuson et al.  Crit Rev Toxicol. 2007;37(8):629-727. doi: 10.1080/10408440701516184.


All about garlic

All about garlic

The garlic bulb is a really unusual plant. Each clove in the garlic head is actually a single swollen leaf, according to Harold McGee. Garlic’s strong taste and smell is actually a protection the plant evolved: when an animal bites into it, the strong taste is released, repelling the animal.

A whole garlic clove has only a mild taste and aroma, but when you cut into it, the enzyme alliinase is released from one part of the bulb and reacts with the compound alliin (a derivative a the amino acid cysteine) in another part of the bulb to form allicin, which has the characteristic garlic aroma and taste. Note that the plant evolved this defense to keep away animals, and garlic is actually quite toxic to dogs and cats: you should avoid letting any get into their food.

The alliinase enzyme is quite sensitive to temperature. Students of Professor John Milner at Penn State carried out a simple experiment where they placed garlic cloves in a microwave oven for one minute. While the garlic cloves appeared unchanged, analysis showed that the enzyme had completely disappeared after heating. They noted that other types of heating are sure to give the same results.

So this means that you need to chop the garlic before heating or cooking it, and that you should let the chopped garlic stand for a few minutes before adding it to the food you are preparing, to allow time for the enzyme to work to develop the flavor.

Garlic has much more sugar in it (fructose) than onions do, and is thus more prone to burning. Cook it at low temperatures when sautéing it, or add it directly to a liquid.

These two facts explain why dishes like Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic are so mild. The garlic cloves are never cut up: and the alliinase is destroyed by heating soon after the cloves are added to the pot.

Always buy fresh heads of garlic. Avoid the ones in little boxes, as they may be very old. You should also avoid bottled peeled garlic cloves in oil, as they are prone to develop botulism, according to McGee. And do not refrigerate garlic, which also will reduce the flavor.

Garlic peeler

When peeling garlic, you can use the simple rubber garlic peeler tube shown above, or you can use Jacques Pepin’s technique, and just cut a small slice from the root end of the clove. This will free the skin and it will just about come apart in your hand.  You can also just crush the garlic and pick out the peel from the rubble.

And how do you get that garlicky smell off your hands? Rub them with salt and then wash as usual.

See also

  1. The chemical weapons of onion and garlic
  2. Is garlic toxic to pets?
  3. Science News: Garlic benefits- it’s all in the preparation
  4. Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic
  5. Harold McGee: On Food and Cooking
  6. Jacques Pepin: Essential Pepin
Ten products you can skip –as seen on TV

Ten products you can skip –as seen on TV

Cable news, even when its reporting is sound, is rife with advertising of products you never heard of. And for good reason, advertising is relatively cheap on cable news and anyone can flood the news with “wonderful new products” that probably aren’t that great.

Prevagen does not improve your memory, as explained in this Harvard Health blog. . You have probably seen Prevagen ads everywhere. Targeted particularly at seniors who may experience normal word finding difficulties, the claims may mention “studies,” but not “doctors,” because no doctor recommends. It. Allegedly extracted from jellyfish (apoaequorin) actual studies have shown no significant effect, although by rearranging their data (called p-hacking) Quincy Biosciences has claimed it does. The FDA does not agree as explained in this Science Based Medicine article. The Global Council on Brain Health concludes that  “there is no convincing evidence to recommend daily dietary supplements for brain health in healthy older adults.”

The ASPCA does not help your local animal shelter. Despite their tear-jerking ads, the ASPCA is a New York City organization, and is not an umbrella organization for your local SPCA. Give to your local animal shelter instead. Further the ASPCA has been criticized for euthanizing pets rather than saving them.

Zerowater is a water filtering pitcher which takes about six minutes to filter a quart of water. Consumer Reports rated it Very Good and the competing Britta filter Excellent. It takes only about 1:15 to filter a quart of water. However, the Zerowater seems to removes 98% more contaminants. Unless your tap water has an unpleasant taste or smell, these may not  be that valuable.

Mr Clean Magic Eraser.  These products look like a good idea and have positive reviews, although it is not clear how they improve on a damp paper towel and some SoftScrub.  According to reviews at The Spruce, “Because the eraser works by scrubbing at the surface with tiny but extremely hard threads, you should not use on highly glossy or satin finishes….it is not appropriate for paneling or wood finished surfaces. It will strip away the surface and create damage and the sponge does begin to break down after [several] uses.

Tac Shaver by Bell and Howell. The reviews of this shaver are mixed, but according to this review apparently it didn’t last long and the beard trimmer didn’t do much. The Bell and Howell company you may remember from years back essentially got out of the technology business in the 2000’s and is now just a name owned by Westview Capital Partners.

COQ10 with Turmeric – If you are taking statins, a COQ10 supplement won’t do much of anything more. And turmeric is mostly good in curries.

Flex Seal is one of those As Seen on TV pitches you probably are skeptical of. You should be. It works for some things, but has a cumulative review of 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Yoshi Copper Grill MatIt “sort of works” but can’t be placed over an open flame. You could use it on a gas grill with covered burners, though.

Spin Power – is a multi-outlet charging station for your cordless devices. It does not include any spot for phones that can be charged by induction. It has mixed reviews on Amazon as you might expect from anything from ASOTV.

WATCHMAN – is an implant from Boston Scientific for stroke prevention. It is FDA approved and in wide use, But it was criticized in a handful of studies cited by Dr David Becker from Chestnut Hill Temple Cardiology and by Dr John Mandrola of Baptist Medical Associates of Louisville. If you are a candidate for this implant, discuss these objection with your cardiologist. The product has been generally  successful.

Spurtles – I never heard the word outside of the commercials from Lucinda’s Kitchen. They seem to be a set of wooden kitchen utensils made of acacia wood. Lucinda claims these exactly fit pans and jars and are more useful than what you have now. (I seriously doubt that.) You must hand wash them rather than tossing them in the dishwasher. This review calls them low-quality, not durable and having delayed delivery.

Flameout- the story of why IBM Instruments crashed and burned

Flameout- the story of why IBM Instruments crashed and burned

In the summer of 1978, a group of IBM executives met in Armonk to form the Instrument Systems Task Force and explore IBM’s entry into the chemical analytical instrument business. The IBM PC was not yet even a glimmer in Don Estridge’s eye, and the only well-known personal computers were the Apple II, the Tandy TRS-80 and the Commodore Pet.

By October, IBM’s Corporate Management Committee had approved the venture and IBM Instruments was soon formed. This book explores and memorializes the rise and successes of IBM Instruments and its eventual demise, only about 6 years after it was announced. To many, this was a shocking failure from one of the greatest computer companies in the world, and it is worth taking some time to examine how the Instrument Division grew and how it finally was shut down.

It tells the never-before written full story of IBM Instruments and why everyone who worked there misses it.

nr80 announce

This corporate Greek tragedy details the ideas for great products like a redesigned NMR spectrometer console that concealed obsolete electronics, to a desktop computer far ahead of its time that received far too little support.

Successes included an excellent AF series NMR spectrometer and an IR spectrometer based on new PC-AT, as well as a satellite PCNMR workstation package for the PC-AT that revolutionized the organization of NMR labs.

But eventually, IBM’s Instrument business unit was shut down and we all went off to other jobs. What they did wrong was mostly management-based, not technical and the book explains it in detail.

Flameout: The rise and fall of IBM Instruments- a business study wad just published and is a great book for anyone interested on how small businesses grow and sometimes do not. Early readers have called it

  • “A must-read! “
  • “I think the book deals with some important issues still relevant today.“
  • The value of writing these things up is huge”.

The book is available on Amazon.

Will CBD oil help you?

Will CBD oil help you?

CBD oil is the abbreviated name for cannabadiol, an extract of one of several cannabinoids found both in marijuana plants (cannabis sativa) and in hemp. CBD oil is not psychoactive and won’t get you “high,” but if extracted from marijuana plants, there may be trace amounts of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active component in marijuana in the extract. Usually, “CBD oil” is made by extracting CBD and then dissolving it in neutral carrier like coconut or hemp seed oil.

It is a popular “natural” remedy, and has been suggested as treatment as a pain reliever, treatment for depression, cancer-related symptoms, acne, neurological disorders, heart health, substance abuse and diabetes protection.

However, there are just about zero studies of CBD oil’s actual effectiveness in the published medical literature. This extensive review of CBD oil and marijuana by David Gorski in Science Based Medicine explains that CBD oil has only been found to be helpful and is approved for treatment of two rare forms of epilepsy. There are no other documented benefits.  Wilkerson and McMahon discuss how CBD oil seems to work in this one case

One problem is, the CBD oil is not a consistent mixture. Depending on how it is extracted, its concentration will vary, as will the number of associated impurities, which may include traces of THC. So possible benefits (if any) are not going to be consistent. Essentially this is herbalism, treatment with herbs where the exact concentration of possibly beneficial components are unknown.

The summary in WebMD says that other than as treatment for some forms of epilepsy, the benefits are “largely unproven.” And Christie Aschwanden’s article in says much the same thing.

An interesting article by Richard Freedman, MD was published in the NY Times last December in which described CBD-based candies as a “fruit flavored placebo.” But more to the point, he cites a 2017 study in JAMA that only 26 out of 84 samples of CBD oils, tinctures and liquids contained the amount of CDB claimed on the labels. Eighteen of them contained THC, which could lead to impairment or intoxication and a quarter contained less CBD then specified. The FDA has also issued warning letters to producers whose products  did not contain the amount specified.

In 2017, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine published a review of some 10,000 studies on the health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids. The review is over 400 pages, but here is the summary chapter. They found only a few small, randomized trials of CBD and concluded that there was insufficient evident that CBD was effective in treating insomnia, Parkinson’s, and smoking addiction, and only limited evidence that it was useful in treating anxiety.

And to move directly into utter quackery, there is now a CBD infused sports drink being promoted by retired NFL player, Terrell Davis.

That’s it. There are no other substantive studies on CBD except the one finding it helpful as an adjunct in treating two uncommon forms of epilepsy.

Other than that, there is simply no evidence that CBD is effective for anything except profit margins!

What about CBD with THC?

pot plant1

In his somewhat critical New Yorker article on medical marijuana, Malcolm Gladwell points out that all of the studies on marijuana effects were done using older strains of marijuana. All such studies were required to use the same plants, grown for research at the University of Mississippi. Modern breeding techniques have allowed the development of newer strains with about 10 times higher concentrations of THC. And we have simple no idea what the effects of these higher concentrations might be. We don’t know if the body responds linearly to this drug, or whether it responds more than that. We don’t know if there are new side effects or any indications of additive properties. We just don’t know.

National Academies Study

The complete summary of the National Academies study is actually rather disheartening to medical marijuana advocates.

  • There is strong evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective
    • for the treatment of chronic pain,
    • as anti-emetics for treatment of nausea induced by chemotherapy.
    • For improving patient-reported multiple sclerosis spasticity symptoms
  • There is moderate evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective in improving short term sleep outcomes
    • associated with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis
  • There is limited evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective
    • Increasing appetite in HIV/AIDS patients
    • Reducing symptoms of Tourette’s disease
    • Improving social anxiety symptoms in people with that disorder
    • Improving symptoms of PTSD
  • There is limited evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are ineffective for
    • Dementia
    • Glaucoma
    • Depressive symptoms
  • There is no evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective for
    • Cancers
    • IBS
    • Epilepsy
    • ALS
    • Huntington’s chorea
    • Parkinson’s
    • Dystonia
    • Addiction treatment
    • Schizophrenia

Negative effects of cannabis

The same National Academies study found associations between cannabis use and

  • Lower birth weight (substantial)
  • Development of schizophrenia and other psychoses (substantial)
  • Increased symptoms of mania and hypomania in bipolar disorder (moderate)
  • Increase suicide ideation (moderate)
  • Pregnancy complications for the mother (limited)
  • Later outcomes in the offspring (not refutable)
  • Cognitive impairment in learning, memory and attention (moderate)
  • Impaired academic achievement (limited)
  • Increased rates of unemployment (limited)

41xF+Ugrf4L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_And, in Alex Berenson’s new book Tell your Children the Truth about Marijuana, he also draws connections between marijuana use and mentally ill criminals. Essentially, he asserts that they are all pot smokers.

What is disturbing to me is that despite the very low level of medical value of both CBD oil and actual cannabis, and the very high amount of risk it seems to present, the “marijuana industry” has been very successful in promoting their products as beneficial, when objective evidence simply does not support these conclusions.

Nothing could be more indicative of this slippery slope than the fact that the Wilton Continuing Education department was offering a class in the benefits of CBD oil taught by a woman from a marijuana dispensary, whose bio clearly shows how strongly she believes in the medical benefits of cannabis, but who has very little actual scientific training. When I pointed out the articles showed how little benefits actually existed, they did not cancel the class.



Why homeopathy is hokum

Why homeopathy is hokum

There are lots of faux drugs on the shelves of many shameless drugstore chains that are labeled “homeopathic.” These are useless nostrums marketed to the gullible.  Usually they are labelled as something like “200C.” This is not a temperature, but the number of dilutions of the original substance.

The completely unsubstantiated hypothesis behind homeopathy is that “like cures like,” and that a very small diluted amount of some “natural substances,” such as plant extracts can stimulate the body to repair itself. There is no evidence that this 18th century idea actually works.

The way homeopaths work is that they select some substance or substances they believe might be helpful and dilute them with shaking, which they call potentization. The word has no actual meaning. Then after many dilutions and shakings, they sell some to you for treatment.

Well now, how much is “some”?

Let’s assume that table salt is a substance that can be used for treatment. It has a molecular weight of (23 + 35.5) of 58.5. We know, from the work of Loschmidt and Avogadro that if you weigh out the molecular weight of any substance in grams (in this case 58.5 g) it contains one  mole of particles, or 6.02 x 1023 molecules.

1 mole saltSo let’s dissolve that mole of salt on one liter of water. Now we have a one molar solution containing those 1023 molecules.  And now, lets dilute 10 ml of that liter by 100, to again make one liter.  This new liter will have 1/100 as many molecules in it, or 1021 molecules.

Well the “C” in that “200C” designation means that has been diluted by 100. And the 200 means that this has been repeated 200 times!

So lets see what happens after each dilution:

  1. 1021 molecules
  2. 1019 molecules
  3. 1017 molecules


  1. 105 molecules
  2. 103 molecules
  3. 101 molecules


After 11 dilutions, you have only 10 molecules of salt left in your solution.  What happens when you dilute it 100:1 another time? If you take 100 10 ml samples of that last liter, 10 of them could have one molecule of salt!

And after that, the chances of there being even one molecule of our “medicine” are vanishingly small. All of the salt (or any other substance) is lost in the dilution process! There isn’t any left after 12 or so dilutions. And by 200 there is absolutely no chance you’ll encounter even one molecule!  It’s gone down the drain, just as the entire homeopathic hypothesis has. There are no active ingredients at all!

Taking homeopathic preparations can act as a placebo, or if they dilute the substance in alcohol instead of water, a quick drunk, but there just can’t be any benefits in the absence of any medicine.

Unfortunately homeopathic preparations are poorly regulated, and some dangerous substances may remain in significant quantities. In some cases, heavy metals have been found.

513minrbq9l._ac_us436_fmwebp_ql65_Studies of the famous quack medicine oscillococcimnum have shown no significant effect. And studies of some 68 treatments have found that they have no effect either.

These are quack medicines that improve the bottom line of unethical pharmacies, but can’t do you any good. Any they may do some harm.

Sifting and measuring flour

Sifting and measuring flour

If you look at nearly any baking recipe, you will see something like “sift together the dry ingredients,” usually flour, baking powder and maybe sure and salt. Why do they do that? Well, because someone clear back to Fanny Merritt Farmer, in her Boston Cooking School Cookbook (you can read a digital copy here) said to. Flour in 1896 was probably much lumpier than today, and she said to sift all ingredients before measuring them.

Nowadays, flour isn’t usually very lumpy and we usually use it right out of the bag.

But we thought we’d try sifting some paprika into flour to see how well it mixes. This is about 1.5 Tb of paprika in 2 cups of flour.


As can see, it doesn’t really mix all that well. In fact, you could do better just using a wire whisk. But, if you are making a batter for baking, the mixing of the dry ingredients with the liquid will distribute them just as well.

Now about that cup

A measuring cup measures 8 fluid ounces: it is really for measuring liquids like milk or water. Flour, not being a liquid can be a little variable about how much fits in a cup. Fanny Farmer said you should scoop out the flour and level off the cup with a knife, and that works for 1 cup of flour. But for 2 ½ cups of flour, it gets messier and it soon becomes easier to weigh out the flour. We have an inexpensive kitchen scale, Ozeri kitchen scale (it cost $15.95), we keep right with our bowls and dishes, and can easily weigh anything we want.  If you don’t have one, ask someone to give it to you for Christmas.

So how do you weigh out flour? We found that 1 cup of King Arthur All Purpose Flour weighs 142 g (see above). We use grams because then there aren’t any pesky decimal pl aces to confuse you.


But what about sifted flour? The only thing sifting commercial flours does is to aerate them a bit so a cup of sifted flour weighs less. Sifted King Arthur flour weighs 126 grams, or about 8% less.

Cake Flour

Cake flour is made from a mixture of lower protein wheats that will give a light and tender crumb in cakes. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, all purpose flour has about 11-12% protein (mostly gluten) and cake flour about 7-8% protein. And U.S. cake flour is bleached as well, which causes “the starch granules to absorb water and swell more readily in high sugar batters.” Need less to say, cake flours weigh less per cup:

 All purposeCake flour
Scooped142 g120 g
Sifted126 g112 g

These weights are useful when you need some off amount of flour. For example, my waffle recipe requires 2 ¼ cups of sifted cake flour. It’s easiest to just quickly weigh about (2.25 x 112g) or 252g in a dish and mix it into the waffle batter. I keep this table posted inside my cupboard door, and write the weights into any recipes I use frequently.

So, get your scale out and you can do your baking quickly without getting a lot of measuring cups dirty. Happy holiday baking!

For Trump: Science is hard

For Trump: Science is hard

According to the Onion, a National Science Foundation Symposium concluded that Science is Hard. It really isn’t any harder than governing or public speaking or performing arts. Each has their own vocabulary and courses of study. But somehow, the general public thinks it is hard.

This has been borne out for years by our Congress, where only two members have degrees in any sort of science.  So it is not surprising that the Congress makes poorly informed decisions or assertions, like Senator Imhofe, who brandished a snowball in winter to assert that global warming is not real. Even worse, he cited biblical references to support his view, a book in which many people find comfort, but which was written by bronze age goatherds and unlikely to cover climate change.

So it is not surprising that incoming President Trump has dubbed climate change a “Chinese hoax.” To the contrary, Beijing is actively participating in policies to reduce carbon emissions, as are most countries.

You cannot expect a President to be an expert in all fields of endeavor, but you can expect him to appoint advisors who are experts in these fields, and it is here that the 28 appointments Mr Trump has made (out of about 660 that require Congressional approval) fail to support or understand science.  As we noted earlier, science is not a branch of politics, where many views may seem to be correct. Science is the result of rigorous experimentation, study and peer-review, and far less debatable than politics is. Or, to quote NGT, “Science is true, whether or not you believe  in it.”

In this context, it is deeply disappointing that Scott Pruitt, the nominee to head the EPA told Congress that “the extent of [human] impact [on climate change] is subject to continuing debate.”  In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in 2013 that more than half of the climate warming from 1951 to 2010 was due to human activity. And it was just reported that 2016 was the hottest year on record for the third consecutive year.  This is no longer subject to debate, and government administrators cannot put off vigorous action if we expect our children and grandchildren to survive.

Likewise, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson has expressed reservations on climate change and does not view it as an imminent national security threat.

The most horrifying recent hearing was for billionaire Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. DeVos has been a forceful advocate for charter schools, even though studies have shown that they are not particularly effective, especially in Michigan where DeVos has spent millions promoting them. From a science point of view, it is equally disturbing that Ms DeVos believes that the Earth is only 6000 years old. Her hearings have also shown that she knows nothing about education, either.

Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor, has just been nominated as Secretary of Agriculture. He once led a prayer ceremony in front of the Capitol, asking God to be forgive Georgians for being wasteful with water. According to the barely credible Environmental Working Group, as a former fertilizer salesman, Perdue seems less than likely to understand the water pollution problems uncontrolled fertilizer runoff can cause. The Agriculture Department has been involved in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and while we do not know Perdue’s positions, his  boss has expressed significant skepticism on this issue. Perhaps more comforting is that as governor, Perdue established a seed capital fund, focused on the life sciences industry, and allocated $30 to$40 million towards strengthening biotech research at the state’s universities.

And, of course, Rick Perry, who is slated to take over the Energy Department, is famous for wanting to close it, once he remembered it’s name. Joking aside, though, in Congressional hearings, he was completely unwilling to admit that climate change poses a global crisis.

Every incoming President provides a mixture of hope and skepticism to the public, and our skepticism on his approach to science is substantial.