Reality Chemistry

The depressing proliferation of reality tv shows continues, interspersed with the odd stunning documentary such as the BBC/Jim Al-Khalili’s ‘Chemistry – a Volatile History‘  or the BBC/Iain Stewart ‘How the Earth Made Us‘.  We’ll not read anything into the choice of channels for the two programs – BBC 4 for the former, BBC2 for the latter.  Anyway, they were both very good programs, diamonds in the reality rough.

The shows that really bug me at the moment are all the reality cooking shows – turn your living room into a restaurant for the evening and try not to give anyone food poisoning, or master-I really really really wanna be a chef-chef.  The thing that really gets me about Master Chef is you have young people who are doing career X, and probably doing fairly well at it.  But they’ve got a secret desire – they want to feed people, and the odd dinner party is not enough to fulfil their ambition.  Rather than taking a conventional route via college, training in kitchens and progressing through the profession from the bottom up, these people want to fast track to the top of the profession by way of Master Chef, or The Restaurant, or one of those other shows that hand out dreams as prizes.

Can we stop for a minute and consider what might happen if we had ‘Master Chemist’?  I can see it now: 18 contestants with A-level chemistry who really really believe they can –insert lofty research goal here (cure cancer/solve climate change/create clean energy from nothing/feed the world by yummy polymer products)–if they’re only just given the chance to demonstrate how awesome they are.  Perhaps they might start out with some basic tasks like building an infrared spectrometer from some washing up liquid bottles and sticky backed plastic, and progress through the complexities of the total synthesis of marine sponge extract ten billionth. I could see the chemistry equivalent of Greg Wallace bellowing ‘ow it’s a great vial of product’, in an ‘intellectual’ accent of course.  Instead of the trip to a professional kitchen, they could do a 6 hour stint in a real laboratory where they could take over a bench and run a column or something.

Or we might consider ‘The Restaurant’ where couples compete to win a restaurant franchise with Raymond Blanc and investors.  Would the equivalent be chemistry wannabes competing to win a professorship and large startup grant?  We could have tasks like grant writing, dealing with difficult students, navigating department politics, and how to micromanage postdocs into submission/depression/quitting.

It all sounds pretty daft for a science career though, but does it really take more training to become a top chemist over a top chef?  Once you’ve mastered the basic skills in each profession, you are limited only by inspiration and investment.  It would be silly to say that because you have A-level chemistry you are capable of being a chemistry professor with 6 weeks training, but isn’t it just as silly to say that because you cook yourself dinner each night you are capable of being a top chef?  Perhaps Big Brother is a better model for a science reality show – just a popularity contest with evictions at every stage…

3 Replies to “Reality Chemistry”

  1. While I agree with your argument, I also feel that there is a lot to be said for goals and committment. At least Masterchef contestants, etc, have targets which they are striving to achieve.

  2. I just wonder how many of them actually achieve those targets, and for how many it just remains the ‘what I’ve always wanted to be’ daydream. There is a lot to be said for goals and commitment, but committing to go on a tv show is a whole lot different to quitting your job to go to train as a chef/do some other dream career.
    I just wonder how many of them do take the long way round of training, and working their way up to owning a random gastropub, and how many just give up because it is too hard.

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