Science Book a Day Interviews Robert L Wolke

robert_wolke_spotSpecial thanks to Robert L Wolke for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – What Einstein Told His Cook

Robert L. Wolke is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and a food columnist for The Washington Post. As an educator and lecturer, he enjoys a national reputation for his ability to make science understandable and enjoyable. – From Robert’s Homepage

Robert’s Homepage:

#1 – You’ve led a varied career in chemistry and writing about food. How do these two passions come together for you?

As a boy, I did a lot of reading. My parents had only an elementary education, so there were very few books at home, but the public library was less than half an hour away via bicycle. I’d take out books, juggle them home, and read them on weekends. (I was not much for playing sports with other kids.) It was a small library, with a limited and rather old-fashioned collection. So I read whatever  they had, including Greek, Roman and Norse mythology, first-person accounts of explorations of exotic or “uncivilized” parts of the world Englishmen on safari in Africa hunting elephants, stories about Lapland, about opening ancient tombs in Egypt, etc., etc.  The writing styles were quite varied, and I took note of them. Later, I admired the writing of several contemporary writers and wished I could write the way they did. My writing was imitative until, years later, I developed my own style.

 #2 – What was the impetus for What Einstein Told His Cook?

When I received a chemistry set on my 12th birthday, I was hooked on science. I traveled that path all the way through college, graduate school and, after my Ph.D., a career in academia. But I never lost my interest in writing. When I was offered an earl retirement option at the University of Pittsburgh, I took it, intending to spend my full time writing. I met and married my wife, a long-time food professional, and decided to combine science and food in my writing. My big break came when I was offered a food science column in The Washington Post, and I did that for ten years. Meanwhile, I wrote two general science books and two food science books.

#3 – Are people more interested into the processes of cooking food?

In the past 10-15 years, interest in the science behind food and cooking has exploded wordwide. New experimental ways of cooking and manipulating flavors and textures have turned into what is called “Modernist Cuisine.” My “What Einstein Told His Cook’, was one of the earliest books devoted to that interest.

 #4 – Reviews of your book have described it as fun and engaging. What is your philosophy behind communicating science?

Very simple: explain it logically in the simplest, most direct language that anybody will understand. Many people are afraid of science, believing that it is too difficult for them to ever understand. My greatest pleasure in teaching and writing is the feedback I receive saying, “The way you teach it, it’s really simple and understandable.” And humor makes it fun. I have written and performed many song parodies, satires and stand-up comedy gigs. Viewed from a detached and somewhat irreverent point of view, everything is funny. There’s no reason not to include humor in science books.

#5 – What projects/books are you working on at the moment?

I just finished working on an update and expansion of the first “Einstein” book I wrote 15 years ago, “What Einstein Didn’t Know.” Dover Publications will be putting out the new edition in March, 2014. I am now writing a third “Einstein” food science book, as yet untitled.

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