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Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life (2019)

by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim

Other authors: Claire Lenkova (Illustrator)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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6517347,329 (3.66)7
"A magical tour of the fundamentals of chemistry."--K.C. Nicolaou, Professor of Chemistry at Rice University  "Bristles with imaginative ideas ... particularly [for] those who would not usually read a 'chemistry book'."--Dr. Simon Cotton, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Birmingham A perfect book for readers of The Physics of Everyday Things and Storm in a Teacup Have you ever wondered why your alarm clock sends you spiraling? Or how toothpaste works on your teeth? Why do cakes and cookies sometimes turn out dry? (Hint: you may not be adding enough sugar.) In Chemistry for Breakfast, award-winning chemist and science communicator Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim reveals the amazing chemistry behind everyday things (like baking and toothpaste) and not-so-everyday things (like space travel). With a relatable, funny, and conversational style, she explains essential chemical processes everyone should know--and turns the ordinary into extraordinary. Over the course of a single day, Mai shows us that chemistry is everywhere: we just have to look for it. In the morning, her partner's much-too-loud alarm prompts a deep dive into biological clocks, fight-or-flight responses, and melatonin's role in making us sleepy. Before heading to the lab, she explains how the stress hormone cortisol helps wake us up, and brews her morning coffee with a side of heat conduction and states of matter.  Mai continues her day with explainers of cell phone technology, food preservation, body odor, baking, the effects of alcohol, and the chemistry behind the expression "love drunk." All the while, she shows us what it's really like to be a working chemist, and fights against the stereotype of a nerd playing with test tubes in a lab coat.  Filled with charming illustrations, laughter, and plenty of surprises, Chemistry for Breakfast is a perfect book for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of chemistry without having prior knowledge of the science. With Mai as your guide, you'll find something fascinating everywhere around you.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Is your morning coffee moving? Is there a particle party going on in your kitchen? What makes for a great-tasting gourmet meal? Does artificial flavoring really make a difference? Why does mixing soap with water get your dishes clean? Why do some say that “sitting is the new smoking?” How come one beer gives you a strong buzz but your friend can drink a bottle of wine without slurring her words? When it comes to love, is the “right chemistry” just a metaphor? And would you dump your partner because he won’t use fluoridated toothpaste?
All this and much more makes for the delightful conversation packed into Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life, by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim, a fun, fascinating, and fast-moving slender volume that could very well turn you into a fan of—of all things—chemistry! This cool and quirky book is just the latest effort by the author—a real-life German chemist who hosts a YouTube channel and has delivered a TED Talk—to combat what she playfully dubs “chemism:” the notion that chemistry is dull and best left to the devices of boring nerdy chem-geeks! One reason it works is because Nguyen-Kim is herself the antithesis of such stereotypes, coming off in both print and video as a hip, brilliant, and articulate young woman with a passion for science and for living in the moment.
I rarely pick up a science book, but when I do, I typically punch above my intellectual weight, challenging myself to reach beyond my facility with history and literature to dare to tangle with the intimidating realms of physics, biology, and the like. I often emerge somewhat bruised but with the benefit of new insights, as I did after my time with Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe and Bill Schopf’s Cradle of Life. So it was with a mix of eagerness and trepidation that I approached Chemistry for Breakfast.
But this proved to be a vastly different experience! Using her typical day as a backdrop—from her own body’s release of stress hormones when the alarm sounds to the way postprandial glasses of wine mess with the neurotransmitters of her guests—Nguyen-Kim demonstrates the omnipresence of chemistry to our very existence, and distills its complexity into bite-size concepts that are easy to process but yet never dumbed-down. Apparently, there is a particle party going on in your kitchen every morning, with all kinds of atoms moving at different rates in the coffee you’re sipping, the mug in your hand, and the steam rising above it. It’s all about temperature and molecular bonds. In a chapter whimsically entitled “Death by Toothpaste,” we find out how chemicals bond to produce sodium fluoride, the stuff of toothpaste, and why that not only makes for a potent weapon against cavities, but why the author’s best buddy might dump her boyfriend—because he thinks fluoride is poison! There’s much more to come—and it’s still only morning at Mai’s house …
As a reader, I found myself learning a lot about chemistry without studying chemistry, a remarkable achievement by the author, whose technique is so effective because it is so unique. Fielding humorous anecdotes plucked from everyday existence, Mai’s wit is infectious, so the “lessons” prove entertaining without turning silly. I love to cook, so I especially welcomed her return to the kitchen in a later chapter. Alas, I found out that while I can pride myself on my culinary expertise, it all really comes down to the way ingredients react with one another in a mixing bowl and on the hot stove. Oh, and it turns out that despite the fearmongering in some quarters, most artificial flavors are no better or worse than natural ones. Yes, you should read the label—but you have to know what those ingredients are before you judge them healthy or not.
Throughout the narrative, Nguyen-Kim conveys an attractive brand of approachability that makes you want to sit down and have a beer with her, but unfortunately she can’t drink: Mai, born of Vietnamese parents, has inherited a gene mutation in common with a certain segment of Asians which interferes with the way the body processes alcohol, so she becomes overly intoxicated after just a few sips of any strong drink. She explains in detail why her “broken” ALDH2 enzyme simply will not break down the acetaldehyde in the glass of wine that makes her guests a little tipsy but gives her nausea, a rapid-heartbeat, and sends a “weird, lobster-red tinge” to her face. Mai’s issue with alcohol reminded me of recent studies that revealed the reason that some people of northern European ancestry always burn instead of tan at the beach is due to faulty genes that block the creation of melanin in response to sun exposure. This is a strong underscore that while race is of course a myth that otherwise communicates nothing of importance about human beings, in the medical world genetics has the potential of serving as a powerful tool to explain and treat disease. As for Mai, given the overall health risks of alcohol consumption, she views her inability to drink as more of a blessing than a curse, and hopes to pass her broken gene on to her offspring!
The odds that I would ever deliberately set out to read a book about chemistry were never that favorable. That I would do so and then rave about the experience seemed even more unlikely. But here we are, along with my highest recommendations. Mai’s love of science is nothing less than contagious. If you read her work, I can promise that not only will you learn a lot, but you will really enjoy the learning process. And that too, I suppose, is chemistry!

[Note: I read an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book as part of an early reviewer’s program]

https://regarp.com/2022/04/27/review-of-chemistry-for-breakfast-the-amazing-scie... ( )
  Garp83 | Apr 27, 2022 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I never used to think chemistry was sexy. Actually, I still don’t. I also never considered too deeply what was happening around me, subatomically (if I may invent a word). Chemistry for Breakfast has changed my mind.

Much of what Dr. Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim writes about I have to take on faith. I still haven’t a clue as to how what goes on in the invisible world actually happens. I just believe it’s pretty amazing that it does! From the moment we wake there is a carnival of strange invisible events keeping everything together (and apart!). Her attempt to inspire the layperson with the truth about chemistry is a quick, fascinating read, well worth the effort. ( )
  abealy | Nov 26, 2021 |
I enjoy books that illustrate the science behind the everyday things we do:
* What wakes us up
* How soaps work
* Charging/discharging of a mobile phone
* What puffs up a cake
* Alcohol's effect on our brain

These are some of the things the author elicits adding humor at a quite a few places to keep the book from becoming a typical 'textbook'.

"If you want to understand science, you need to lose the habit of looking for simple answers." and "only beginners draw boundaries between sciences" - are some of the thought provoking statements in the book that'll keep you hooked on till the end.

Yes, the book has the potential to infect a mind with the scientific spirit, hope there are more books like this one. ( )
  nmarun | Sep 12, 2021 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Dr. Nguyen-Kim is absolutely, positively passionate about chemistry, and with this book she aspires to cultivate this same enthusiasm in those of us who didn't major in the field. And she does a pretty fantastic job! While there were a number of concepts that remained just beyond my grasp, it was overall an engaging and fun read. There were a fair number of interesting tidbits that I relayed back to my family over dinner (for the curious, among these were the science of sweat and the science of cell phone charging). I may have to check out her video series as well.

I received this ARC via LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. ( )
  ryner | Sep 9, 2021 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Dr. Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim wants to make chemistry accessible to all, but not just that; she also wants to get people excited about chemistry. With that in mind, she has a popular German-language YouTube channel dedicated to breaking down chemistry for the everyday person, and now she has Chemistry for Breakfast, a part memoir, part science book that's a far cry from a dry chemistry textbook.

Chemistry for Breakfast loosely follows one of Nguyen-Kim’s average days as she guides the reader through chemical explanations of familiar, basic things in an upbeat, conversational tone. She starts with breakfast and cooking an egg, explaining how heat works to transform this raw food into cooked food and then goes about her day, which is filled with many opportunities to discuss various chemicals and chemical interactions. She covered topics as disparate as cell phone batteries and soap. What she chose to focus on for her lessons is sometimes a bit arbitrary and the daily chronology gets a little lost along the way, but overall, Chemistry for Breakfast succeeds.

Some topics in this book are more interesting than others (when it comes to cell phone batteries vs. “magic molecule” water, water definitely wins) and some explanations easier to understand than others; however, as far as I could tell, Nguyen-Kim broke down the explanations as well as she possibly could. I most enjoyed learning about chocolate and its relationship to dopamine and caffeine, as well as her step-by-step explanation of alcohol's effects. Like everything else in this book, these are explained on the chemical level. The average reader is likely to know, for instance, that eating chocolate causes a dopamine hit but is less likely to know the actual mechanics of how exactly dopamine interacts with other chemicals in the brain to create satisfaction. Similarly, everyone knows that alcohol weakens inhibitions and slows response times; many know that in excess it damages the liver; far fewer know how alcohols work or about their metabolic by-products. The book also drove home, for me, the fact that reality is governed, and limited, by certain scientific rules; because of molecular bonds unique to them, metal can be bent with application of heat, but a plank of wood cannot, for instance, and this can never change because reality here on Earth has molecular parameters like these.

Chemistry books need illustrations and Chemistry for Breakfast has small ones throughout. It could have benefited from even more and better, however. A few illustrations do their job perfectly, but it’s in the drawings that Nguyen-Kim showed that despite her great efforts to appeal to non-chemists, she's still not quite on their wavelength. Too many illustrations show only the molecular structure of different chemicals. On the page, molecular structures look like complicated math equations, and Nguyen-Kim finds them totally fascinating--and, in the case of oxytocin, beautiful--but to the everyday reader, whether chemistry-averse or not, they mean little. Other illustrations try but miss--the one of the three kinds of chemical bonds is unhelpful. A few are just cheerful and cartoonish, existing only to cute-ify the book.

I enjoyed Chemistry for Breakfast as well as I could given my hatred of chemistry--and also more than I thought I would. Although I didn’t absorb the book to the extent that the nitty-gritty, technical explanations are seared into my memory, I definitely learned and developed an appreciation for the subject, something I hadn't felt before starting. Nguyen-Kim's passion for the subject shines through and I understood her explanation for why she loves the subject so much. As a chemist, she sees the world in a more minute way. She says “life is chemicals,” and her personal bugbear is the vilification of chemicals across the board, which she rightly says is reductive.

Chemistry for Breakfast does have science-heavy moments, so to get the most out of it, readers should have at least some curiosity about the subject. Nguyen-Kim’s goal with this and her channel is to, as she says, “inspire in everyday people a passion for facts.” Chemistry for Breakfast isn’t perfect, but it works toward her goal and is a solid choice for non-chemists looking to broaden their intellectual horizons. ( )
  Caroline77 | Aug 22, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
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Mai Thi Nguyen-Kimprimary authorall editionscalculated
Lenkova, ClaireIllustratorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pybus, SarahTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"A magical tour of the fundamentals of chemistry."--K.C. Nicolaou, Professor of Chemistry at Rice University  "Bristles with imaginative ideas ... particularly [for] those who would not usually read a 'chemistry book'."--Dr. Simon Cotton, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Birmingham A perfect book for readers of The Physics of Everyday Things and Storm in a Teacup Have you ever wondered why your alarm clock sends you spiraling? Or how toothpaste works on your teeth? Why do cakes and cookies sometimes turn out dry? (Hint: you may not be adding enough sugar.) In Chemistry for Breakfast, award-winning chemist and science communicator Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim reveals the amazing chemistry behind everyday things (like baking and toothpaste) and not-so-everyday things (like space travel). With a relatable, funny, and conversational style, she explains essential chemical processes everyone should know--and turns the ordinary into extraordinary. Over the course of a single day, Mai shows us that chemistry is everywhere: we just have to look for it. In the morning, her partner's much-too-loud alarm prompts a deep dive into biological clocks, fight-or-flight responses, and melatonin's role in making us sleepy. Before heading to the lab, she explains how the stress hormone cortisol helps wake us up, and brews her morning coffee with a side of heat conduction and states of matter.  Mai continues her day with explainers of cell phone technology, food preservation, body odor, baking, the effects of alcohol, and the chemistry behind the expression "love drunk." All the while, she shows us what it's really like to be a working chemist, and fights against the stereotype of a nerd playing with test tubes in a lab coat.  Filled with charming illustrations, laughter, and plenty of surprises, Chemistry for Breakfast is a perfect book for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of chemistry without having prior knowledge of the science. With Mai as your guide, you'll find something fascinating everywhere around you.

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