My name is Harold McGee and I’m here today not to tell you how I became a scientist, but how I decided not to become a scientist and still ended up publishing papers in Nature and Physics Today except that the subjects were the making of soufflés and the flipping of steaks on a grill. So I grew up in the Midwest in the 50s in a brand new subdivision where there was still plenty of nature around and the skies were dark. And I grew up immersed in that, fascinated by it and was especially fascinated by the stars. So I wanted to be an astronomer. And my father had gone to Caltech. We had alumni magazines on the coffee table all the time. And Caltech ran Mt. Palomar Observatory which at the time was the best. So, Caltech it was. And I went there. Caltech is a science and engineering school. It’s a very small school, a couple hundred students in every graduating class. And that meant that the class sizes were small as well. And that meant that I was able to really get to know a number of wonderful professors, including people in the Humanities Departments. We had to take philosophy and literature for breadth. And what I discovered was, after the first couple of years of Caltech boot camp, where everybody takes physics and math and chemistry, and we got into our specialties, that I was really getting more interested… or less interested in the nuts and bolts of astronomy, the physics of astronomy, and much more interested in what astronomy did to our sense of ourselves as creatures on this planet. That is to say, I got more interested in the humanities courses than the astronomy courses. So, much soul searching, it was difficult to do because nobody at Caltech really majored in the humanities, I decided to switch gears and to apply for a transfer to a liberal arts school. My teachers at Caltech convinced me not to do that. And it was the humanities professors who said, “Look, you came to Caltech because you love science. You still love science. You just love it in a different way. And we’ll make sure you get a good education in philosophy and literature. And if you stay here you can take courses that you’d never be able to take anywhere else from the scientists who are here.” So, that’s what I did. And I was able to do things like study the synthesis of the elements in stars from the guy who figured that out back in the 50s and 60s. And it was an amazing experience. The best decision I made. I went from Caltech to Yale to do a Ph.D. in literature. I wrote a dissertation about John Keats, a romantic poet. And then for a couple of years while I was looking for a tenure track position, I taught full time at Yale–everything from remedial writing to the epic tradition from Homer to James Joyce. And I loved it. It was great. That was what I wanted to do with my life. But, then, as now, tenure track positions were scarce. And I didn’t have any luck for a couple of years running. And so I began to think, “Maybe I should recalibrate here. What can I do?” Maybe I can kind of recoup my investment and rediscover my love in science and make use of what I’d learned about words by teaching literature and teaching writing at Yale and write about science. And maybe write about the science of everyday life, which not many people were doing. My girlfriend at the time gave an informal class at one of the colleges on the chemistry of fudge making. And it was huge success. People couldn’t wait to eat the demonstration afterwards. And so that gave me the idea that maybe writing about food and cooking might be an interesting thing to do. What sealed the deal was when I mentioned this to a friend of mine, a fellow faculty member, who said, “If you’re going to write about the science of food and cooking, I’ve got a question for you. I’m from New Orleans. I love red beans and rice. I can’t eat more than one serving of beans without suffering for it. And so what I want to know is what is it in beans that makes me suffer? And is there a hierarchy of beans, some beans that are more painful than others? Is there a fart chart that I can refer to to make my life easier?” And I thought it was a great question. And that sent me off to the library to see if I could find an answer. And I went to the food and agriculture section of the science library, where I’d never been before and discovered the world of food science, which I had no idea existed and which it was clear after a few hours of browsing was this amazing trove of information, knowledge, micrographs that blew my mind. And I thought, “I have to tell the rest of the world about this stuff!” In addition to that, I was able to find the answer to my friend’s question, but I also discovered that the people who had funded much of the research on flatulence was NASA because they were concerned about air quality in space capsules. So, that taught me that not only was there interesting information, useful information out there, there was also a lot of fun to be had with the subject. And so, again, some soul searching because I was leaving a job with a paycheck. I decided to quit teaching and try to write a book about the science of food and cooking. Not food science, but kitchen science. And, I did that with no training in either field. I didn’t know anything about food science. I didn’t know anything really about culinary arts. I cooked at home, but that was it. That might sound like a tremendous disadvantage to start from. I didn’t think about it at all. That’s just the way it was. And in retrospect, I think it was actually a great thing because not knowing anything about either field, that meant I had no preconceptions about what either field should be or could do. And no preconceptions about what questions were respectable questions, or interesting questions or questions that could be answered. And that I think made it possible for me to write the kind of book that I did. It also led me to experimentation, stuff that I hadn’t done since I’d been at Caltech in labs. So, for example, I read in Julia Child that you should, when you’re making an egg white foam, to make a meringue or a soufflé, you should use a copper bowl because copper bowls give you a better foam. And that didn’t make any sense to me. I went and looked at the food science literature on protein foams. There was nothing, nothing in there that was relevant, but I did the experiment. I tried, side by side, eggs whipped in a copper and glass bowl, and regardless of the chemistry involved, they were tremendously different. Just different in texture and color and the amount of time it took to get the foam in the first place, and in how long it lasted. So, I wanted to know why that was. Food science literature wasn’t any help. So, I rounded up a couple of scientist friends, one of whom had a spectrophotometer that we could use and we came up with a hypothesis. We tested that hypothesis. We wrote a kind of tongue in cheek paper and submitted it to Nature. And Nature sent it through its regular review process. And it passed with almost flying colors. The one qualification that one reviewer made was, “The science looked fine but the subject was fluffy.” So, Nature went ahead and published it. A few years after that I wrote with some physicist friends a paper about simulating heat transfer on a computer through foods and discovered, thereby, that the faster you flip a steak or a hamburger on the grill, the faster it cooks through, significantly faster, and the more evenly it cooks through. I would never on my own have thought of flipping a steak every 15 seconds, if a computer hadn’t told me that it might be a good idea. And it turned out that it’s a good idea. So, I had tremendous fun with the experimental side of this project as well as just delving into food science proper. My book was published in 1984 and it kind of sat there for a few years because you have to remember, that was a long time ago, that was pre-specialty coffees, pre-extra virgin olive oil, pre-balsamic vinegar, pre-personal computer when it comes to doing the scholarship. So it took awhile for people to see that the science of cooking was an interesting subject. Now, 25 years later, it’s actually fashionable. Chefs are celebrities and water baths and thermo-couples have made it from the lab into the kitchen. And the study of the science of cooking has become of interest not just to cooks, but to scientists. So, my book is now being used, the second edition of it, it’s being used in courses not just at culinary schools, but at universities. I’m a visiting lecturer at Harvard. I’m a visiting scholar at UC Davis. My book’s been translated into half a dozen languages. And I get to speak to people all over the place about the subject. So, it’s definitely true that I am not a professional scientist. I still don’t have tenure, but I have my own library card. And I get the chance everyday to share the excitement and the fascination of science with lots and lots of other people. It’s certainly an alternative career, but it’s a wonderful alternative, and I think there are lots of alternatives like that out there.